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John Blanchette: EWU players pay biggest price

Wulff didn’t bet on NCAA’s wrath

In the roil of rationalizations after the NCAA fired a cannonball through the mainsail of Eastern Washington University’s football program Wednesday swam a goodly number of putative victims.

The football coach who was trying to do the right thing but was overwhelmed because of too little administrative help, no compliance officer, too much turnover at the top. The extra coaches who put Eastern in violation even though they may have made only $5,000 and held down other gigs to pay the rent. The waves of academic non-qualifiers Eastern welcomes into its program yet obviously has difficulty accounting for and their need for this oasis of opportunity – since they didn’t, you know, study in high school. Eastern itself and by extension Washington State, where the football coach works now – two more small fry corralled by NCAA gumshoes who lack the courage to bust USC and Reggie Bush.

“Eastern Washington,” sighed Paul Wulff, the man at the center of Wednesday’s storm, “is a little easier to kick around, I guess.”

But there was no mistaking the real victims: Eastern’s players.

They’re the ones who really feel the pain, because on Wednesday the NCAA banned them from postseason play in 2009. There were other penalties assessed for violations of the NCAA’s Byzantine code, but this was the sharpest arrow in the infractions jury’s quiver for a team that returns 16 starters, a former Big Sky MVP quarterback and the best group of senior receivers in all of the Football Championship Subdivision.

Did somebody – anybody – apologize to them?

Starting with Wulff, perhaps?

Washington State’s – and EWU’s former – head football coach is suddenly a man with a credibility problem. He is, by the virtually unanimous acclaim of his colleagues, protégés and employers, a figure of integrity and reliability.

Except the NCAA committee concluded that he was indifferent to the rules violations he discovered on his watch at Eastern, enough so that a small pile of piddly sins – “secondary,” as those in the know call them – became the kindling for the major blaze no one truly anticipated.

Least of all Paul Wulff.

The central and damning points came five pages into the NCAA’s 14-page public report where it stated that Wulff “failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance within the football program and failed to monitor the program.”

And then it got snarky.

“The committee is most concerned that, as he learned of various violations that had occurred in his program, the former head coach did not report them to the institutional compliance office,” the committee wrote, adding, “instead of reporting the violations, he made the decision to ‘not think twice about it … move on and move forward.’ ”

The NCAA did throw Wulff a life ring by noting EWU’s comically transient leadership and the fact that the compliance coordinator was also the faculty rep and a full-time professor. But make no mistake – the reason noogies were dished out to Wazzu as well (Wulff must vamoose for the first three days of August practice) was the impression the coach was cavalier when it came to timely self-reportage.

“I totally disagree,” Wulff said. “I reported them in my NCAA interview – that’s how they found out about them. If I didn’t report them, they wouldn’t have known about them. But I didn’t do it in a timely manner, that’s true.”

Nonetheless, the NCAA was surely not persuaded – hence both the small slap at Wulff, and the major hammer on Eastern.

“Not only the school but the people involved in the violations should be reprimanded,” said Paul Dee, chairman of the infractions committee, “and have penalties assessed regardless of the institution where they are located.”

This puts everyone involved in an uncomfortable situation.

For instance, Eastern athletic director Bill Chaves now has a head football coach, Beau Baldwin, who was an assistant under Wulff during the years when the violations were committed. Asked about the lack of an “atmosphere of compliance” during the Wulff years, Chaves demurred that he’d only worked with Wulff for three months.

“I think Beau will indicate to you and he mentioned to me,” Chaves said, “that the culture from when he was here to now has changed from a compliance standpoint.”

And it must surely nettle Wulff that while the slick new staff across the state has already committed some secondary violations of its own on the recruiting trail, his record is now marked with something more damning.

“We’re not talking recruiting violations,” Wulff said during a teleconference that was at times defiant. “We’re not talking the types of violations that are truly a competitive advantage. They’re secondary, all of them, but put them together over multiple years, it becomes a major infractions case.”

This may be another warped aspect of NCAA justice – not as warped as players paying the price for the mistakes of people making a living off their sweat. But the NCAA isn’t Myles Brand or Paul Dee or faceless bureaucrats in the company bunker. Every school has a vote in making the rulebook.

Including EWU, which more than 20 years ago chose to swim in this pool.

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