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North Idaho men’s basketball banned from next three postseasons; back-to-back NWAC Tournament titles vacated

UPDATED: Tue., Aug. 13, 2019

The North Idaho College men’s basketball program and athletic department were hit with Northwest Athletic Conference sanctions Tuesday for violations, including extra student-athlete benefits and administrative oversight.

NIC, a junior college basketball power, will vacate its 2018 and 2019 NWAC Tournament championships and is banned from postseason play the next three seasons.

The program was also hit with a reduction in student-athlete grants and aid for three years, the conference announced, and head coach Corey Symons was issued a suspension for the first 10 games of the upcoming season.

The NWAC also issued the athletic department three years of probation and a $30,000 fine, $10,000 of which is suspended pending a summer of 2021 compliance review by the conference.

“This in an unfortunate situation for a lot of people on a variety of levels,” NWAC president Marco Azurdia said. “But I am optimistic that moving forward the difficulties encountered will make for a healthier relationship between the institution and the conference.”

Symons and NIC athletic director Al Williams did not return messages for comment.

According to the NWAC, NIC used booster club funds to pay for student-athlete housing in 2017 and 2018, a violation of conference bylaws. It also violated the league compliance laws in regard to basketball camps.

NWAC members are only allowed to give up to 65% in tuition scholarships and cannot give outside aid for room and board, per the league’s codebook.

The NIC men’s basketball program, which left the National Junior College Athletic Association in 2016 for the cost-saving NWAC, was allowed to use booster club money in the NJCAA to fund full-ride scholarships, a resource that largely separated the Cardinals from NWAC members.

Loaded with NCAA Division I recruits, NIC ran through the NWAC last season, winning its 31 games by an average of 32 points. The Cardinals are 81-15 since joining the NWAC, with five of those losses coming against non-NWAC members.

The NWAC handed NIC its sanctions in June following a May investigation, but the school’s appeal was denied last week.

NIC has been ordered to take down its championship banners and not display its trophies and other championship memorabilia.

“I accept responsibility for the practices and behaviors that have led us to this place with the league,” NIC president Rick MacLennan said in a staff memo Tuesday. “The college will agree to the sanctions NWAC has placed on NIC, and I am committed, as is (vice president) Graydon Stanley, to working with the league and its member institutions to foster a positive and collegial future for us all.”

NIC players and opponents took to social media to voice their opinion on the violations and sanctions.

“COMPLETELY FALSE!! This ain’t about basketball this really about the rest of the NWAC being jealous of our dominance,” NIC forward Ismael Valdez said on Twitter. “Me and my squad know we are champions for life.”

Dalton Thompson, a former guard at Walla Walla Community College, posted a picture Tuesday afternoon of his team holding a 2017 NWAC championship banner with the caption “Built, not bought.”

“I kind of saw this coming, considering the level of talent NIC continued to bring in after they joined the NWAC was amazing, to say the least,” Thompson, a Post Falls product, told The Spokesman-Review. “You see stuff like this all over the country at every level.”

The NWAC began its investigation of NIC last spring after receiving an anonymous complaint.

According to the NWAC’s findings, the NIC Booster Club had made payments for player housing to the Trail Lodge Apartments in the summers of 2017 and 2018, a conference violation. NIC admitted to the payments in 2018, the NWAC said. The investigation also found a check for $1,850 from the booster club written to the apartments in June 2017.

A coach, whose name was redacted from the report, was also listed as the co-signer on the apartment lease.

The booster club-powered NIC youth basketball camps – where athletes are often student-workers – also weren’t compliant with NWAC rules, the conference said, as the booster club runs external of the school’s business office, which is also a NWAC violation.

When NIC appealed the findings and punishment, the school noted that the investigation yielded several inaccuracies and that the sanctions were excessive, and that the investigation “ appears to have been influenced by reliance on inaccurate allegations reported by a biased and disgruntled former employee in a meeting immediately prior to the investigation.”

NIC also noted in its appeal that student-athletes didn’t live in the apartments in 2017 and 2018. They were paid for and held by the booster club, NIC said, and until the student-athlete arrived on campus, in which the athlete would then pay the rent.

Names were redacted from the report, but AD Williams appears to be referenced in the NWAC report’s conclusion.

“Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the athletic director to ensure that all full-time and part-time staff of the athletic department, appropriate staff members (i.e., registrar’s office, business office, financial aid, and Foundation offices), and booster club members, fully understand the NWAC Code as it pertains to their areas,” the report said.

“By his own admission and the statements of many others interviewed, (redacted) approved numerous financial transactions from the Booster Club that violate the NWAC code. By his own actions, (redacted) has not taken the necessary steps to bring the operation of the booster club and NIC sports camps into compliance with the NWAC Code. By his own admission, (redacted) was aware of the summer payments for men’s basketball players. It is extremely concerning as reported in the investigative report that a NIC administrator said, ‘Rules are not always applied to the athletic department,’ ” and “the operation of the booster club was not ‘Best Practice.’ ”

“These statements, along with comments made by other individuals interviewed, clearly indicate that little to no administrative oversight is in place at NIC, and that the NIC athletic department is free to operate at their own discretion.”

NIC communications officer Laura Rumpler said Williams and Symons remain employed with the school.

Despite its athletic success in 2019 – the Cardinals won NWAC Tournament championships in men’s basketball, softball and golf – it’s been a tumultuous year at NIC, including the school’s controversial firing of highly successful wrestling coach Pat Whitcomb.

The school also recently announced the cancellation’s of one of the largest 3-on-3 basketball tournaments in the region, the 27th annual Coeur d’Alene Shootout, played on NIC’s campus in August and powered by the booster club. The event had annually brought in thousands of dollars for the NIC athletic department.

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