Coaches, compliance office staff say good relationship necessary to adhere to NCAA rules
It’s complicated, this relationship between an athletic department’s compliance office and its athletic programs.
On the one hand, compliance officers work with coaching staffs to maximize options under NCAA rules. On the other, compliance officers are tasked with ensuring coaches and players follow the rules. When they don’t, officers must report them to the NCAA. “It’s got to be about the relationship,” said Robert Mathner, now a professor at Troy State University and a former compliance officer at several universities, including the head of Syracuse University’s compliance office. “You’ve got to be able to focus on the relationships so they (the coaches) know that it’s not just about catching them doing something wrong. That’s going to help the coach feel comfortable coming to you with questions and letting you know what’s going on.”
That relationship has been the focus of NCAA scrutiny lately, including the University of Michigan, where the compliance department was charged in February with failing to adequately monitor the football program to assure NCAA compliance.
It was one of five major allegations the NCAA leveled at Michigan, and members of the compliance office are scheduled to attend NCAA Committee On Infractions meeting in Seattle on Friday and Saturday to discuss it.
Despite facing NCAA allegations, head football coach Rich Rodriguez said his relationship with the compliance office is strong. “It’s always been good,” he said. “It’s always been good no matter where I’ve been. This process has forced a lot of people to re-evaluate everything, how you’re doing, how we communicate and our communication going forward has to better. From myself, the staff and everybody involved, and it has been so far. But going forward it’s got to continue to be that way.”
Michigan’s case comes as the NCAA has begun taking closer looks at athletic departments to make sure they have strong compliance offices, experts said. “The president is ultimately responsible for the athletic department,” said Michael Buckner, a Florida-based attorney who works with universities on responses to NCAA investigations and also conducts compliance audits for universities. “They are required to develop some sort of program for monitoring. When the NCAA comes in with allegations of wrongdoing, they are looking at whether the university did a good job monitoring the situation and it just was one individual or team had issues or was it bigger than that?”
The NCAA Infractions Committee addressed this issue in its ruling in a case this year against the University of Southern California.
“NCAA members, including USC, invest substantial resources to compete in athletics competition at the highest levels, particularly in football and men's basketball,” the committee wrote. “They must commit comparable resources to detect violations and monitor conduct with a realistic understanding and appraisal of what that effort entails, and what it will cost.” Making those judgments means having a good relationship with a program, which allows information to flow, Mathner said. Several Big Ten coaches said that’s why they talk regularly with their compliance office. “I would say in lots of instances daily,” said Minnesota coach Tim Brewster. “You’ve got to have a great working relationship with compliance.” That relationship can grow testy at times, coaches said, but they added they don’t see it as adversarial. “I think obviously there’s interpretation of the rule and sometimes coaches interpret those rules differently than maybe the compliance office coming to an agreement on how we interpret that rule is really important,” Brewster said. Ron Zook, the head coach at Illinois, said he has a close relationship with compliance staffers. “I get along well with Ryan Squire (the assistant athletic director of compliance) because what happens, there’s so many little things that I’ll stop Ryan (and ask), ‘Can I do this?’ Or somebody will send me (something) and want me to do something for somebody that’s got cancer or something. Can I do this? So you have to have a relationship with them, I think. And Ryan is a guy that (says), ‘Well we can’t do it, but maybe we can do it this way.’ “The guy at Florida, I was very close to the guy at Florida. I mean, shoot, he’s going to keep you out of trouble. I learned early on, if you’re going to get fired, get fired because you didn’t win, don’t get fired because you’re cheating.” A lot of work goes on in rules education, Mathner said. He said when he was working in compliance offices, about 50 percent of his time was spent on rules education with coaches, boosters, athletes and other members of the university community who had contact with athletes. E-mails, memos and meeting agendas obtained by AnnArbor.com from the University of Michigan under the Freedom of Information Act show numerous rules education events going on, including monthly updates on new NCAA rules regulations sent to coaching staffs. Those e-mails also show several instances where the compliance office was advising coaches and players about various issues - including what players could do if they visited a high school football game. Mathner said another 30 to 35 percent of his time as a compliance office was spent making sure programs were following the rules and 10 percent to 15 percent of his time was spent investigating possible violations and filing appeals to the NCAA.
“You have to heave a healthy degree of skepticism,” he said. “You have to trust the coaches, but it’s your job to verify it.” And it shouldn’t be a shock if something turns up, he added.
“If you’re not reporting 20 to 30 violations a year, you’re not looking. Maybe that number should be 15 to 25, but we all make mistakes. We all don’t know the rules and sometimes get in trouble. “The key for a compliance office is not to come down with a sledgehammer on the minor violations, but to work with the coaches on how can get through it and what we can learn from the situation.” A lot of compliance departments don’t monitor completely, Buckner said. “Part of monitoring is collecting data. The other part is reviewing that data to find out if violations have taken place.” As an example, Buckner cited the Reggie Bush case at USC, where Bush turned in forms about his cars, but left key lines empty. Buckner and Mathner both said compliance officers also need to spend time on practice fields and traveling with the team to check up on them. When major violations are either found by compliance or related to them, both Mathner and Buckner recommended universities find outside counsel to investigate them, which gets rid of potential conflict of interest claims about a compliance office. But the key, they both added, is to stay ahead of the game. “You can’t just sit back and let things happen,” Buckner said. “You have to be proactive.” Mathner agreed. “Coaches are very competitive. They want to win. They’re going to push the envelope. I don’t have a problem with that, especially if the coach is working with me. What do the rules say? Can we figure out a way to get this done? Can we defend ourselves if the NCAA asks questions? “I have a bigger problem when coaches starting hiding things. Then I start to worry.” David Jesse covers education for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 734-623-2534.