Eight months ago, the NCAA issued a report that suggested Georgia Tech had all the morals and scruples of SMU’s checkbook football program of the 1980s, or Barry Switzer’s outlaws at Oklahoma, and maybe just a dash of Snidely Whiplash.
NCAA investigators labeled Tech’s general counsel an “obstructionist.” They said officials “hindered efforts to get at the truth” and tried to “manipulate” information. They suggested players were tipped off to the investigation and therefore had time to orchestrate phony responses.
The report read like a Grisham novel. Of course, it was about that close to reality – which is to say, it wasn’t. Tech isn’t devious or corrupt. It just screwed up — bad enough to lose a conference championship.
When the Yellow Jackets reached closure with the NCAA on Friday, losing an appeal of their sanctions and therefore the 2009 ACC championship, it wasn’t a surprise. To conclude it’s unfair doesn’t mean it’s not deserved. It doesn’t mean school president G.P. “Bud” Peterson, athletic director Dan Radakovich or coach Paul Johnson are felons or Ponzi schemers. It doesn’t mean Tech isn’t trying to do things the right way. But this could’ve been avoided. They screwed up.
Tech’s since-retired general counsel, Randy Nordin, and since-departed compliance director, Paul Parker, gave poor advice. If you believe the NCAA, they also treated the investigator like a slop-covered pig walking on new white carpeting.
Did the NCAA’s punishment (forfeiture of the ACC title) fit the crime (one actually never was proved)? No. There never was a paper trail, a thumb print or a public statement from anybody that said former players Morgan Burnett or Demaryius Thomas had received improper benefits. So Tech felt comfortable playing them in the final three games of the 2009 season (Georgia, Clemson for the ACC title, Iowa in the Orange Bowl).
But NCAA investigators believed Tech impeded the process, preventing them from getting to the truth. Whether that’s accurate or not — and Tech officials vehemently deny it, debating with the Committee on Infractions for 12 hours in April — this much seems certain: The Jackets would still be 2009 conference champs had they not played Thomas and possibly Burnett against Georgia. Thomas had received $312 worth of new clothes from a party the NCAA suspected was an agent (Thomas said they came from his cousin’s roommate. He never wore the clothes, and when he brought them to school in a bag to show officials, the sales tags were still on.)
Here’s where hindsight leaves the Jackets doubled over.
Had Tech followed the logical process – declared Thomas and Burnett ineligible, then filed for reinstatement – the NCAA probably would’ve suspended them for one game (Georgia) and forced Thomas to supply $312 payment for the clothes. The infractions would’ve been viewed as minor. Both players probably would’ve been reinstated for the ACC title game against Clemson. Instead, the NCAA ruled that Tech violated policy by playing an ineligible player in three games.
Two of those games (Georgia, Iowa) were losses, but the other was the biggest win of Johnson’s tenure.
Back in July, the Georgia Tech coach ripped the NCAA for their actions. He said probably what every player and fan thought: “The NCAA can’t take away the memories or what happened on the field.” Later, he added, “I’ve been in this business a long time. You see all the things that are going on in college sports today, and you get slammed for this? I mean, come on now.”
He was right, of course. This wasn’t a case of academic fraud or a sports program run amok. It’s all kind of weird. Tech realized overturning the sanctions on appeal was a long shot, but as Peterson said in a statement, he felt he had to “defend the integrity of Georgia Tech.”
Integrity is intact. But Peterson has admitted that, in retrospect, Tech should’ve brought in more experienced advisers from the outset and responded differently. A few bad decisions cost them, and as a result there’s one less trophy in the case in the Edge Athletics Center.
Some lessons are more painful than others.
By Jeff Schultz