For Bruce Pearl and his former assistants, the cover-up was much, much worse than the crime. The NCAA passed down judgment in the form of a three-year show-cause penalty against the former Tennessee Volunteer men's basketball coach for major recruiting violations that, get this, actually makes sense.
Much of the penalty's severity is the result of Pearl's alleged lies during the investigation and not so much tied to the violations themselves. Still, the findings are severe for the one-time heralded Volunteer coach and his former assistants.
The decision equals others like it in severity, most notably the one levied on USC's football program in June 2010 in the Reggie Bush improper benefits case.
However, it is the first of its kind by a governance known for major lapses in common sense and punishing the wrong parties.
It looks like the NCAA might finally be ready to punish the guilty and long-departed, instead of the innocent and irrelevant.
The show-cause penalty makes Pearl virtually unhireable. He and the assistant coaches punished with him are not allowed to contact recruits during their penalty. The NCAA mandates that any university seeking Pearl's coaching services during this three-year period to write a letter to the committee on infractions pledging their adherence to penalties already issued. So, programs are free to pursue and hire Pearl, but will forfeit any and all of the standard recruiting privileges and responsibilities that a head basketball coach has until his punishment expires in August 2014.
An eyelash less than three years' recruiting forfeiture would be a death sentence for any program, the prospect of which should push any curious athletic directors away from calling Pearl.
This isn't about Pearl's coaching life, though. It's about how the NCAA doles out punishment, and for once, there is cause to celebrate one of these doom-and-gloom sanction decisions.
For once, the NCAA resisted the knee-jerk reaction to blanket the culpable institution with strangling penalties.
For once, the NCAA stopped for two seconds to actually target the guilty party and leave everyone else out of it.
The Pearl penalty is the NCAA's definitive statement that the University of Tennessee's athletic department and men's basketball program should not have to suffer for the indiscretions of the fired coach. The violations were not the outcome of an enabling athletic director or players' misconduct, so why should those entities be punished for something they didn't do?
Careful, NCAA, you're in danger of making too much sense. You might want to rein it in a little.
The overbearing and hypocritical governing body has finally stumbled on the most simplistic of human truths: The innocent should not endure the penalties of the guilty. Pearl's case is a victory for justice, fairness and (un)common sense.
Of course, the outcome of this investigation stands in stark contrast to that of the USC findings of 14 months ago. The disproportionate case of the Trojans' punishment was as unprecedented as the Pearl conclusion is, but for diametrically opposite reasons.
For the seemingly-isolated violations of one player, the high-profile Reggie Bush, the NCAA brought the hammer down on USC. Though the lack of institutional control allegation was made, the situation did not really bear that out. The official investigation yielded one player who took rampant benefits worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and one coach, then-running backs coach Todd McNair, who knew about it. No one else was proven to have prior knowledge of the Bush benefits, not even former head coach Pete Carroll.
For Bush's mistakes, USC received a two-year postseason ban, four years probation and the loss of 30 scholarships over three years. The Trojans were also ripped of their 2004 BCS Championship, Bush's Heisman Trophy and award and 14 victories.
A set of sanctions amounting just shy of the death penalty is revolting and inordinate for a school with only one violator. Furthermore, that violator wasn't even a coach, who has the most responsibility in a program; it was a player.
When USC reacted in shock and outrage at the NCAA conclusion and claimed it too harsh, the governing body roundly denied the school's appeal to reduced sanctions a few months ago.
It's clear that the NCAA wasn't interested in being fair, but in making an example of arguably its most well-known football member. The message was that no program, regardless of how much revenue it generates, games it wins or players it sends to the NFL, is going to get away with any unsavory affairs.
Of course, a lot of schools proceeded to get away with unsavory affairs in the intervening time. Ohio State's tattoo parlor/memorabilia case, involving several of its best players and a lying coach, was significantly more heinous than USC's wrongs. The punishment for the Buckeyes isn't even worth mentioning in the same breath as the Trojans'.
The latest rules violator, the Miami Hurricanes, deserve nothing short of a three-year death penalty based on the standard of punishment that USC earned. No, they deserve six consecutive death penalties. That's how rampant and blatant Miami's violations were.
USC had one known illegal beneficiary and almost got death. Miami had a reported 72—that we know of.
What option does the NCAA have but to wipe the 'Canes out for the foreseeable future? Either they throw the book at them, or else they'll face a constant and vitriolic firestorm from everyone associated with USC.
I apologize. This USC rant isn't the premise of my article, and my intention was to discuss Pearl's punishment.
You'll have to excuse me; Trojans gotta vent.
Incidentally, I will use the USC case to elucidate how utterly accurate, appropriate and fair the Bruce Pearl ruling is. The NCAA's typical needless assertions of authority are nowhere to be found here; no one is getting hammered for crimes they didn't commit, and even though Pearl is unemployed, they got creative and found a way to make his guilt actually stick to him, instead of peppering the unknowing Volunteer athletes.
I applaud the NCAA for the unprecedented and unconventional nature of this decision because it is effective, precise and appropriate.
Fans of fairness can only hope that this turns into NCAA President Mark Emmert's personal crusade to rightly punish rule breakers in college athletics.
He should start with the disgraced Jim Tressel, whose disgrace isn't sufficient for his crimes, and former Miami coaches Larry Coker and Randy Shannon, as well as former athletic director Paul Dee, who is the new public enemy No. 1 for USC fans.
Regardless of how the individual punishments are doled out in the Miami case, the NCAA needs to tread delicately. The 'Canes' scandal threatens the very foundation of the NCAA and, if handled correctly, could springboard college athletics into major renovations to restore integrity, meaning and fairness to a broken and now-arbitrary system.