University of Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow has taken a well-traveled route to investigate the allegation that a former member of football coach Ralph Friedgen's staff made improper payments to a highly touted recruit.
After learning that Victor Abiamiri, a defensive end from Baltimore's Gilman School who, on Wednesday, committed to Notre Dame, allegedly received in excess of $300 from linebackers coach Rod Sharpless, Yow last week called attorney Mike Glazier.
Since 1986, Glazier's law firm in Overland Park, Kan., has helped conduct similar investigations for high-profile programs that have run afoul of NCAA regulations, such as the Syracuse and Michigan men's basketball teams.
The firm of Bond, Schoenick and King, which has begun to conduct the inquiry, also has worked with schools, including Maryland, on occasion to help ensure their compliance with NCAA rules.
In this case, Maryland admitted to what athletic department officials call a secondary infraction. Though Sharpless resigned and Abiamiri returned the money, according to sources who requested anonymity, Maryland still must show the NCAA that the infraction was an isolated one by an assistant coach who acted independently.
If no other athletes are found to have received improper offers, the program could get off with a warning or probation, said Benjamin A. Leonard, an Atlanta attorney who specializes in NCAA compliance. But, he said, "If they see a pattern of behavior, that would be a major violation."
Penalties for major violations range from a temporary reduction in the number of scholarships allotted to a program to a ban on bowl participation. In the most severe cases involving repeat violators, the so-called "death penalty" could force a school to drop a sport for a period of time.
Giving money to a prospect - even an amount as small as $300 - is a serious matter in the eyes of the NCAA, Leonard said.
Maryland will benefit from reporting the matter itself, and taking remedial steps. "It shows that the school has been pro-active in dealing with the problem," he said. In fact, self-reporting is one of the factors used by the NCAA to categorize infractions as major or secondary. The latter category generally involves isolated incidents that are discovered and reported by the school and that don't produce a major recruiting edge.
The NCAA allows schools to initiate their own investigations of secondary infractions, using firms such as Glazier's, which gives the institution a measure of control over the proceedings. The results, for example, may be subject to attorney-client privilege and therefore can be kept secret by the school.
"All institutions are at risk," said Dan Beebe, a former NCAA enforcement director who is now the commissioner of the Ohio Valley Conference. "If you start looking into something, there may be other things that come up. A lot of times, there isn't. You can get in and find out about it and rectify it and take your lumps and go on."
Neither Yow nor Glazier would comment about the school's internal investigation.
Glazier's firm is expected to talk with many of the players recruited this year by the Terrapins and those who have been recruited since coach Ralph Friedgen took over shortly after the 2000 season. Other members of Friedgen's staff are also being interviewed.
A report will then be filed with the NCAA, which usually handles secondary violations by correspondence with its committee on infractions.
"We take those reports and evaluate them," said Mark Jones, an enforcement director for the NCAA. "We figure out what they've reported, if they're a major or secondary [violation], then we'll make a determination, too. We can simply send a letter asking the institution to take more action, to do some more interviews, ask them to clarify something."
In cases that are "borderline" between secondary and major infractions, the NCAA typically sends one of its investigators to the school for follow-up interviews. In this instance, much of what the NCAA does depends on what Glazier's firm finds.
Jones declined to talk about the specifics of the Maryland case in accordance with NCAA policy.
But he added: "We want to make sure an institution doesn't try to place all blame on an individual and try to exonerate the institution as much as possible. ... Whenever an incident is reported, you always have questions whether this is an isolated incident or is it part of some type of pattern."
Beebe, who led the NCAA's investigation into the Maryland basketball program under Bob Wade starting in 1988, said the relationship between universities whose coaches have committed infractions and the NCAA have become a lot less contentious in recent years.
"Institutions are a lot more willing to cooperate than they were 20 years ago," Beebe said. "Nowadays, institutions are more likely to engage in the investigative process themselves and try to ferret out what the issues are so they can clean their own house."
Maryland investigated itself after reporting an infraction by a member of Wade's staff who provided a recruit rides to a junior college. Not satisfied with the findings and receiving information of other possible violations, the NCAA conducted its own probe.
Wade and members of his staff were eventually charged with committing major infractions. More significantly, the athletic department was cited for having a lack of institutional control. Among other things, it led the NCAA to place Maryland's basketball program on probation for three years with a two-year ban from postseason play (1990-91; 1991-92).
"Back in the late '80s and early '90s, institutional control was an emerging theme in infractions," said Jones, who also worked on the Maryland case. He said that case and the harsh penalty that resulted was one of a few that brought about significant change in the way athletic departments paid attention to issues of compliance.
For example, the Associated Press reported that the NCAA dealt with more than 2,100 secondary infractions that were self-reported in 2001, compared with about 100 in 1987.
"The emphasis on compliance has really, really increased everywhere," Jones said.