Maryland applied major precaution to avoid penalties

THE BALTIMORE SUN

After learning that assistant football coach Rod Sharpless had given Gilman star Victor Abiamiri $335 to pay for a video game machine last winter, the University of Maryland informed the NCAA of the rules infraction as athletic department officials were taking steps to show they were serious about rectifying the situation.

Abiamiri repaid the money, Maryland brought in an outside legal firm to investigate, and Sharpless was forced to resign. Labeling the infraction secondary rather than major in nature, athletic director Debbie Yow tried to ensure that Ralph Friedgen's rising program would not be hit with a significant penalty.

In the next few weeks, Yow will learn whether Maryland did enough.

With Wednesday's Washington Post report that the NCAA infractions committee is expected to announce shortly that Maryland was guilty of a major violation, Yow and Friedgen are now anxiously awaiting a decision by the committee, which meets today in Indianapolis.

Maryland officials met with the committee June 13 in Kansas City, Mo. In a statement that gave an account of the meeting, Maryland said, "The university vigorously presented rationale regarding why the situation should be labeled secondary." The presentation included a comparison of Maryland's case to others that were considered secondary, how isolated the incident was and how quickly the university began its own investigation.

Maryland also said in its statement that its review had been conducted "by outside consultants with extensive expertise in NCAA compliance" and that the NCAA commended the university on its thoroughness, speed of the review and decisive actions.

"We have not received a response from the committee, and we have no reason to believe that any significant sanctions for the football program will occur, regardless of how the committee characterizes its findings," Yow said in the statement.

Yow added that after Maryland conducted its own investigation in February, "the NCAA review revealed no new and significant facts or issues."

Other universities and athletic directors have taken similar actions to those followed by Maryland and Yow, only to see the infractions committee dole out an unanticipated probation or place restrictions on the program regarding scholarships, recruiting visits and either postseason bowl or NCAA tournament appearances.

The most celebrated recent case involved the University of Michigan, where school officials last fall imposed several sanctions on the men's basketball program for infractions committed during the 1990s in Ann Arbor. One of those was a one-year ban from postseason play for the past season.

Believing that it had imposed a stringent enough penalty on its basketball team, Michigan was shocked when the NCAA added a year to the postseason ban despite the fact that those who had committed the infractions - former coaches Steve Fisher and Brian Ellerbe, as well as Chris Webber and three other players - had left the school years before.

Michigan will appeal the tournament ban for the upcoming season at an Aug. 17 hearing.

Former San Diego State athletic director Rick Bay knew that the Aztecs' football team was going to be penalized by the NCAA for conducting organized offseason summer workouts over a four-year period at a nearby beach, as well as other conditioning drills before spring practice that were deemed illegal.

Bay took measures by suspending one of the assistant coaches involved without pay, reducing the number of scholarships and number of coaches who could recruit on the road and cut the number of spring practices in half for two years. He also sent a letter of reprimand to the head coach.

Nonetheless, in February the Aztecs were placed on two years' probation for committing what the NCAA deemed a major infraction. A transgression in any sport during the probation would result in serious penalties.

"We thought it was going to be considered secondary [because] we thought we were at least making the point with the committee on infractions that we took this matter very seriously," Bay said yesterday. "It was of great surprise and disappointment that the committee decided to upgrade the infraction to a major status.

"My question to the committee both in writing and in person later on was, 'Where's the incentive for a university to take strong action on its own initiative, not to mention apparently discounting the reputation of the school and athletic administration, if in the end they're going to ignore all of that and treat everybody as if they were sinister and intentional?' "

Bay, a seasoned athletic director, was forced to resign in May after a disagreement with the university president over an internal audit of the athletic department. Bay said that predicting an infractions committee outcome is difficult these days because all universities seem to be painted with the same brush.

"I was a guy who was pretty well known as an NCAA guy as far as trying to live up to the rules no matter what we thought of certain rules, and yet I felt I got no credit for trying to do that," Bay said. "I was treated and my school was treated as though we had involved ourselves in buying players, academic fraud, all those things that are far more sinister than some 45-minute beach workouts six times a year."

Bay believes Maryland is in the same situation.

"I think Debbie Yow has been terrific in what she has done," Bay said. "I've been around her enough to know that she is extremely conscientious about doing what she can relative to compliance."

Tom Yaeger, the commissioner of the Colonial Athletic Association and the current head of the infractions committee, was traveling to Indianapolis yesterday and was unavailable for comment. But in a recent case involving the University of Washington basketball program, Yaeger did present the parameters for meting out penalties.

Yaeger said that it was "standard" to give two years' probation when "a program intentionally" breaks the rules. The case involving Sharpless, however isolated it might be, appears to be a case of a veteran coach acting knowingly in violation of NCAA rules. Sharpless has repeatedly declined requests to tell his side of the story.

Though the Washington case differs greatly - assistant coach Cameron Dollar was found guilty of 13 major violations and three secondary infractions involving illegal contact with recruits - the committee ruled that "the violations were neither inadvertent nor isolated and thus were major violations.

"The assistant coach's involvement in these violations demonstrated an intentional disrespect of NCAA bylaws and provided a significant recruiting advantage."

Also at issue in the Maryland case is whether giving Abiamiri money to pay for a video game machine and accessories provided the Terps with a recruiting edge over other schools. Abiamiri's two brothers play for Maryland, and he was expected to join them in College Park. The younger Abiamiri instead signed with Notre Dame.

Yesterday, when asked whether the report has been a distraction to his team, Friedgen said: "I really don't want to even comment on that. I think these kids are pretty focused. I did talk to them about it. Regardless of what you read in the paper, we haven't heard anything. So I'm just going to wait till we hear something."

Sun staff writer Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.

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