WVU ATHLETICS: Secondary violations extremely common with thorough NCAA rules

Shortly after West Virginia University athletic director Oliver Luck took over at WVU in 2010 he set about trying to gain a better understanding of compliance operations and oversight.

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — On July 25, 2013, Lacey Gibson, West Virginia University’s associate athletic director for compliance, had a meeting with Tomi Oliverio, the director of operations for the women’s basketball team. Together they’d review the recruiting materials the Mountaineers were using and sending to prospective student-athletes.

This is normal inside the WVU Coliseum and around the athletic department, and this time it produced an abnormality. Gibson recognized that a previously approved envelope used for mailings was 10 inches wide and 13 inches tall. That’s a secondary violation of an NCAA rule that allows schools to use envelopes that are 9 inches wide and 12 inches tall. The margin of error between good and bad is literally that small, though WVU does not accept such mistakes and actually has procedures in place to prevent one like that.

Recruiting materials are regularly reviewed, and in its self-report to the NCAA last July, WVU said the “impermissible envelope had been reviewed previously by the compliance office but the contents were through email and therefore the size was not evident through the initial review.”

It was one of 24 violations WVU addressed across 11 sports from Jan. 1, 2013 to March 21, 2014. Records were obtained by the Charleston Daily Mail through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The NCAA defines a secondary violation to be something “isolated or inadvertant (sic) in nature, (that) provides or is intended to provide only a minimal recruiting, competitive or other advantage and does not include any significant recruiting inducement or extra benefit.” 

Upwards of 4,000 violations are self-reported to the NCAA every year, and there are occasions when the NCAA will consider the commission of multiple secondary violations to be a major violation. Two dozen errors might seem like a lot, especially at a school that’s been on probation twice in recent years for major NCAA violations, and that’s fine with WVU athletic director Oliver Luck.

He recalled a meeting shortly after he was hired in 2010 with an outside consultant who had helped WVU with NCAA governance issues in the past. Luck was trying to gain a better understanding of compliance operations and oversight and set aside a few hours to that one particular conversation.

“The most interesting thing I learned, which was completely counterintuitive to me at least, was that you’re expected to file a lot of secondary violations,” he said. “If you file none, that puts up a red flag for the NCAA. They know you can’t be perfect.

“It was difficult for me to understand that concept. I said to the consultant, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘Oh yes, every school needs to be turning in these secondary violations.’”

WVU’s compliance recordkeeping attributed most of the violations to innocent mistakes by coaches, student-athletes, recruits, a recruit’s family member or even a member of the athletic department. With only a few exceptions, the offender couldn’t have known a violation was being committed.

The women’s cross country team, for example, let a runner practice 10 times last fall before she’d been cleared by the NCAA’s Eligibility Center. The runner previously attended a compliance meeting designed to complete the review of her eligibility. The compliance office didn’t know about the meeting, so when the runner left, there was no way for compliance to know she had an unresolved eligibility issue.

The runner was forced to sit out 19 practices, and WVU instituted a more thorough way to track eligibility proceedings.

Almost all issues are cured by rules education, a necessary evil because there are so many rules to observe and so many ways to innocently step out of bounds. The meetings, whether proactive or punitive, are valuable to help WVU police itself, sometimes after the fact. Women’s soccer coach Nikki Izzo-Brown realized during routine rules awareness meetings in March 2013 that she’d committed a secondary violation a month earlier.

She’d emailed a soccer club head coach and extended a scholarship offer to a player on Feb. 25, 2013. A bylaw prohibits a written offer before Aug. 1 of a prospect’s senior year. Brown knew the player was a sophomore but, according to a letter to the NCAA, “wasn’t aware of the rule until the rules education meeting.”

Schools are allowed to verbally extend a scholarship offer before that Aug. 1 date.

“The key question is, ‘Is all of it necessary?’” Luck said “Are we wasting time and resources because of a tweet or a phone call on the wrong day or a meal that was provided inappropriately? That’s really a legitimate question. With all the resources we have, does it make sense to spend all that energy and money doing all of that oversight stuff?”

Sometimes rules and violations seem silly, but adhering to procedures across the board does matter. The volleyball program used the same illegal — though previously approved — envelopes and was thus guilty of a secondary violation. Those were the only violations committed by women’s basketball and volleyball during the 15-month period. Some sports were more active while men’s basketball, men’s soccer, wrestling, women’s track and women’s tennis committed none.

Though the violations were minor and resulted in no substantial punishments for the teams or the university, WVU prohibited coaches from commenting for this story. Keli Cunningham, the executive senior athletic director in charge of governance and compliance, declined comment, though she and her staff are widely credited for running what’s considered by Luck to be a successful operation.

“Keli and her staff have done an amazing job since they all got here,” Luck said of the Petersburg native who was his first athletic department hire in August 2010.

“She’s very talented, and we’ve emphasized it. We’ve talked to the coaches and the staffs about, ‘Hey, we’ve got to follow all the rules.’ Some may be silly and some may make sense, but we’ve emphasized it to make sure we walk the straight and narrow pay. By and large, I think our coaches have done that. Maybe they’ve made a couple mistakes, but very often it’s ignorance and just making an honest mistake.”

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Football is perhaps the most prone to secondary violations because of all the potential faults in the activities of up to 105 players, the visibility and potential manipulation of star players and the breadth of recruiting activities and legislation. WVU’s football program was guilty of four secondary violations that involved seven active student-athletes and one prospective student-athlete who later joined the program.

The misgivings were minimal. One player had to pay restitution to a charity after accepting $42 for selling back a textbook he received as part of his scholarship after dropping a class. WVU educated the bookstore staff and issued handouts to serve as reminders.

In 2011 and 2012, WVU approved the use of images of football players for schedule advertisements in a local newspaper. When the school and the newspaper worked on the 2013 edition, WVU discovered the poster contained two commercial advertisements.

It reviewed the prior two posters and saw both used commercial advertisements, which is a violation. WVU previously believed the posters contained WVU advertisements, which is permissible. The 2013 version was nixed, but WVU educated the newspaper and its marketing staff on rules for the improper use of a player’s name or image.

On Sept. 10, a student-athlete who was at a different college before enrolling Aug. 1 was being interviewed during the weekly media appointment and unknowingly admitted to violating the NCAA bylaw for advertisements and promotions after becoming a student-athlete. The description of the undisclosed action was noticed by an assistant sports information director, who reported it to Gibson. WVU performed rules education a day later, ruled the player ineligible and requested the NCAA expedite a ruling. The outcome is not included in WVU’s paperwork.

Most egregious was the product of Twitter. On Dec. 9, 2013, running back Rushel Shell, a transfer from Pitt who sat out last season, used his account to encourage fans to follow and congratulate Dravon Henry, who committed to WVU earlier that day.

Shell promised his “lil bro/new teammate” would “make big plays” starting in 2014. Both are from Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, so it wasn’t odd to see Shell excited about another Pittsburgh product joining the Mountaineers. It was forbidden, though, by a NCAA bylaw that prohibits coaches and players from commenting on unsigned recruits.

WVU, which redacted names in the self-report, but confirmed at the time it was reporting the action, said in its self-report that the unnamed offender “incorrectly believed that the parameters of Bylaw would not apply due to a pre-existing relationship.”

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Baseball was also active in violations, but once again never maliciously and sometimes imperceptibly. Included was one of the more meaningful mistakes WVU committed, but one the Mountaineers didn’t know about before an anonymous tip.

On May 22, 2013, the eve of the Big 12 tournament, someone called a “local media outlet” and suggested coach Randy Mazey’s first team scheduled more regular-season games than the NCAA allowed. The news outlet contacted WVU and the compliance staff decided the Mountaineers scheduled 57 games, one more than the maximum allowed. The compliance office previously approved a 56-game schedule Mazey built and submitted on Oct. 5, 2013.

The difference came from a game played Oct. 21 against Potomac State College, one the baseball program considered to be an exhibition. PSC, though, is a member of the National Junior College Athletic Association, meaning the game counted toward the 56 allowed. The compliance office reported it had “no knowledge of the competition” because it was not listed on the schedule Mazey submitted. “As a result,” WVU wrote to the NCAA, “the need to cancel a game was not identified.”

WVU followed the general two-for-one principle for self-imposed penalties for secondary violations and allowed Mazey to schedule 54 games for the 2014 season. WVU ended up playing 51 because of cancellations as a result of inclement weather. The Mountaineers narrowly missed their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1996.

While that mistake was about one game, the baseball program committed another secondary violation because it missed a deadline by one day. On June 29, 2012, three weeks after Mazey was hired, the school’s financial aid office sent a player with two seasons of eligibility remaining a letter telling him his scholarship would be renewed. The player was supposed to receive a letter informing him the scholarship would not be renewed.

Mazey called the player July 1 to clarify the error, and the financial aid office sent the proper letter a day later. A NCAA bylaw says players have to receive the definitive letter by July 1. WVU didn’t discover the violation until March 22, 2013, when the player, who transferred, appealed for a waiver to be immediately eligible at his new school and detailed what happened at WVU.

The player made sure to note, though, that Mazey offered the player a chance to sign the initial renewal letter, if he chose.

In all, the baseball program was the subject of eight secondary violations, which is not to say it was guilty of eight.

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WVU’s compliance office contested half of the eight violations in questions. It self-reported the scheduling mistake, the missed deadline and a separate financial aid error, plus one secondary violation for summer athletic activities. That was one of three alleged errors about practicing in the summer. WVU combatted two of the three and also fought a pair of alleged observation violations.

The NCAA’s enforcement staff initially inquired about three practices during the summer and prior to Sept. 1, 2012, as well as a pair of “assessment activities” at a local high school and on campus. WVU was able to confirm one summer activity in July 2012 with Mazey, his two assistants and seven pitchers “to discuss arm care and to demonstrate various training techniques to support injury prevention,” according to a letter to the NCAA.

The meeting lasted 25 minutes and WVU stressed that at “no point during the demonstration were the student-athletes instructed to pitch or engage in activities at the observation of the coaching staff.” Mazey and his assistants each wrote letters saying it was not a practice — most pitchers didn’t even bring a glove — and was intended to help pitchers take care of their arms during a time the team was without trainers and strength and conditioning staff to help the team.

WVU nevertheless said that “although the activity was not intended to be a typical practice, the action by the coaching staff to assemble the student-athletes” was contrary to a pair of bylaws.

WVU also contested the claim the staff separately had a player on campus and a prospective student-athlete at his high school perform physical activities to prove their ability. Assistant coach Derek Matlock said he and Mazey did observe for 15 minutes during that summer a pitcher recovering from injury to see if he was on schedule with a throwing and recovery program. Mazey said they were watching a previously planned bullpen session and their presence was again meant to ensure his pitchers were healthy without supervision.

Mazey also denied engaging a prospect on a high school campus, saying he didn’t know who the player in question was and stating at the time he had “never set foot on a high school campus in the state of West Virginia.”

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The majority of secondary violations across the country occur in recruiting. Eleven of WVU’s secondary violations, including the big envelopes, Shell’s tweet, Izzo-Brown’s written offer and the alleged baseball interaction at a high school, were considered to happen in recruiting. Included was another of the most flagrant overall offenses the Mountaineers committed.

In March 2012, WVU discovered a violation from two years earlier. On Feb. 20, 2011, a rifle recruit was unable to make a flight home because of inclement weather. Coach Jon Hammond received approval from the compliance office to extend the official visit two days. Harley King, the compliance director, “failed to file the report with the conference office,” WVU wrote in a self-report. The Mountaineers were guilty of violating the bylaw for exceptions to the 48-hour period for extenuating circumstances on official visits. King was issued a letter of admonishment.

On May 29, 2013 assistant gymnastics coach Travis Doak received an email from a prospect who said she was interested in WVU. Doak replied, according to WVU, “because he mistakenly believed she was a high school junior.” The NCAA has dates for permissible contact for various sports based on junior years. Doak realized he’d made a mistake two days later and reported his error.

WVU defended him and wrote “Doak didn’t send an email out of interest” and instead responded to her initial message. Further, the Mountaineers said they weren’t recruiting the prospect and had no plans to do so, but agreed to refrain from communicating with her until Sept. 13 if they changed their minds.

Last September, assistant rowing coach Stacy VanOrder reported she had emailed back and forth with an international prospect before Sept. 1 of the prospect’s junior year. However, a glitch in software the team uses to assist international recruiting didn’t list the prospects graduation date. VanOrder “inadvertently assumed” the prospect was a junior, but turned herself in when the exchanged with the prospect revealed she was a sophomore.

WVU administered more rules education and decided to keep the rowing staff from communicating with the prospect for two weeks after the permissible date the following year.

Later that month, the women’s swim team played host to a prospect on an official visit over a 48-hour period from Sept. 27-29. On Sept. 26, the prospect’s father had a meal and the $34.02 charge was put on the bill for the hotel stay. WVU paid the bill as part of the recruiting visit, even though the prospect wasn’t considered to be visiting on the day of the meal. WVU said its staff knew it was impermissible and that the “isolated issue that resulted from an error” wasn’t due to a lack of understanding of the rules.

This past January, a men’s swim team recruit took an unofficial visit. The men’s basketball team played host to Oklahoma State and assistant coach Damion Dennis gave the prospect, who was accompanied by his parents and brother, four free tickets to the game. The NCAA bylaw for official visits allows a school to hand out three free tickets. The mistake, discovered in an audit two weeks later, saw the prospect ruled ineligible and made to pay $32 to a charity. On Feb. 8, he made a $60 donation to Ronald McDonald House Charities.

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymailwv.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.

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