Northwestern, PSU in exclusive company

A wave of NCAA violations (proven or alleged) has swept through major college sports in recent months, and Big Ten programs aren't being spared.

Last year, Michigan admitted to committing major NCAA rules violations in football for the first time in its storied history. Ohio State has a Aug. 12 hearing before the NCAA's Committee on Infractions amid allegations of major rule violations in football. Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel resigned May 30 after months of intense scrutiny.

As college football fans familiarize themselves with terms like "lack of institutional control" and the roster of the Committee on Infractions, some are left to wonder: Are any programs playing by the rules?

We'll never fully know the answer, as programs have sidestepped the NCAA rulebook for years and will continue to find loopholes. The Wall Street Journal recently explored the topic and reports that 17 athletic programs with FBS teams have never been tagged with major violations for any sport since 1953.

Of those 17, four teams play football in major conferences and two compete in the Big Ten. They are: Penn State, Northwestern, Boston College and Stanford. Northwestern and Boston College both had point-shaving incidents involving players, and Penn State endured a stretch of off-field problems involving players, but all three programs have escaped the NCAA's wrath.

Some interesting nuggets from the Wall Street Journal piece:

  • Three of the four innocents from major conferences (Boston College, Northwestern and Stanford) have a built-in advantage: As private schools, they're not required to comply with the Freedom of Information Act -- a tool reporters have used to uncover wrongdoing at some public institutions.

  • Experts say it's also telling that those same three schools come from big cities with major pro-sports teams. "We just don't have the intense pressure that other places have," Stanford athletic director Bob Bowlsby said.

  • Jim Phillips, the athletic director, said that when he was called about the job he was told that only two things matter at Northwestern: academics and NCAA compliance. "It's not about winning championships," he said.

  • Given that football is the most-common culprit in major-violations cases, it's somewhat surprising that football power Penn State made the list. If there's any one obvious difference at the school, it's that the head coach, Joe Paterno, is the longest-tenured coach at any one school in FBS history (he took over in 1966). One of the common pitfalls for schools is a new coaching staff that comes in feeling a load of pressure to win quickly -- something Paterno is essentially immune to.

Is there a secret to steering clear of NCAA violations in football? Does a school need an iconic coach like Paterno, a less pressurized situation, an urban setting or an athletic mission that isn't national championship or bust?

I'm sure those factors help, and both Penn State and Northwestern should be proud to be on the list. But plenty of coaches and athletic departments try to do it right. These 17 programs aren't the only ones that stress the importance of NCAA compliance.

Unfortunately, it doesn't take much to get a team or a program in hot water, and the culture surrounding major college sports makes it tempting to get around the rules. It could take several big-time programs being hit with big-time penalties for things to change, and even that seems like wishful thinking.

There's no magic formula.

Phillips sums it up best.

"We're proud of what we've been able to do," he told the Journal, "but with 500 18- to 22-year-olds, anything could happen at any time."