NCF Nation: Gene Marsh

Van Natta: Inside the Penn State sanctions

August, 3, 2012
When Gene Marsh got the call on the morning of July 17, he was holed up in a one-room cabin -- with no running water and no toilets -- in woodsy Chebeague Island off of Maine. "A shack fit for the Unabomber," says Marsh, a 60-year-old tart-tongued Tuscaloosa, Ala., lawyer. Only six days earlier, he had been hired by Penn State to help negotiate sanctions from the NCAA in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal. On the phone was Donald Remy, the NCAA's general counsel. The news was grim. Remy said Penn State was facing an unprecedented punishment: a multiple-season death penalty, no football for years.

"Are you overselling this?" Marsh asked.

"Absolutely not," Remy said.

As he sat in his cabin, "I just imagined an empty stadium," says Marsh, a former chairman of the NCAA's infractions committee who has since defended many schools and coaches before it, including former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel. "I thought about the wind blowing through the portals and all the economic and social and spiritual ramifications of that empty stadium. And this would last … years?"
Those of you who follow high-profile NCAA infractions cases probably know the name Gene Marsh.

Marsh served as chairman of the NCAA's Committee on Infractions from 2004-06 and was part of the committee for nine years. He also has been retained by several schools, including Auburn and Michigan, to assist them when the NCAA is investigating potential violations. So he has been on both sides of these cases.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer's Doug Lesmerises recently caught up with Marsh to discuss the Jim Tressel situation at Ohio State. Marsh thinks that while Tressel made a major mistake by not coming forward with information about his players selling memorabilia items -- the coach violated NCAA bylaw 10.1 by keeping quiet -- Tressel's previous track record with the NCAA could prevent the hammer from dropping.
"I think if you have a lifelong good record, that should weigh into how things turn out," Marsh told the Plain Dealer. "If it doesn't, then what is the use of living life right?"

Some other interesting comments from Marsh:
"While the violations are very serious, they are not the kind of violations that somebody makes a movie out of," said Marsh, who specializes in NCAA compliance issues with the Alabama law firm of Lightfoot, Franklin & White. "It's not some gigantic academic fraud, it's not some slush fund that a coach was using for paying players. Although they are serious ... I'd say after nine years on the infractions committee, they don't break the bank as far as severity."
"There are human beings on the enforcement staff and human beings on the committee," Marsh said. "It's not a machine, it's not a calculator. It's folks. In the end, folks take a look at things like a life's work, the inner workings of their entire profile and their character in their life as a coach and in their life as an individual."

As many have stated, Tressel's image plays a huge role in how this all shakes out. While his actions have sullied his image for many people, including Ohio State's former provost, he still has the support of Ohio State's president and athletic director. And if he can convince the Committee on Infractions that this was an isolated incident that he sincerely regrets, he could escape major repercussions.

The big thing for Tressel is no more setbacks, which could be tough with the number of people now looking into the Ohio State program. Although he has a few situations in his past, he has never faced a quandary like this one.

The Committee on Infractions only will review information it knows about, so if nothing else surfaces between now and the time Tressel appears, the Buckeyes coach could be OK. Then again, the NCAA is under a lot of pressure to make a statement, and imposing stronger penalties on Tressel/Ohio State would qualify.

The days of Teflon Tressel are over, but Marsh's comments give hope for the coach.
Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon and head coach Rich Rodriguez addressed their responses to the NCAA with the media earlier Tuesday.

Both Brandon and Rodriguez reiterated much of what we saw in the reports, but several things stood out:

  • Brandon remains firmly in Rodriguez's corner, at least right now. If Michigan fires Rodriguez at any point in the near future, it won't be because of these violations. Like I've said from the beginning, Rodriguez's fate ultimately will be tied to wins and losses. The only "cause" for his dismissal will be losing more games. “These are major violations, we understand that," Brandon said. "They could be interpreted to trigger a dismissal cause in the coach's contract. We do not deem that appropriate in this situation."
  • Former graduate assistant Alex Herron is the only individual paying a major price in this investigation, as he was fired after Michigan received the NCAA's Notice of Allegations. Brandon said that beyond a letter of reprimand that will "memorialize" the mistakes made during the last two years, the seven individuals identified in Michigan's report, including Rodriguez, face no further discipline. "There were failures along the chain of command," Brandon said. "If there was one single person to be blamed for this, we’d be doing it. The blame spans a number of different areas and entities both in the football program and across the athletic department overall."
  • Brandon spent much of today's media session deflecting blame from Rodriguez, even taking ultimate responsibility for the situation himself even though he wasn't on the job when the violations took place. He also again pointed to mistakes from longtime Michigan staffers, trying to say this wasn't a Rodriguez problem, but a departmental problem. Although Brandon admitted that a new coaching staff probably didn't help matters, he added, "Most of the people involved in the administrative handling of this are people who have been around for a long time."
  • Both Brandon and Rodriguez once again walked a fine line regarding the violations themselves. They acknowledged that the violations were major but didn't meet the standard for loss of institutional control. Brandon also went out of his way to stress that he didn't believe the violations provided any sort of competitive advantage for Michigan (he could have cited Rodriguez's 8-16 record, too). Why didn't Michigan penalize itself with scholarship losses, loss of coaches or loss of postseason privileges? Because its crimes didn't fit the punishments.
  • Will the NCAA agree with Michigan's self-imposed penalties? No one knows yet, but Brandon sounds pretty confident, especially after enlisting experts to help with the response, including former Committee on Infractions chairman Gene Marsh. “The NCAA has the ultimate authority here," Brandon said. "We'll take our case to those folks and ultimately they will decide whether our self-imposed sanctions are appropriate or not."
  • Rodriguez doesn't think the NCAA situation will affect the team as it prepares for the season, even though he'll need to leave during preseason camp to attend the Committee on Infractions hearings Aug. 13-14 in Seattle. "It’s going to be a relief to get this process over with," he said, "but I don’t think anything will distract our guys."
  • Brandon strongly supported Rodriguez when it came to his dealings with Michigan's compliance department. "Our compliance group talks about this coach as being as open and as transparent as anyone they’ve ever worked with," Brandon said. "There was absolutely no intent by this coach or any of his assistant coaches to hide anything from compliance. We disagree, I disagree, that Rich failed to provide an atmosphere of compliance. Rich has a history of following the rules." Those are significant words, especially given the NCAA's recent examination of Rodriguez's tenure at West Virginia. Brandon added that compliance issues no longer will be handled by "people at the lower end of the communication chain." These are matters for senior-level staff, and both he and Rodriguez are having a lot of meetings with compliance going forward.
  • Remember Rodriguez's emotional news conference Aug. 31 in the wake of the media reports detailing the allegations from current and former players? He was most upset by the claim that the football staff neglected the welfare of their players. Michigan's response to the NCAA shows no wrongdoing in this area. "Our student-athletes never felt that there were any issues at all with their welfare," Rodriguez said, "and there never will be."
  • The last word, from Brandon: "There’s nothing good about the word investigations, there’s nothing good about the word violations, there’s nothing good about the word probation. This is an unfortunate situation. But our history and our tradition and our value system is out there for the world to see. We’ll let our brand and our integrity and our merit stand on our beliefs. We’re accountable, and we’re doing something about it."
Dave Brandon knew he'd need to familiarize himself with the NCAA's practices and policies to succeed in his new job as Michigan's athletic director.

Brandon didn't realize he'd have to become an expert in less than three months.

The NCAA's investigation into alleged rule violations by Michigan's football program has taken up much of Brandon's time since he took his new post March 8. Brandon's involvement actually began before his official first day, as he appeared at a Feb. 23 news conference with head football coach Rich Rodriguez and university president Mary Sue Coleman to announce the NCAA's five allegations against the football program.

Michigan today will formally respond to the NCAA and outline the self-imposed penalties it deems appropriate. The school could admit to committing major violations for the first time in football.

Michigan's response is crucial because it will send a message to the NCAA and the public about how the university views the allegations. Details will be made public Tuesday as Michigan, to its credit, continues to be transparent about a difficult topic.

The NCAA ultimately has the final say, as its Committee on Infractions will meet with Michigan officials Aug. 13-14 in Seattle. The committee could uphold Michigan's self-sanctions or hand down more severe penalties.

"One of the penalties you receive going through a process like this is the process," Brandon said last week at the Big Ten spring meetings. "It requires a lot of time, it forces you to spend a lot of time reviewing what you've done, trying to come up with steps and measures to assure you don't make the same mistake twice."

The NCAA alleges that Michigan exceeded limits for both time and number of coaches/staff members allowed to monitor both in-season and out-of-season team activities. Head coach Rich Rodriguez is alleged to have "failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance within the football program," and Michigan is alleged to have "failed to adequately monitor its football program to assure compliance."

Because Rodriguez is named in the allegations, he will issue his own response to the NCAA today. Rodriguez hired an attorney who has worked with the university's attorneys since Day 1 of the process.

"I had an opportunity to look at everything and that's a process that's time-consuming," Rodriguez said last week. "A lot of the things that I probably want to say will be in the response, but I don't know if everything that I'd like to say will be in the response. Everything I'd like to say probably will never [be said publicly]. We're all anxious to get it over with."

Michigan has hired attorney Gene Marsh, the former chairman of the NCAA's Committee on Infractions, to help during the NCAA's investigation. It's safe to assume Marsh will play a key role in today's response.

The school also has examined similar instances where self-imposed penalties were handed down, although each case is unique.

"You're always nervous," Rodriguez said. "We have experienced people who have looked at similar cases before, but you don't know for sure until you go in front of the committee in August and explain your case and see where it goes from there.

"For us, you'd rather have it be over six months ago, but in talking to everybody else, this is the normal time frame it takes."

Brandon is comfortable with the way Michigan has handled itself and, like Rodriguez, hopes the program can soon move forward.

"I'll be very, very glad to get this all turned over to the NCAA," he said, "and I'll be even more glad to finish this process in August."