Commentary

UCF's fast track to the doghouse

Knights' punishment isn't about the NCAA, but of a department that cut corners

Originally Published: July 31, 2012
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

And so here we are, barely a week after the NCAA dropped its entire toolbox on Penn State, with yet another hammer blow delivered to another institution.

Central Florida will slink out of its final season in Conference USA ineligible for the postseason in its two premier sports -- football and basketball -- its basketball coach slapped with a show-cause penalty, scholarship reductions in football and men's basketball, monetary fines and vacated seasons. All serious punishments meted out by a clearly more serious NCAA.

Except this isn't about the NCAA and it shouldn't be yet another narrative on how the group in Indianapolis is doing business.

This is about the Knights, blinded by ambition, receiving their due punishment.

They cheated. They got caught. And now they are paying for it.

UCF not only broke rules, the folks in charge there thumbed their noses at the rulebooks, kowtowing and catering to the thorniest of NCAA thorns -- third-party influencers, in this case two wanna-be wheelers and dealers named Ken Caldwell and Brandon Bender.

[+] EnlargeDonnie Jones
AP PhotoDonnie Jones was suspended three league games and also faces recruiting restrictions.

The NCAA Committee on Infractions report details phone calls and emails, lump sum payments, job placement for a mother and even a wink-wink out-of-state tuition waiver set up for Caldwell's son.

It is equal parts alarming and pathetic, a detailed look at how would-be hangers-on are empowered because of their connections to kids and how grown-ups, desperate to keep up in the high-stakes game of college athletics, demean themselves, their position and ultimately their school by playing along to move along.

At one point, former athletic director Keith Tribble exchanged emails with Caldwell about a prospect Caldwell promised would be the "next John Wall." Tribble ended his correspondence with, "You da man!"

Yes, that would be the rule-bending man who pushed Tribble out of employment, into disgrace, and the university into the NCAA frying pan.

But this is the deal with the devil UCF chose to make -- Tribble, a lifelong college administrator who has a spot in the University of Florida's hall of fame as a distinguished letterwinner, falling under the sway and heeding the advice of a convicted felon. He allowed Caldwell into the university's inner sanctum so deeply that when Caldwell, according to the COI report, bragged to one prospect, "I run sh** over there," he really wasn't wrong.

He had Tribble's ear, and Tribble had his coaches' ears, and no one chose to block out the noise.

Tribble and head coach Donnie Jones tried to argue that they weren't aware of what Caldwell and Bender were up to, that they weren't nuanced enough in NCAA rules to recognize the worms dangling right under their noses.

Which is akin to saying they didn't smell the stench in the pigsty. If the NCAA has a hot button issue right now, it is third-party influences -- and the organization has gone so far as to reconstruct its definition to cast a wider net.

Administrators and coaches are never naive to either NCAA rules or the ways of their world. They know how business should be done and can be done in the world of college athletics. They just have to decide how they want to play ball, within the lines or outside of the foul poles.

UCF knowingly, willingly and desperately decided to go beyond the boundaries in the hopes of fast-tracking themselves to the big time.

To an extent, it even worked. Once a sort of sleeping giant waiting to pounce on the fertile recruiting grounds of Florida, UCF became a player. The Knights parlayed football success and prime real estate into an invitation to the Big East, ditching the Ellis Island of Conference USA for a brand-name league.

But fast tracks can be slippery, especially when oiled by people who are looking to have their hands greased, and UCF now is sliding back into the mire.

The university will limp into the more competitive Big East with fewer scholarships and coaching staffs handcuffed by recruiting restrictions. Worse, a program and a university that actively courted a place among college sports' players finally arives to its spotlight with a shiner under each eye and under the scathing glare of its new conference, which doesn't welcome new members with NCAA violations warmly.

Central Florida supporters will wonder why its self-inflicted punishments weren't enough. In response to that, COI chair Greg Sankey cited plenty of reasons in the report -- the school's status as a repeat offender, the fact that administrators allowed third-party people to ingratiate themselves with the university, that they misled (read: lied) to NCAA investigators, and that overall UCF rang four of the five bells the NCAA needs to mete out serious punishment.

So yes, this is a strong punishment from the NCAA and should be viewed as a strong deterrent for others who might like to skirt the rules going forward.

But this isn't about the NCAA.

This is about UCF.

The Knights ditched their shining armor in favor of black hats. And now they're paying the price for it.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball

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