While NCAA enforcement is still plodding through the Oregon/Willie Lyles case and becoming infamous for missteps in fair process, it handed down Friday its verdict on Saint Mary’s, dealing a blow to the little East Bay Area school that has been a thorn in Gonzaga’s side.
When you read the public report, it doesn’t seem severely damning. Mostly, it revolves around some rogue actions by a former Saint Mary’s basketball assistant, a summer-workout program left unchecked that ostensibly gave the Gaels a competitive advantage, and in sum, how much 12th-year head coach Randy Bennett willfully allowed all this to go on.
The NCAA concluded of Bennett: A lot.
And that’s why it cuffed the Gaels relatively hard, stopping short of a post-season ban, but, among other things: Stripping them of two scholarships per year starting in 2014-15; banning them from regular-season tournaments for three years (given how meagerly the Gaels tend to schedule, that could be a penalty of some significance); forbidding Bennett from off-campus recruiting in the academic year 2013-14; banning “skill instruction” for players (that’s off-season individual workouts) for two years (that’s a bit of a head-scratcher, but no doubt directly related to SMC’s improper use of a trainer in summer); trimming the number of days the Saint Mary’s staff can recruit; and suspending Bennett for five games starting the next WCC conference season.
That last sanction shouldn’t be minimized. As I read it, it’s not just the fact he can’t be on the bench for those five games. He has to forfeit all coaching duties from the first game through the fifth game. If it were applied to this season, it would be an edict to get out of the program for two weeks (Jan. 5 to Jan. 19). “During that period,” the committee on infractions wrote, “the head coach may not participate in any activities that are defined as coaching, including, but not limited to, team travel, practice, video review and team meetings.”
Bennett, a former assistant coach to Washington’s Lorenzo Romar at Pepperdine and Saint Louis, didn’t agree with some of the failure-to-monitor findings the report levied against him, and has said he’s mulling an appeal to the NCAA.
He’s always been an interesting figure, somebody who has for some reason not elicited more interest when Pac-12 jobs have come open, perhaps because he’s a nuts-and-bolts guy who doesn’t light up a room. Yet he’s no doubt had chances to reach out for other jobs, but stayed put in Moraga.
Now he doesn’t figure to have that option, at least in the near-term.
Other takeaways from the episode:
— The violations shouldn’t completely tarnish the good Bennett has accomplished at Saint Mary’s, and that’s been considerable. Still, it’s an inevitable taint.
— While many Gonzaga fans are relishing the Gaels’ plight, if Saint Mary’s backslides, it could hurt the Zags. The WCC seems to be to be a league that’s improved at the top, but can’t seem to upgrade itself from the middle down, and Gonzaga doesn’t need one less competitive team.
— At the risk of being overly simplistic about the violations, it underscores how massively difficult it is for programs in the WCC not named Gonzaga (or to a lesser extent, BYU). All the other programs are in urban areas with heavy pro-sports influence and relatively little campus interest in basketball. Santa Clara put a record crowd nearing 5,000 in the building when it played Gonzaga early in January, and then a week later, with a decent BYU team visiting, couldn’t draw 3,000 — and the Broncos have a 20-win team. All of them have significantly less resources than the Zags, and all of them have — at least to some extent — administrations that want to see victories and will wait only so long. Not saying this is specifically what happened at Saint Mary’s, but it’s a prescription for cutting corners.