Monday, February 18, 2008

Coach speech a violation

On one of the precious few nights of the recruiting period, when he could have been preaching Notre Dame Football in the living room of any prospect in America, coach Charlie Weis chose to speak to 800 adults he couldn't sign to a national letter of intent.

As bagpipes played the Notre Dame Victory March, Weis took the podium inside the gymnasium of Cincinnati's Elder High School and began a rousing speech to a partisan crowd that had paid handsomely for the show.

Having a coach like Charlie Weis speak at a fundraiser can bring a big jump in profit.
For Elder High, this was a boon, a night where Weis' star power drew in Fighting Irish fans and helped the school raise nearly $30,000 in profit, an estimated $10,000 more than normal, according to event organizer Russ Borgan.

"It's a big jump," he said of the Jan. 16 event.

Less than three weeks later, Weis received a signed letter of intent from tight end Kyle Rudolph, a top 20 national recruit according to Rudolph's high school?

Cincinnati Elder.

During his speech at Elder, Weis made no mention of Rudolph – who had verbally committed to the Irish months before – and told the crowd why: NCAA rules prohibit coaches from talking publicly about high school prospects until the players have signed a letter of intent.

But whether it was an NCAA violation for Weis to serve as the keynote speaker at a high school event that included fundraising is a point of confusion and contention in the recruiting world.

The practice of coaches speaking at high school events has been going on for decades. But it's fundraising in association with those events that has prompted scrutiny. And should the NCAA find Notre Dame and Weis to be in violation of its rules, coaches across the nation could expect similar sanctions.

"He did what he was supposed to do," said Notre Dame spokesman John Heisler, explaining that before committing to the event, Weis checked with school officials and the university determined it would be within NCAA rules for him to participate. Weis was unavailable to comment on the matter, Heisler said.

But Steve Morgan, who used to oversee rules enforcement for the NCAA, said coaches who speak at high school fundraisers are violating rules.

"The basic rule is that colleges and their staff, which includes coaches, can't assist high schools in fundraising," said Morgan, who now works for a law firm in Kansas City that represents schools that have committed rules infractions. "It's just a general prohibition that's existed for awhile. …

"I think the issue is that if you didn't have regulations in this area, you'd have the possibility that coaches would exploit the opportunity to curry favor with certain high schools, and their hope would be to get a leg up in recruiting in that high school."

NCAA spokesperson Stacey Osburn, when asked about coaches participating in high school fundraising events, said rules regulating such matters are in place "to make sure that there's a level playing field when it comes to recruiting prospective student athletes." She declined further comment, citing the NCAA's policy against discussing specific situations unless it has ruled on a matter.

Whether it's a violation or not remains unclear. But this much isn't: Weis is hardly alone.

Ohio State's Jim Tressel, Cincinnati's Brian Kelly and other college football coaches have waived speaking fees for appearances at such events, mostly at schools in greater Cincinnati, including football powerhouse schools Moeller and Colerain. Tressel is scheduled to speak at a March 5 event involving Cincinnati La Salle High School, whose star wide receiver, DeVier Posey, signed with the Buckeyes this month.

Ohio State said Tressel's participation in the event March 5 is not a violation, but it is reviewing the coach's role at previous high school fundraisers for possible violations because money raised at those events may have benefited prospect student-athletes. That alone illustrates the confusion about what is and isn't permissible.

However, a number of prominent high school coaches expressed surprise to learn college coaches had served as featured speakers at high school events that included fundraising.

"That can't be legal," said J.T. Curtis, football coach of River Ridge (La.) John Curtis where he has won 22 state titles and sent over 200 players to Division I scholarships. "That would be against NCAA rules, right?"

"Wow," said Raul Lara, head football coach of California powerhouse Long Beach Poly. "That's a shock to me. I've never heard of anything like that. To me it seems like a major NCAA violation to do something like that."

A New Jersey high school wanted Mike Krzyzewski to speak, but Duke said no.
Bob Hurley Sr., basketball coach at current national No. 1 Jersey City (N.J.) St. Anthony's, said three years ago his school had a similar idea and invited Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski to speak in an effort to raise proceeds for the cash-strapped school. But Duke ruled against it, according to a university spokesman.

"We were told that the NCAA would not sanction it," Hurley said. "I agree. It would be unfair. Anyone at a really good school would get all the coaches to raise money because it would be in the coach's best interest."

Publicly, no one has leveled allegations the players signed with their respective colleges as part of a quid pro quo – Rudolph, for instance, verbally committed to Notre Dame in March 2007, long before the event was even scheduled – in recruiting any advantage gained is important.

Recruits are often torn over their final decision, meaning even the slightest thing can tip the balance.

"Speaking at your fundraiser would be a significant advantage," Curtis said. "You can't have that. It would display that coach in a very favorable light to your players, an advantage other coaches wouldn't have."

The events also cull long-term goodwill with coaches and administrators at schools that annually turn out star recruits, according to some of the people involved in organizing the events.

Colerian High School in Cincinnati, for example, has four alums playing football for Ohio State. Not only has Tressel spoken there, but so has OSU legend Archie Griffin, currently head of the school's alumni association and formerly an assistant athletic director.

"I don't think it bothers (Tressel) to come down and speak at our stag," Colerain athletic director Dan Bolden said. "… The coaches, they're smart. They come in and speak and they know they need to keep those ties in the community."

Nothing new

Bringing in college coaches for high school fundraisers has been a long-standing tradition in Cincinnati. Called "sports stags" because they were open bar, men-only events, they've been an area tradition for more than three decades. They often featured not just college coaches but sports personalities including Pete Rose, Paul Hornung and Roger Staubach.

Archbishop Moeller began staging stags in the 1970s as it grew into a state football power. Ohio State coach Woody Hayes spoke at the inaugural event.

Gerry Faust won five state titles at Moeller before being hired by as head coach of Notre Dame in 1981 and bringing a link to Irish coaches and these events. Weis is just the latest Notre Dame coach to speak in southwest Ohio, following Tyrone Willingham and Bob Davie.

Faust said the motivation for the coaches is simple: recruiting.

"That's why they come," Faust said. "They can't turn it down."

After speaking at the 2003 Moeller sports stag, where he drew a crowd of 1,200, Willingham, at the time the Fighting Irish's coach, was unapologetic about why he was there.

"When you have a city that has a history and tradition of great football, and if one aspires to have a great football program, you have to find a way to get into that city and get some of those players they produce," he told the Cincinnati Enquirer.

A spokesman for the University of Washington, where Willingham now coaches, said Willingham spoke at Moeller only after getting approval from Notre Dame's compliance department.

For the Elder event that featured Weis, people paid $50 for dinner, drinks and a chance to hear him speak. Those paying $125 got a chance to mingle with the coach in a VIP room.

Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes both used to speak at sports stags.
Russ Brogan, who helped organize the evening, said the Catholic school put up posters around town promoting the event and also publicized it on local radio stations, in church bulletins and in the school's quarterly magazine. In many ways, the event as described by Brogan was typical.

For sports stags, general admission typically costs up to $60 and VIP tickets that entitle attendees to an autographed item such as a football or photographs with the coach cost up to $250, according to several people who have been involved in organizing the events. The sports stags can gross six-figures and generate a profit of $15,000 to $45,000 for the schools, officials involved in planning the events said.

Over the years, featured speakers at the sports stags of various high schools have included not just Hayes, Tressel, Kelly and the Notre Dame coaches but former Ohio State football coach John Cooper, former Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler and basketball coaches Rick Pitino, Bob Huggins, Thad Matta and Mick Cronin.

The tradition isn't just continuing but growing, as more area schools have begun staging stags in the last decade.

"It's going to become more common just because of the state of funding, with what it is," said Jan Wilking, athletic director at Cincinnati Oak Hills High School, a public school that recently held its 12th annual sports stag. "Athletics is always the first thing to get cut, so we're always looking for ways to raise money. And this is the one-night event that certainly can generate significant dollars."

Cincinnati's Kelly is scheduled to speak at Moeller this year and Tressel is set for the appearance at La Salle next month.

An Ohio State official said the school reviewed the La Salle situation after Yahoo! Sports informed the school of the details and that the event had been publicized in the Cincinnati Enquirer. A $250 ticket, for example, will entitle a couple to a football autographed by Tressel and a photograph with the coach, according to a press release for the event.

A day after Yahoo! Sports made inquiries, event organizers made changes to the way the event had been publicized on the school's website.

Originally, the event was billed as "An Evening with Ohio State coach Jim Tressel" and included a large Ohio State crest.

"We're hoping to make a ton of money," said Ken Barlag, the primary contact for the event. "That's why we contacted (Tressel)."

But after Ohio State's compliance officer reached the event organizers, La Salle's website promotion included the following changes: the event was renamed "La Salle High School Volunteer Award Presentation and an Evening with Coach;" the Ohio State crest was removed; and a note stated "all proceeds benefit the new consolidated school on the campus of St. Ann Parish."

"We're OK with the La Salle thing," Ohio State spokesman Dan Wallenberg said. "The fundraiser is for an elementary school, so that's not an issue."

St. Ann School is a K-8 Catholic School which has traditionally sent a number of students to La Salle, the local all-male Catholic High School located just five miles away. St. Ann is currently in the process of consolidating with three other area K-8 schools, forming what promises to be a major feeder school for La Salle.

Ohio State asked for a letter from La Salle confirming the proceeds would go to the K-8 school because it was concerned the event would violate NCAA rules if the money went toward anything that benefited prospective student-athletes, according to Wallenberg. He also said paperwork La Salle submitted when it requested Tressel speak characterized the event as a banquet, not a fundraiser.

But when contacted last week, Barlag said the La Salle already had held its annual fundraiser and this was just an effort to raise more money by attracting Ohio State football fans eager to listen to Tressel.

According to Barlag, Ohio State granted approval Feb. 5, the day before national signing day, when La Salle's star receiver, DeVier Posey, signed with the Buckeyes. Barlag dismissed any suggestions that Tressel's participation amounted to a quid pro quo.

"It just happened to hit the same day the kid signed," he said. "This kid committed to Ohio State months ago. … They (college coaches) do it out of the graciousness of their hearts."

Troublesome issue

Officials at Ohio State, Notre Dame and Cincinnati admit coaches appearing at fundraisers can present a troublesome issue unless the fundraisers adhere to specific NCAA conditions.

Maggie McKinley, UC's director of compliance and student services, said college coaches would be committing a NCAA violation if fundraising were the primary purpose of the events and as a result most high schools have tailored the sports stags to stay within the rules.

"What most of the Cincinnati schools have done to get around this to make sure they can still have a college coach, they have to make sure fundraising is just a secondary purpose of the sports stag," McKinley said. "Maybe combine this with a hall-of-fame induction. A lot of them know the rules because this has been around since the early '90s. They'll arrange the banquet so that it falls within the NCAA rules."

Morgan, the former NCAA enforcement chief, said the fundraising aspect of the event still raises concerns. But he cautioned that he did not know the specifics of each speaking engagement in question.

"I do think typically there would be a problem with a coach being involved with fundraising at a high school, even if there's another reason for the function," Morgan said. " (But) you never know until you get deep into the facts or circumstances."

Some acknowledge the events are what outsiders might interpret them to be: a money-maker for the high school and a recruiting opportunity for the college coach.

"It's definitely a fundraiser, yeah," said Denny Hirsch, part of the Colerain booster group that brought in Ohio State's Tressel and Griffin.

"We have (four) kids playing for Ohio State, and that's the reason they come down here. Hell, we just had 13 kids signing Division I and Division II scholarships, so that's why they (college coaches) come."

Confusion remains as to what the NCAA rule actually means.

Mike Karowski, director of compliance at Notre Dame, provided Yahoo! Sports with a specific NCAA rule interpretation he said addresses the situation.

According to a 1991 NCAA ruling, it is "confirmed that a coach may speak at a banquet for prospective student-athletes in which fund-raising activities also occur only if fund-raising activities are not the primary purpose for conducting the banquet or meeting; confirmed that if the fund-raising activities are the primary purpose of the banquet or meeting, institutional staff members may attend the fundraiser subject to the following conditions:

1. The staff members could play no active role in fund-raising activities;

2. The attendance of the staff members at the event could not be publicized in advance;

3. No contact with prospective student-athletes or parents of prospective student-athletes would be permitted outside the permissible contact period, and

4. Conversations between staff members and the high-school's coaching staff members, parents, prospective student-athletes and other individuals could not include recruiting information or contain a recruiting presentation."

But the compliance directors at Cincinnati and Notre Dame differ on the interpretation of the rules. Notre Dame's Karowski said, "if money's going to a high school athletic department, we have to say no." Elder High officials said the money raised when Weis spoke was used to pay teacher bonuses.

However, the money raised during the functions at Colerain, where Tressel spoke last year, and Oak Hills, where the late Schembechler spoke in the '90s, did go to athletics, officials at the two high schools said.

Cincinnati's McKinley said, "I don't think it matters because it all goes to the high school" and the key issue in determining whether a coach could speak at the event is whether fundraising was the primary purpose.

The lingering question is whether NCAA agrees with any of that and whether rules dictate coaches must turn down the opportunities, or face sanctions.

"If anybody has a problem with this," said Notre Dame's Heisler, "tell them to call us."