A simple letter finally takes its toll on UofA basketball

As club basketball programs and booster groups continue to proliferate, growing bigger, stronger, and more pervasive on the college landscape, they also create a briar patch of potential pitfalls for college programs.

Just ask Lute Olson how easy it is to make a misstep into the minefield.

Olson is a Hall of Fame coach who put in 35 years coaching – 25 at the University of Arizona – before retiring in 2008.  But his signature on a letter to a supporter group asking for its support of a basketball event to be held on the UofA campus, opened the floodgates and forced the school to place itself on probation with the NCAA.  The letter was quickly rescinded, but the damage had been done.

Evidently, Olson also provided an opportunity for the organizer of the event to speak at a board meeting of the supporter organization, the Rebounders (since disbanded).

The probation will run from the 2010-2011 season to the end of the following season and will limit recruiting.

The Cats’ new coach, Sean Miller, took the usual best-face-forward approach to the issue:  “Everybody at Arizona has been very upfront and honest, and that goes back to early April prior to me becoming the coach at Arizona, and the news is not a surprise.  I have great confidence in our athletic department.”

OK, it’s no surprise.  This whole process began back in April of 2008, when the school reported to the Pac-10 that it was investigating the possibility of rules violations in the men’s program.  Since then, UofA and NCAA staff have conducted nearly 50 interviews with coaches, administrators, athletes, and others outside the university.

But it’s still gonna hurt.

Based on what his school has proposed to the NCAA, Miller has to give up one scholarship for the 2011-2012 season, reduce the number of coaches he can send out to recruit the next two seasons, reduce the number of official campus visits allowed by prospects, and reduce the number of his coaches that will be allowed to recruit off campus at one time this summer.

To be clear, the letter sent by Olson was only one part of the allegations.  The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations also pointed to several other suspected violations:

Two former assistant coaches attended the event, the 2008 Cactus Classic, before they began work at UofA and should not have since it occurred during a quiet period for recruiting… a former assistant coach failed to meet with NCAA investigators after he left his job as the school… Olson misled the school compliance officer regarding the letter to the Rebounders and he also “failed to adequately monitor some activities and promote an atmosphere of compliance”… and the university may have failed to adequately monitor the basketball program.

So the upshoot is that Miller will continue to recruit and operate under this shadow for awhile yet; the resolution of the charges is not expected until sometime in the middle of the year.

Those who know Lute Olson well don’t feel he knowingly committed a violation.  It was just a way to expose a great campus to more coaches and players.  The coach himself has expressed how badly he feels because he wasn’t more vigilant.

But it will certainly serve as a lesson to the new coaching staff, and perhaps to other college coaches who may be a little too lax in their efforts to monitor their programs.  (Yes, Virginia, there are still some out there who try to play by the rules.)