NCAA drops the hammer on ASU baseball program

The sword that’s been hanging over Coach Tim Esmay’s head has finally dropped.  It has cut 44 wins and a Pac-10 championship from Arizona State’s 2007 baseball season.

It was the NCAA doing the cutting, a result of its investigation into the school’s baseball program under Esmay’s predecessor, Pat Murphy.

The penalties were imposed yesterday and include perhaps the most severe cut, a ban on post-season play in 2011.

Many of the penalties were self-imposed by ASU, including a reduction of two scholarships between now and 2012 and some recruiting restrictions.  But the NCAA added the post-season ban and three years’ probation.

The NCAA Committee on Infractions has ruled that Murphy, who is now managing a team in the San Diego Padres’ Class A system, had failed to promote an atmosphere for compliance and the school failed in its oversight of the program.

Murphy was dismissed from the program at the end of 2009 after 15 seasons as its head coach when the school received its notice from the NCAA of the allegations and subsequent investigation.  He won four Pac-10 titles and took the Sun Devils to the College World Series four times.

Esmay, who took over the program as interim head coach when Murphy departed, compiled a 52-10 record last season and took the team to the College World Series.  For his efforts, he was named the Pac-10 Coach of the Year and was handed the reins of the program as the permanent head coach.

The NCAA decision, which comes after almost three years of investigation, is particularly damaging to the university because it makes ASU the new Division I leader in total number of infraction cases, with nine.

And the severity of the penalties is a result of the fact that the previous major infraction case occurred in 2005 when the football program was hit.  Since that was within the five-year grace period, this incident makes the school a major violator under NCAA guidelines.

But at least the long-anticipated action removes a cloud that has hung over Esmay during his recruiting efforts.  Now, at least, everything is on the table and the program knows what it faces down the road.

However, both the school and Murphy have the option of appeal.  The ASU administrators have indicated they feel the post-season ban is excessive and are not in total agreement with all of the findings.  The school is expected to decide within 4-6 weeks whether they will submit an appeal.

Murphy has insisted throughout the process that he is innocent of the most serious charges involving a failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance.  But the ruling handed down now includes a one-year “show cause” penalty against the 51-year-old veteran coach that would require any school interested in hiring him during that time to appear before the infractions committee.

No word yet on whether he plans to appeal.

Esmay did get a vote of confidence from his bosses.  Virgil Renzulli, ASU Vice President of Public Affairs, was quoted in a newspaper article as saying, “We’re very happy with the current direction of the baseball program.”

The team set a school record last season by winning its first 24 games in a row to start the season.

Who wouldn’t be happy?