SALT LAKE CITY — Spirit. Tradition. Honor. Investigation.
Nobody signed up for that last part.
BYU has long been a respected football program. Now it’s under review, by its own hand if not the NCAA’s. Big programs do these things. They rise, fall and stumble. And they almost always somewhere violate the NCAA rules. It's unavoidable. The rulebook is as thick as a dictionary. If it turns out that BYU did so, you have to wonder what took it so long to join the ranks.
Nobody yet knows how serious this will be and whether the Cougars will wind up in detention hall. But just the amount of news that has been generated so far is bad for the program.
BYU loves its reach, with its own television network and an ESPN contract. It also loves coach Bronco Mendenhall’s “Spirit, Tradition, Honor” slogan. It’s not like the Cougars haven’t largely lived up to those things. But this sort of story is even beyond BYUtv’s reach. If ever the university were to close its football program, it probably wouldn’t come as much due to cost cutting, lack of success or even scheduling worries, as bad publicity.
News that an internal review is taking place was first reported by 1280 The Zone’s Scott Garrard, who on his Wednesday show addressed allegations by former players. He aired an interview with former wide receiver Cody Hoffman’s manager, Sam Leaf, who confirmed his client had been contacted by BYU. While Leaf said Hoffman was provided no improper benefits, he wouldn't comment on other players. Hoffman declined to be interviewed by the school.
The story has centered on former director of football operations Duane Busby, and whether he provided illegal benefits such as reduced rent or lodging and meals. Busby resigned in March to “pursue other interests.”
Even if BYU's action ended up buffering the Cougars this time, at some point the NCAA is going to investigate everyone. That’s why BYU, with its missionary emphasis, must tread so lightly. Utah ran afoul of the governing body in the 1980s for providing Jason Buck a 12-mile ride home after a recruiting visit. Former Ute basketball coach Rick Majerus got in trouble for things like providing cookies to players and taking them to a restaurant. Utah State fired a tennis coach for violating recruiting rules. Ron Abegglen, the former Weber State basketball coach, loaned his pickup to a player and ended up getting sanctioned.
The NCAA was on them all like cheese on nachos.
The darkest time in BYU sports history wasn’t a bowl or rivalry loss, or an NCAA tournament flop. It was in 2004, when football players were expelled after a police investigation into an alleged sexual assault. That, combined with up-and-down results, cost coach Gary Crowton his job at season's end. It wasn’t an NCAA investigation, but a criminal one, as well as an honor code issue. Still, the school and its owner, the LDS Church, were embarrassed.
That’s why these things always loom large.
According to Garrard's report, former players say certain teammates got preferential treatment. Yet Busby also had a reputation for fairness and competence, both inside and outside the program. Which brings up something else that occurs at most big college programs: jealousy and rivalries.
As per policy, the NCAA isn’t commenting on whether it is looking at BYU. Programs routinely investigate themselves and make changes accordingly. It’s a way to soften the blow if the NCAA does show up, or already has.
BYU has repeatedly said it intends to compete at the highest level. It’s not backing down. But a CBS.com story this week said the Mountain West is the third conference to consider where BYU fits into the strength-of-schedule format. Others are the Southeastern and the Atlantic Coast conferences. The latter two have already determined the Cougars don’t meet their “Power 5” scheduling parameters.
Those are worries. But an investigation? That’s a headache, past, present and future.
Every college, whether it admits so or not, understands violations happen from time to time and scrutiny will ensue. The question for BYU is whether it, and its ownership, can live with it too.
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