Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez needs wins right about now, and he got one Thursday.
The NCAA's Committee on Infractions penalized Michigan for major violations, a first in the program's proud history, but it didn't find Rodriguez guilty of failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance. The charge against Rodriguez was the only one out of five that Michigan contested in its report to the NCAA this spring and at its appearance before the Committee on Infractions in August.
The committee instead reduced the charge against Rodriguez from "failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance" to "failure to monitor."
"The committee, in considering all the facts that came before it, determined Bylaw 2 [failure to monitor] was more appropriate than Bylaw 11 [failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance]," Committee on Infractions chairman Paul Dee said.
Neither Dee nor Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon spelled out the difference between the two charges, instead inviting reporters to read the NCAA bylaws (ugh). But there's a BIG difference: essentially it's a felony vs. a misdemeanor.
"We are certainly guilty of failure to monitor," Brandon said.
He later added, regarding the reduced charge, "There must be some meaning associated with that because the Committee on Infraction listened to our argument and changed their position."
The NCAA accepted most of Michigan's self-imposed penalties, although it added a year of probation to the school's recommendation, meaning Michigan will be on probation for three years (Nov. 4, 2010, to Nov. 3, 2013). Rodriguez also is required to attend the NCAA Regional Rules Seminar in 2011.
Michigan avoided penalties as a repeat violator for the Ed Martin scandal because, as the NCAA report reads, "It has been an unusually long time since the violations in the previous case occurred. The violations were not uncovered and processed until 2003, even though they occurred from 1992 to 1999."
The football team already has cut 32 training hours -- insert joke about the defense here -- and Rodriguez expects to reduce the entire 130 training hours outlined in the program's self-imposed sanctions by the end of next summer. Michigan won't appeal the NCAA ruling because, as Brandon said, "There's nothing to appeal."
As I've written from the beginning of this, while Michigan technically committed major violations, exceeding time limits for football-related activities and the number of allowable coaches for football isn't in the same category as agents paying players or academic fraud. Similar issues could be found in dozens of other programs, especially with the proliferation of quality control coaches and other support staff.
"There was nothing found that even remotely suggested our players' welfare, safety or well-being was at all at risk," Brandon said.
What does this mean for Rodriguez?
His fate will be decided on the field, quite possibly in the next four games. Rodriguez's contract states that Michigan can fire him with cause and avoid paying a buyout if he commits a major NCAA rules violation. While Michigan technically could go that route because of Thursday's announcement, things certainly would have been worse for Rodriguez had he been found guilty of failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.
Brandon reiterated that Rodriguez won't be fired because of the NCAA's ruling and said he will continue to evaluate all factors of the program at the end of the season.
"Wins and losses matter," Brandon said. "So does the management of your staff, so does the pipeline of your recruits ... There's a lot of statistical measures in athletics."
Rodriguez expressed relief Thursday and noted that the NCAA investigation had been used by other programs to recruit negatively against Michigan. The coach accepted responsibility for the infractions, saying, "The bigger, most important thing is accepting responsibility and fixing it. The miscommunication, the processes that were flawed, are no longer there."
What remains flawed is Michigan's defense and Rodriguez's record in Big Ten games (4-16).
The coach scored a victory of sorts Thursday, but he needs more on the field, beginning Saturday against Illinois. One win ensures bowl eligibility and two wins probably means Rodriguez is safe to return in 2011, but Michigan's remaining schedule isn't easy: surging Illinois, No. 9 Wisconsin, No. 11 Ohio State and a trip to Purdue.
Rodriguez was excused from Thursday's news conference a little early so he could trade his suit for sweats and get back to the practice field.
“We still have a season to play, we still have several important games to play," Brandon said. "Let's just go play the games."
Rodriguez had better start winning them.