Tuesday night's big-ish news -- that Indiana had self-reported a violation for making contact with touted recruit Gary Harris at his high school one day after the end of the permitted contact period -- drew a wide array of reactions. Some, like yours truly, were totally baffled. Others thought it was no big deal. Some commenters thought Tom Crean was obviously attempting to seek a recruiting advantage with Harris; others thought the violation was so minor, yet brazen, that it had to be a simple goof.
Crean's reaction was the one I was waiting for, if only to provide a little more explanation. How, one wonders, does a capable, driven, high-profile collegiate head coach forget the parameters of the contact period?
Alas, Crean's explanation didn't get into details. (Probably should have seen that one coming.) But Twitter is never the best place for in-depth explanation, I suppose. Late Tuesday night, Crean tweeted:
"I have been out recruiting all day. We take the rules very serious and work very hard to stay compliant with them. We made a mistake on [sic]"
"In reality there are no excuses and I am glad we realized it when we did so we didn't repeat it that day."
Needless to say, I remain baffled. On the one hand, I'm not sure how a coach could simply space out on this date, especially a coach whose program is still on probation -- and has spent the past three years in a post-Kelvin Sampson malaise -- precisely because its former coach flouted minor rules.
On the other hand, if Crean was trying to hide something, he didn't do so very well. A recognizable figure (to say the least) in Indiana, he made a public visit to an Indianapolis high school attended by the No. 10-ranked recruit in the country. Then, 15 minutes later, he self-reports a violation to the NCAA. Why knowingly commit a secondary violation and then report it immediately? That doesn't feel nefarious, does it?
But if we take that explanation at face value, it means I'm supposed to believe Crean and his staff, in particular assistant coach Tim Buckley, wrote down the wrong dates on the calendar? Doesn't that seem a little naive?
Confusion like this is why ESPN analyst Dave Telep's blog post on the topic is so helpful. Telep, who knows the ins and outs of high-profile recruiting better than anyone, writes that Indiana's explanation for the mix-up is, believe it or not, actually plausible:
The reality is, as difficult as it may seem to outsiders, it’s plausible that the Indiana staff did make a mistake and inadvertently sent Crean out to see a top target one day after the contact period ended. Someone on Indiana's staff could have watched Harris workout that day, but not speak to him as IU admitted to doing. There’s a clear-cut violation here, but there’s a gray area in terms of the intent. Therefore, barring an investigation that turns up something more, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a big deal.
In situations like this, coaches with successful records of compliance deserve the benefit of the doubt. Surely there are some who take issue with Crean and will use this against him in recruiting. Some won’t buy the excuse but for every guy who questions Crean’s motives or judgments, you’ll find another coach who’s glad it didn’t happen to him. This particular violation is more embarrassing than it is intentional.
As is frequently the case with NCAA recruiting rules, there is gray area, and the gray area is no one's friend. Perhaps that's what happened here. It's still hard to believe, but these things happen. As I wrote Tuesday, it's a secondary violation for a reason: In and of itself, it's not a big deal. Throw in Crean's solid record of compliance (and transparency) during his time at Indiana, and the laudable speed with which Indiana reported the violation and responded to inquiries about the incident, and I think it's fair to make the argument that Crean deserves the benefit of the doubt. It's still a baffling mistake, but maybe it really was just that -- a mistake.
Anyway, Dave ends his post by making the more important argument -- that focusing on this sort of recruiting violation loses the forest for the trees:
The reality of recruiting is this: there are bigger fish to fry and more pertinent topics to ruffle your feathers over. We’re in an era of blatant disregard for basic recruiting rules. Across the country, prospective student-athletes (that’s an NCAA word, not mine) are jumping on planes this weekend to take unofficial visits. Don’t think for one second all of them are paying their own way. While Indiana fills out its NCAA paperwork, another assistant from another school is illegally meeting with a player and his parents. [...] Yes, Crean and Indiana violated a rule. They’re going to receive a punishment that fits the crime. However, the real crime is that the real infractions -- the ones that involve cold hard cash and tilt the playing field to create a competitive disadvantage -- will continue to go unchecked, unreported and most certainly unpunished.
Indiana fans must feel that irony more deeply than most partisans. After all, their beloved program is coming off its third straight sub-.500 season -- a period of unparalleled ineptitude in the program's history -- not because Rob Senderoff got caught doling $1,000 handshakes or trading Camaros for commitments. (Alliteration!) No, Indiana is where it is today because of phone calls. That's it. That's why. You can understand if Indiana fans still can't quite wrap their heads around that one. The NCAA has lots of rules, most of them beneficial. But they are frequently reported and punished disproportionate to their importance.
That irony only highlights the importance of getting the little stuff right. Crean's Harris blunder -- or whatever it was -- falls entirely into that category.