With Louisville and UNC, the NCAA's power is called into question

The NCAA has ongoing battles with North Carolina and Louisville, and both of those feuds could impact the coming season. Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

In the coming months, the NCAA will attempt to reiterate -- and perhaps redefine -- its role as the punitive arm of collegiate athletics.

High-profile cases involving North Carolina (academic fraud) and Louisville (sex-for-pay scandal), both of which have disputed the NCAA's findings, could act as deterrents for future rule-breakers or demonstrate the NCAA's limited power and reduced position in the era of the Power Five sports complex if their original penalties are adjusted through the appeals processes.

North Carolina will go before the Committee on Infractions later this year to learn the consequences of its scandal, but the school has made it clear that it will fight the NCAA until the end.

"We're kind of at a crossroads and trying to see what authority and jurisdiction the NCAA really has," said one former member of the NCAA's Committee on Infractions (COI) who requested anonymity due to relationships with current members handling the cases at Louisville and North Carolina.

Roy Williams' two national title banners could be lost in the NCAA's ongoing academic fraud investigation surrounding sham classes at UNC. Pitino is facing a five-game suspension and a vacated 2013 national championship after a sex-for-pay scandal.

They are unprecedented possibilities -- no team has ever vacated a national title -- for unprecedented events.

But North Carolina and Louisville have offered fervent rebuttals to claims made by the COI, the NCAA's judge and jury.

North Carolina has told the NCAA that it has no power to punish its athletics department because it's the governing body of collegiate athletics, not academics.

The Tar Heels claim student-athletes who participated in a series of allegedly bogus classes in the African and African-American studies department should not face penalties because there is "nothing inherently wrong with a student enrolling in a reputedly 'easy' course" to remain academically eligible. "The public narrative for the last six years, popularized by media accounts, is that the Department of Athletics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (the 'University') took advantage of 'fake classes' in the Department of African and African-American Studies (the 'Department') to keep student-athletes eligible," UNC's May response to the committee's third notice of allegations says. "That narrative is wrong and contradicted by the facts in the record."

And Louisville, despite many wondering aloud if the program deserved a stronger penalty, has called the COI's response to allegations that former staffer Andre McGee hired women to woo recruits with sexual acts heavy-handed and egregious.

"Without dispute, NCAA rules do not allow institutional staff members to arrange for stripteases and sex acts for prospects, enrolled student-athletes and/or those who accompany them to campus," the committee said in its decision last month.

The committee also announced a five-game suspension of Pitino for failure to monitor his program, the removal of scholarships, a fine and a series of vacated wins that would wipe Louisville's 2013 national championship from the record books.

After the announcement, Pitino said he'd "lost faith" in the power brokers in Indianapolis. "We believe we will win the appeal because it is right, it is just," he said. "What went on [the NCAA's ruling] was unjust, inconceivable."

The two cases could shape the future of the NCAA.

If North Carolina succeeds in its fight, the NCAA will effectively have to admit its limited jurisdiction in complicated cases, especially those involving academic disputes.

If Louisville succeeds in its appeal, the NCAA will demonstrate the obstacles -- the NCAA lacks subpoena power, so McGee never spoke to enforcement officers -- and potential problems it will endure with future investigations into similarly lascivious affairs.

Still, both cases also reinforce the NCAA's greatest power: making others think twice by damaging the legacies of head coaches who were often spared in the past when their assistants caught heat for violations.

In the past three years, Williams, Pitino, Larry Brown and Jim Boeheim have all dealt with allegations that, at a minimum, have altered their Wikipedia pages.

"There was some sense the head coaches weren't taking the responsibility to educate and keep people in compliance," a former member of the COI told ESPN. "As far as I'm concerned, it was the one major change in the enforcement regime that has the potential to really make a difference. You're really going to get people's attention when you start imposing suspensions on people like Jim Boeheim and Larry Brown and Rick Pitino. It's a new regime."

Boeheim said the NCAA's implementation of a revised head coach control provision in 2012 shows that the presidents who backed the change want coaches held responsible for problems within their programs. He's not convinced, however, that punishing coaches will lead to the desired effect.

"No question that they wanted to get coaches," he said. "You really don't stop any bad conduct because you punish a coach."

Those symbolic blows do little to threaten the pocketbooks and accomplishments they've accrued over their lengthy, successful terms. But they're blemishes and a common mention now in conversations about their tenures, which has forced former Teflon leaders to defend themselves at the end of their careers.

By the time the NCAA finished its investigation into a lengthy academic scandal at Syracuse two years ago, Boeheim had lost a symbolic chunk of what he'd built and an important tool for his program.

In 2015, the NCAA forced Syracuse to vacate 108 wins and surrender 12 scholarships (later changed to eight scholarships after a successful appeal), while benching Boeheim for a nine-game stretch after allegations that former staffers did schoolwork for multiple players, including former star Fab Melo, who died earlier this year in Brazil.

At the time, Boeheim fumed against the NCAA, which punished him under its head coach control provision. "A head coach is presumed to be responsible for the actions of all staff members who report, directly or indirectly, to the head coach," NCAA bylaw states. "The head coach will be held accountable for violations in the program unless he or she can rebut the presumption of responsibility."

He called the NCAA's punitive measures "excessive" then.

Today, he still disputes the decision and its impact.

"I've been through it more than anybody," Boeheim said about his history with the NCAA. "It's a very difficult process. A coach is responsible for his program, but how far do you take that? If you should know, what should you know?"

But Boeheim never questions his legacy. The vacated wins won't change his achievements, he said.

"I don't worry about that," Boeheim said. "I've always said, 'Who decides my legacy?' Is it a writer? Our fans are fine. They're supportive. If you're going to worry about what a writer says, that's fine. Does it really matter? No."

The infractions process is designed to be collaborative. Enforcement officers and universities tend to work together and aim for reasonable outcomes whenever allegations are uncovered.

"The process is designed to be very cooperative, and everybody is supposed to be for the same goal, and that's to find out what the truth is," a former COI member told ESPN. "Often, when you get to the infractions committee, there isn't any disagreement about what happened."

And that's what makes the cases against Louisville and North Carolina remarkable.

Louisville admits McGee arranged lascivious parties for recruits over a nearly four-year stretch.

And North Carolina admits former athletes enrolled in questionable courses, which prompted the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges to threaten the school's accreditation and place the university on probation for a year.

Yet both schools refuse to accept the NCAA's rulings. That's not abnormal.

But their arguments center on the NCAA's power to punish them, a pair of brash responses to the verdicts. In its 102-page response to the committee's third notice of allegations, North Carolina said the NCAA should stick to sports. "Because the issue of the Courses is an academic issue, the University denies that there were NCAA violations," the letter stated.

At his press conference last month, Pitino said the committee, which issued a five-game suspension and jeopardized his second national championship, had made "a very large mistake," even as the program's critics questioned how he'd earned a lesser penalty for a sex scandal than Boeheim and Brown had been given for academics issues.

Yet the fight will continue, perhaps reaching a conclusion later this year.

Its outcome will not only affect Louisville and North Carolina, but the future of the NCAA in this evolving sports landscape for programs and coaches.

"If I'm a head coach, and I've won 700 games, and I've done so well, I don't want to go down and have my legacy tarnished because I'm involved in an NCAA scandal and it turns out that now people think of me as a cheat," said Rodney Uphoff, a Missouri law professor and former member of the COI. "And the NCAA hopes coaches will play by the rules."