Head coaches can't escape accountability

We are gradually, incrementally chipping away at the Cult of the Head Coach in college sports.

The progress might seem slow at times, like poking an ivory tower with a pocket knife. But it’s better than idly watching it being built thicker and higher and making no effort at all.

On Tuesday, the NCAA Committee on Infractions knocked a chunk out of the Cult of the Head Coach by suspending Connecticut’s Jim Calhoun for three Big East games next basketball season. As penalties go, it’s not a haymaker -- especially when you consider what all transpired at UConn in its recruitment and enrollment of former player Nate Miles. (Yet another in a long line of players nowhere near worth the cheating schools did to get him.)

But the three-game penalty is far more than a slap on the wrist.

Putting Calhoun’s Hall of Fame behind on the couch for one-sixth of conference play is tangible proof that the age-old way of doing business in college sports -- protect the head coach at all costs -- is no longer acceptable. Pleading ignorance while your assistants are running roughshod over the rulebook won’t fly anymore. Letting everyone around the head coach take the fall, while the boss stands tall, is becoming an outdated dodge.

Dennis Thomas, chairman of the Committee on Infractions, tried his best not to say much on a teleconference announcing UConn’s penalties Tuesday. But one point that came through rather clearly was that a head coach is responsible for keeping his program clean, and ignorance is no defense.

“This is something that a head coach should know about and ensure that everyone is in compliance,” Thomas said of the improper benefits, contacts and agent dealings UConn had in its recruitment of Miles. “And that didn’t happen. … This situation specifically dealt with issues the head coach should have known about.”

Those are welcome words in college sports, where for decades it was the job of assistant coaches to do the dirty work and face all the consequences if they ever got caught. Head coaches collected the big money and worked hard at maintaining plausible deniability as to the inner workings of recruiting -- always feigning ignorance and shock when informed that rules were being broken within their program.

It was a ridiculous dodge that somehow worked over and over again.

When Kentucky went down in flames in the late 1980s, head coach Eddie Sutton shifted to Oklahoma State while assistant Dwane Casey was stuck with a five-year show-cause penalty that exiled him to coaching in Japan. When Louisville was hit with two probations in the 1990s, Denny Crum remained insulated while assistants Larry Gay and Scooter McCray were bounced out of the business.

There are plenty of other examples, including this UConn investigation. Two staffers were canned as collateral damage months ago, while Calhoun coached on unimpeded. But there was a penalty waiting for him here in February, at the end of the process.

That’s part of a shift in accountability that began in October 2009, according to those well-versed in NCAA policy and procedure. That’s when the NCAA Board of Directors, acting on recommendations from the Enforcement Department’s Basketball Focus Group, asked its Infractions Committee to get serious about penalties.

And that prominently includes penalties assessed to head coaches.

Letters of reprimand and other empty verbiage are out. Tangible sanctions are in.

The Southeastern Conference didn’t wait for the NCAA to put the clamps on Tennessee’s Bruce Pearl for lying to investigators. The conference office hit him with an eight-game SEC suspension this season. And now the NCAA has followed that lead and slapped Calhoun.

That’s despite the best efforts of UConn to protect him from NCAA Enforcement’s charge of failure “to promote an atmosphere of compliance.” The school fought the charge. The school lost.

(And, interestingly enough, the COI’s report noted that UConn athletic director Jeff Hathaway described Calhoun’s interest in Miles as the “most intense” he’d ever been in the recruitment of a player. Whether Hathaway meant to or not, he helped sink the school’s argument against penalizing its head coach.)

Coaches tend to be the stars of the show in college sports -- especially basketball, where the players come and go too frequently for fans to latch onto. Head coaches become the faces of the programs, and with that comes an exaggerated -- almost mythical -- standing.

It’s not enough to hire a coach because he wins. An athletic director must make a great production in an introductory news conference about the integrity and character and superior moral fiber of the man in charge of drawing up a pick-and-roll.

Some guys deserve having those nice things said about them. Some are just regular guys, like the rest of us, better suited to wear a sweat suit than a halo.

But combine that puffery with the salary and celebrity attached to many program leaders, and the Cult of the Head Coach gains clout. Their importance morphs into something almost presidential.

And if you’ve ever seen a presidential security detail, you know that every effort is made to protect the boss. Even if it means sacrificing an underling in the face of danger.

The protocol in college sports is comparable. Or at least it has been.

Slowly, it’s changing. The penalties assessed to Bruce Pearl and Jim Calhoun are incremental proof that the Cult of the Head Coach isn’t the ivory tower it used to be.

Some guys deserve having those nice things said about them. Some are just regular guys, like the rest of us, better suited to wear a sweat suit than a halo.