NCAA ruling indicates a turning Tide

With the announcement Thursday that the NCAA has wrist-slapped Alabama for its textbook problem, the university's rehabilitation might be complete.

Not so long ago, the school didn't have a textbook problem. It was a textbook problem.

Here stood a two-time loser in NCAA court, a school that lost a total of 38 scholarships in two cases only seven years apart, a school that as recently as 2002 made the NCAA lawyers dust off the death penalty to see whether it fit Alabama's crimes.

Yet on Thursday, the NCAA Committee on Infractions imposed no scholarship reductions on the Crimson Tide football team or any of the university's other 15 teams that had 201 players obtain free textbooks for their buddies.

The committee ordered Alabama to vacate 21 victories in football and one in tennis. The university also must pay a fine to the NCAA of $43,900, the cost of the free textbooks distributed. That's not quite 48 cents per seat at one of the Tide's seven games at Bryant-Denny Stadium this fall.

Something has changed at the Capstone. In recent weeks, coach Nick Saban worried aloud that the university had not defended itself aggressively enough to the NCAA Committee on Infractions. That is quite a change from a university that for years didn't appear to take the NCAA Manual seriously.

Take yourself back to 1993, the year after Alabama won its sixth AP national championship. Alabama had never been on NCAA probation. When coach Gene Stallings discovered that corner Antonio Langham's eligibility might be in jeopardy, the university's investigation consisted pretty much of a broom and a rug under which to sweep it.

Once the NCAA determined that Langham had signed with an agent, and that athletic department officials dithered in their investigation, the hammer came down. When the Committee on Infractions ruled in 1995, it took away 26 scholarships and put Alabama on three years' probation (later reduced to 17 and two, respectively).

The committee used the term "distressing failure" in its report to describe the action of athletic director Hootie Ingram, Stallings and others in their investigation of Langham.

Lesson learned? Seven years later, the NCAA came after the football program in the case of Albert Means, a Memphis defensive tackle recruit. Again, the university failed to understand what it had at stake.

In the days before the NCAA announced its verdict, faculty athletic representative Gene Marsh, a member of the Committee on Infractions who had recused himself from the case, told athletic department officials that Alabama had no reason to worry. The football team might lose a scholarship or two, but there wouldn't be any bowl sanctions.

The NCAA stripped Alabama of 21 scholarships, added a two-year bowl sanction, put the football program on five years' probation and described the university as "looking down a gun barrel" at the death penalty.

Coach Dennis Franchione, who had been at Alabama for little more than a year, said he felt blindsided. The tangible loss of scholarships took its toll on the football team. Franchione stayed one more season. Then came the five-month stint of Mike Price and the four-year slog of Mike Shula.

Football mediocrity, together with the intangible stain of being a two-time NCAA loser, took its toll on Alabama officials. They got it.

In the brief statement that he read to the media Thursday afternoon, athletic director Mal Moore said that Alabama "conducted an exhaustive review."

He added, "We have clearly demonstrated our intent to do things the right way."

On Thursday, Committee on Infractions chairman Paul Dee, the former Miami athletic director, said, "I think the University of Alabama did a terrific job."

The penalties apply backward, not forward. Alabama must vacate 21 football victories. But that's about it. Where these textbooks are concerned, the NCAA made a molehill out of a molehill. Alabama accepted responsibility, performed its due diligence and fixed the flaw.

In other words, in its dealings with the NCAA, the university finally found a textbook solution.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com. His book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, and Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.