MORAGA, Calif. -- One of the most powerful mid-major programs in college basketball has been found guilty of breaking some big-time rules.
The NCAA put Saint Mary's on four years of probation Friday for a "failure to monitor its men's basketball program," reducing scholarships and placing other penalties on the team after the governing body said the tiny Catholic college committed several recruiting violations.
A report by the NCAA Committee on Infractions found that Gaels coach Randy Bennett "failed to promote an atmosphere for compliance," particularly over the recruiting practices of a former assistant. Bennett will not be allowed to recruit off campus and will be suspended for the first five West Coast Conference games next season.
Saint Mary's will still be allowed to participate in the league tournament and the NCAA tournament but can't play in preseason or in-season tournaments that it is not already contractually obligated to attend. The team also will have a reduction in scholarships from 13 to 11 for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons and an elimination of all foreign tours until the start of the 2017-18 season.
Bennett said he takes "full responsibility" for the mistakes but thought the penalties were too harsh.
"I regret in any of those areas coming up short in any way," Bennett said at an afternoon news conference on the chapel lawn. "We've had some great moments here at Saint Mary's, a lot of great moments ... this isn't one of them, and I'm not proud of it. We're not perfect. I'm not perfect. I've made some mistakes along the way here. If I could do it over, I'd do it differently."
In addition, the NCAA charged an unnamed former assistant with unethical conduct, saying he "knowingly committed violations during the recruitment of three prospects." The report said that the assistant arranged for travel to the United States and lodging with a local family for at least one recruit and that Bennett was aware of the activity.
"These should have been red flags," Britton Banowsky, chair of the Committee on Infractions and commissioner of Conference USA, said during a conference call explaining the findings.
Saint Mary's president, Brother Ronald Gallagher, said the university accepts the findings in the report but will consider an appeal on the penalties. The school has two weeks to file an appeal, he said.
"Saint Mary's was founded on principles of integrity, service and Catholic values and we expect all in our community to act according to those values," Gallagher said.
Saint Mary's athletic director Mark Orr and Bennett both declined to name the assistant but said the coach started working at the university in 2008 and resigned in August 2009. The report also said the coach previously worked for a professional sports agency.
Keith Moss, who has worked for sports agencies, coached at Saint Mary's for the 2008-09 season and resigned in August 2009. Bennett still shouldered the blame for not doing more when he had the chance.
"This is on nobody else," Bennett said. "This is on me."
If the assistant seeks employment at an NCAA member school in the next two years, he and the school must appear before the committee to determine if the school should be subject to the show-cause procedures. The NCAA also said Saint Mary's received "impermissible training and coaching sessions from trainers not employed by the school."
While Saint Mary's rise has been predicated largely on its Australian pipeline, Orr said the major violations handed down by the NCAA involved the recruitment of French players by the former assistant. None of those players ever attended the university, Orr said, though some secondary violations included Australian players who did.
The potential violations were brought to the attention of the NCAA in March 2011, when the assistant "helped place" a player in a high school, where he was deemed ineligible because of the assistance, according to the report. The university said it has fully cooperated with the NCAA since that time and already has made improvements in its athletic department, including hiring another compliance officer and beefing up background checks on prospective coaches.
"It does not taint what I think of Randy Bennett as a person or as coach or his commitment to remain at the program and what he has done for Saint Mary's," Orr said.
Bennett has built the program into a power for more than a decade.
The 50-year-old coach has led the Gaels (25-5) to four of the last eight NCAA tournaments, including a run to the round of 16 in 2010. They have developed a reputation as a mid-major worth watching, joining Gonzaga as the only schools to win at least 25 games each of the past six seasons. Duke, Kansas and BYU are the only other programs with a chance to keep pace in that club this season.
Saint Mary's has become a legitimate rival to second-ranked Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference, beating the Bulldogs for the outright regular season and league tournament titles last year. It was the first time the Gaels, who already have clinched the No. 2 seed in this year's league tournament, held both titles in the same season. It also ended Gonzaga's four-year run with at least one conference championship.
Bennett, who did not join Gallagher or Orr at the morning news conference, said he first read the report Friday night at home and it "felt like you got attacked." He said he agreed with most of the findings, though declined to talk specifics, saying only that the penalties were "more harsh than I expected."
"It will have an effect on our program, but I feel confident we'll work through it," Bennett said, with Orr standing by his side. "It will be a challenge. Players like a challenge. We have people in our program who like a challenge. It's not going to be easy, but it's a hole that we put ourselves in, and we're going to have to get ourselves out of."
When Bennett began at the small Catholic college in San Francisco's East Bay in 2001, he inherited a 2-27 team with no winning tradition, a small following and a gym more suited for a high school team than a Division I powerhouse.
Now the gym is packed and offers one of the best atmospheres in California college hoops. The Australian connection that is so ingrained here -- there is a flag in the gym, there were 36 televised games in Australia the previous two seasons and there are frequent "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oi, oi oi!" chants -- started almost by accident.
Bennett got a tip to offer a scholarship to Adam Caporn shortly before his first season. Caporn, now an assistant on staff, was joined the next year by countryman Daniel Kickert.
There have been 11 Aussies in all who have suited up for the Gaels, including current San Antonio Spurs guard Patty Mills, whose arrival in 2007 helped start this current run of success, and reigning WCC player of the year Matthew Dellavedova.
Saint Mary's hosts Santa Clara on Saturday night.