The National Collegiate Athletic Association imposed new sanctions on the University of Minnesota for rule violations that occurred under former women's basketball coach Cheryl Littlejohn. But the penalties were relatively mild by NCAA standards and were not nearly as harsh as they could have been under a worst-case scenario.
If the NCAA Committee on Infractions had opted to levy its most severe sanctions, it could have imposed the so-called "death penalty" by disbanding the women's basketball program. After all, it was only two years ago when the U of M men's basketball program was found to have committed one of the biggest academic fraud scandals in college sports history. If the NCAA classified Minnesota as a repeat violator, the Gophers could have lost the women's team. But Infractions Committee Chair Tom Yeager says the rule violations in the women's program were treated as a separate matter.
"There's no tie with the penalties to the men's program. This was a separate standalone case," he said.
Instead of axing the program, the NCAA extended the university's probationary period by two years, stripped the Gophers of a women's basketball scholarship for two years, imposed other limitations on recruiting, and ordered the team to wait an extra week before starting practice this fall. Yeager says those punishments will help make up for eleven rule violations committed in 1998 and '99.
Investigations found Littlejohn exceeded the limits on team practices, broke recruiting rules, and gave one player at least two hundred dollars in cash. The Infractions Committee imposed additional penalties on Littlejohn, who is now coaching at Chicago State University.
U of M General Counsel Mark Rotenberg attributed the violations squarely to Littlejohn. "This case is fundamentally about misconduct of a head coach, revealed when her courageous players came forward and chose to disclose the misconduct to former athletic director Chris Voelz," he said.
After a university investigation concluded Littlejohn had indeed broken several rules, the university fired her and self-imposed other penalties against women's basketball. A plan to restructure the lines of authority in athletics had already been designed in the wake of the men's basketball scandal.
University President Mark Yudof ordered the reorganization, which has new compliance officers reporting directly to the general counsel, rather than to the athletic director.
Yudof called the new sanctions against women's basketball "the last chapter of an old story." He says the university has revolutionized its athletic administration and the NCAA penalties are for transgressions that occurred under the ancient regime.
"We're in the new regime now, with a new compliance director and a new way of doing business and I think from that point on, we've done fine. And I think that is a quite strong reason why the penalties were significant but were not severe in the greatest sense," Yudof said.
The women's basketball team is about to start a new regime. Pam Borton was introduced this spring as Minnesota's third coach in three years. Brenda Oldfield won national coach-of-the-year honors for taking a team that performed dismally under Littlejohn and leading it to 22 wins and the second round of the NCAA tournament. Oldfield promptly jilted the Gophers and took the coaching job at the University of Maryland.
Junior guard Lindsey Whalen, the Big Ten Player of the Year, says the players were happy to hear that NCAA sanctions will not prohibit the Gophers from returning to the championship tournament next spring.
"Now that the sanctions are out of the way and we can still go to post-season, that's pretty big. So I know that will be a big weight lifted off of everybody's minds," she said.
The stipulation that the Gophers postpone the start of practice for one week this fall means coach Borton will have to wait that much longer to see her new team in action. But Borton says it's a relief to have the uncertainty of the sanctions resolved.
"I have to give a lot of credit to the players. They've come this far with adversity and what's one more week? Then we can move forward and to be honest with you, this is just going to make us a stronger team and a stronger program," she said.
The Minnesota women's team will now begin basketball practice on Oct. 19. Other Division I programs around the country will start practicing on the 12th.More from MPR