NORMAN, Okla. – Last month the University of Oklahoma athletic department was found guilty of major rules infractions for the seventh time in its history of ignoring the NCAA rule book.
Back in 1956, the football program was cited for "improper transportation; extra benefits; improper recruiting inducements." In 2007 it was "impermissible extra benefits – payment for work not performed and failure to monitor."
Hey, what do you expect from a program whose "Sooners" nickname honors people who prematurely seized (stole) land back in 1889 and whose interlocking OU logo kind of looks like a pair of handcuffs?
Well, what you expect didn't actually happen.
Two starters and a walk-on were, indeed, paid for work they didn't do at a local car dealership. And in a small town such as Norman, the dealership was no secret – particularly considering some in the athletic department got their cars from the place. OU broke the rules, no question, and more could have been done on the front end.
On the back end, though, Oklahoma, led by its coach, Bob Stoops, actually conducted a real investigation, made quick, tough self-punishing decisions and in the process showed how to do things right when things inevitably go wrong.
"You have to step up," Stoops said Saturday morning from a coach's lounge inside no less than the Barry Switzer Center here. "I have a program built here for the long haul and this didn't change that."
While praising a coach and a repeat, repeat offender program for how it dealt with a scandal is a bit absurd – after all 1) how about not having a scandal in the first place? and 2) since they've had plenty of practice isn't it about time they did it right – in reality the way OU dealt with this was, sadly, by NCAA standards, somewhat remarkable.
On March 3, 2006, the school received an anonymous email claiming some football players were being paid for essentially a no show job.
These things happen and at so many schools the email would be ignored, deleted or delayed being sent to the proper authorities.
OU decided to immediately investigate. It conducted interviews, sorted out the facts and eventually zeroed in on a few potential suspects. Stoops, for his part, not only didn't resist the inquiry, he actively aided it even as he was about to lose his starting quarterback and a starting offenive lineman.
To conclude if the players were paid, the school needed their private tax records. Legally, the players didn't have to turn them over. Rather than throw up his hands, fall back on this and let the investigation stall (at least until after the Texas game) Stoops told the players they could either sign a waiver to release the records or never play another down for him.
"Those players didn't have to sign their waivers to get all of their tax information," Stoops said. "But I knew for me, they are not going to play for me unless they (did) because if they are not going to give us all of the information, then something isn't right."
The guys turned over the incriminating info and on August 1, he and department officials interviewed the players. The next day they were dismissed from the team, even as it seemed to crush OU's chances of winning the Big Twelve championship.
"It was the right thing to do regardless of the consequences," Stoops said.
On August 21, less than three weeks after completing the investigation and less than six months after that first tip, the school sent the NCAA an initial report. The NCAA came and did its own investigation and in July, the major infractions punishment came down – some minor scholarship losses, probation through 2010 and the forfeiture of eight victories back in 2005.
While it would be nice if OU weren't appealing the vacated victories (it should just take the fairly empty penalty and move on), the investigation stands in stark contrast with the way many schools dealing with potential NCAA trouble. For years schools have ignored, denied and covered up original charges and then resisted when NCAA investigators tried to do their job.
Many schools prefer to launch an investigation that is as much eternal as internal. The goal is to drag things out, keep stars eligible and eventually come to a determination years later. After wasting vast sums of money with an NCAA-connected law firm, the school will then complain that any possible sanctions aren't fair since the kids currently playing had nothing to do with the long ago crime and will be unfairly punished.
This system has worked for decades. While OU isn't the first place to tackle an investigation aggressively, it may be the most surprising.
"I don't know what other schools would do," Stoops said. "Sometimes you don't have all the information. But we had all the information. Once I had all the information, I knew immediately what I was going to do. You do the right thing for this program.
"People who want to hate us (will) question it. But I know what it was about. Those guys were dismissed immediately. And I think the guys in our locker room knew that as soon as I knew (the facts), that was going to be the decision."
The ironic thing is the dismissals, the owning up to rule breaking may have helped OU handle a season that saw them not only lose those two starters, but two others due to injury (their best lineman and their superstar tailback) plus getting jobbed out of a victory at Oregon due to referee incompetence.
"Through it all we were still able to be the best we could be," Stoops said.
He's right. In the end Oklahoma won the Big 12 anyway.
- Bob Stoops