HARRISONBURG — One of the first people a new coach at James Madison meets upon being hired is Stephen LaPorta.
The 2009 JMU graduate is the school’s director of compliance for rules education, responsible for making sure the newest addition to the Dukes’ athletics department follows the NCAA manual. One of the first pieces of information LaPorta gives out to the new coach is his phone number with a simple directive — if there is any doubt, call me.
“The expectation is here’s [my number], if you ever have a question about something you need to call me,” LaPorta said. “It’s on 24 hours a day, seven days a week; it’s the only reason I have this phone. I’m not going to be the reason why you commit a violation or you miss out on a recruit because you’re not sure if you can do something and you choose not to.”
The college athletics community was shaken last week after the FBI revealed it had arrested 10 people in connection with a two-year investigation into bribery in college basketball recruiting. The scandal is centered around paying high school recruits and their families to attend and play at certain schools.
JMU was not one of the schools caught up in the scandal, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t had an impact within the school’s compliance department.
LaPorta said him and his staff won’t spend much time discussing the specifics of the case, but rather try to apply it to situations that could occur at JMU.
“What are other ways where we can make this truly applicable to our coaches in a scenario they might see, that’s what we want to do,” LaPorta said. “I think instead of Nike, you can substitute JMU fan X. Here in Harrisonburg, could you have a car dealership and they want to help a student out? That is a completely feasible thing, so having those conversations with coaches about ‘Hey, you need to know who’s around your program.’”
LaPorta said JMU is an “education first” school, meaning it puts a great deal of effort into being proactive about enforcing the rules. In addition to the yearly test everyone in the athletics department must pass, LaPorta and his staff conduct monthly meetings with individual staffs to go over rules that specifically apply to them and their sport.
He said although the compliance department is responsible for knowing the 300-page manual the NCAA publishes each year, he doesn’t want to burden the coaches with information that is useless to their specific programs.
“In the past few years, we’ve done a shift from all coaches to individual staffs so we can tailor the education to those individual staffs,” LaPorta said. “Myself and my staff, we’ve sat down one-on-one with coaches to cover pertinent things to their sport that are going on. .... We’re always looking at what’s coming up in the coach’s schedule and we always try to tailor the education to what do they need to know now.”
JMU athletic director Jeff Bourne said almost every athletic director in the country will say they believe their school doesn’t have any problems, but none of them can know for sure there isn’t an issue. He said the thing he can do as the head at JMU is establish an environment of compliance.
“We all have a hand in it, but ultimately, head coaches are held accountable for their actions and their immediate staffs,” Bourne said. “As an athletic director, I would say what actions and what things are we doing as an athletic program to basically to do everything that we can to make sure incidents like this don’t happen and our staff is educated.
“You cannot mandate integrity, your employees either have it or they don’t.”
Bourne said the school does a “fairly diligent” search on any prospective coaches, combing through the NCAA records for any history of violations within a program the coach was part of in the past. The athletic director said he has backed away from candidates “more than several” times based on those discoveries, opting not to take a chance on a coach with a shady past.
However, LaPorta said there is a general misconception on what it means to commit an NCAA violation. Most of the violations that are reported to JMU’s compliance department are simple mistakes that are dealt with quickly and swiftly without much fanfare.
Bourne said he is proud of the environment that has been implemented at JMU, which has kept the school above the fracas of the scandals that seem to plague the sport on an annual basis.
“Our culture and what we do day-to-day won’t change because we already have a firm education program,” Bourne said. “Our emphasis to our coaches and our student-athletes is already grounded in doing things the right way and doing it with integrity and trust. ... We have since the inception of this athletic program had a culture of doing things the right way.”