At the time, Georgia Tech's long-awaited run to the ACC title in 2009 — its first conference crown in 19 years, in just its second season under coach Paul Johnson — seemed almost too good to be true. As of this afternoon, it officially is too good to be true: In an out-of-the-blue verdict, the NCAA has stripped the Yellow Jackets of the 2009 ACC championship, fined the university $100,000 and placed the entire athletic department on probation through July 2015 for failing to cooperate with an investigation into the football and men's basketball programs. The hoops team was also hit with recruiting restrictions, and the entire athletic program faces the sting of a formal public reprimand and censure.
First, the penalties. Officially, Tech is only forced to vacate all football victories it earned after Nov. 24, 2009, which simplifies the math because Georgia Tech only won once after that date: In a 39-34 shootout against Clemson in the ACC Championship Game on Dec. 5. Because the Yellow Jackets lost to Georgia on Nov. 28 and later to Iowa on Jan. 5, 2010, in the Orange Bowl, the win over Clemson is the only one that will be stricken from the record. But if there is no championship game, there is no champion.
(To answer the inevitable question: No, the title is not retroactively awarded to Clemson. The game was vacated, not forfeited. Officially speaking, there was no game.)
Now, the details. At the root of the verdict is what appears to be a modest, isolated case of improper benefits: In October 2009, an unnamed Tech football player allegedly accepted little over $300 in clothes from the friend of a former Tech player who worked at an Atlanta-based sports agency. Under most circumstances, once the violation had been identified, the offending player would be declared ineligible until he paid back the value of the benefit, and his eligibility would be restored. Relatively small potatoes.
As usual, though, it's not the crime that brings the real pain: It's the coverup. In a 26-page report outlining the alleged violations and sanctions, the NCAA's Committee on Infractions accuses various Georgia Tech personnel of "adopt[ing] an obstructionist approach" and a "combative attitude" toward the subsequent investigation, of defying NCAA instructions, of "omitt[ing] key information and embellish[ing] other information," and finally of playing the player in question in final three games of the season despite serious concerns about his eligibility. The official charges:
1. Preferential Treatment: [NCAA Bylaw 184.108.40.206.6]
In October 2009, a friend of an employee of a sports agency based in Atlanta, Georgia, provided a then football student-athlete ("student-athlete 1") several items of clothing valued at approximately $312.
2. Failure to Cooperate [NCAA Bylaws 19.01.3 and 32.1.4]
On November 16, 2009, the institution failed to protect the integrity of the investigation and violated the cooperative principle when, contrary to specific instructions from the NCAA enforcement staff, institution staff members spoke to student-athlete 2 [another unnamed player involved in the investigation who was eventually not found to have committed violations] and told him the issues and related matters that would be the subject of his upcoming November 18, 2009, interview with the NCAA.
3. Failure to Meet the Conditions and Obligations of Membership. [NCAA Constitution 220.127.116.11 and Bylaw 14.11.1]
In late 2009, the institution failed to meet the conditions and obligations of membership in that the institution did not withhold student-athlete 1 from competition when the institution was made aware of information which raised serious questions about whether he was involved in violations of NCAA legislation and thus should have been declared ineligible.
The committee also writes, "This case provides a cautionary tale of conduct that member institutions should avoid while under investigation for violations of NCAA rules." In other words: When we ask you a question, do not screw with us.
The only relief for the Jackets as their championship drought extends (officially) to 20 years is that head coach Paul Johnson is not implicated in the violations: He only appears in the report briefly, during questioning of one of the players, after Johnson had been informed of the investigation by athletic director Dan Radakovich despite the NCAA's explicit instructions to general counsel "not to discuss the information with anyone except the president and the director of athletics." According to an outside consultant who appeared on Tech's behalf in front of the Infractions Committee, Johnson "was never told it was an institutional directive" to keep him out of the loop, and the decision to bring him in was "a poor decision" by Radakovich.
OK, Tech fans, so your championship drought may have just been officially extended to 20 years, and your school's out of the equivalent of a good white-collar salary (not including the $200,000 bonus Johnson earned for winning the conference title). At least your coach isn't going anywhere. As some other programs will tell you, it can be a whole lot worse.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.
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