Allegations that for the past 11 months were largely discredited in Columbus, Ohio, as the crazy rantings of a disgruntled housekeeper gained considerable legitimacy Monday. According to the NCAA, the Ohio State men's basketball program did some bad things in the late 1990s. In particular, formerly revered head coach Jim O'Brien and respected assistant Paul Biancardi (now the head coach at Wright State) did some very bad things.
And for that, current head coach Thad Matta -- his reputation to date seemingly clean as a whistle -- and a group of players who were in middle school when most of the transgressions occurred could soon be paying a severe price.
The NCAA on Monday sent Ohio State the initial findings of its investigation into the men's basketball, the women's basketball and the football programs. While the latter two were limited to a single allegation each of improper benefits given to athletes (in the case of football, a $500 payment by a booster to a player, assumed, based on previous reports, to be QB Troy Smith), the O'Brien-era Buckeyes were nailed with seven allegations. The most serious charges are that O'Brien and Biancardi knowingly withheld knowledge of NCAA rules violations in which they were involved, and that O'Brien and the university failed to properly monitor the conduct of the program.
Nearly everything in the 19-page portion of the report relating to men's basketball corroborates allegations made more than a year ago by Columbus-area housekeeper Kathleen Salyers. The suit, dismissed by a judge last week, claimed OSU boosters Dan and Kim Roslovic reneged on an agreement to pay her $1,000 a month plus reimburse expenses if she would provide for Buckeyes player Boban Savovic during his 1998-2002 career. Savovic lived with the Roslovics upon arriving in Columbus in June 1998, but was forced to move out when Ohio State learned about the arrangement. He then moved in with Salyers, the Roslovics' housekeeper and babysitter.
Though she knew almost nothing about basketball before Savovic arrived in her home that summer and says she never previously attended an OSU game, Salyers, due to her relationship and arrangement with the Roslovics, became, by NCAA definition, a booster. To that end and largely in keeping with her own description of the relationship in her lawsuit depositions, the NCAA report lists 31 impermissible benefits Salyers provided Savovic during his time in Columbus, everything from food, transportation, clothing, air fare and spending money to Kohl's and Structure gift certificates and a Nintendo Game Boy. One of the NCAA's other alleged violations involves similar benefits Salyers provided for one-time recruit Alex Radojevic.
The first allegation on the list also involves Radojevic, and it's the one to which O'Brien previously admitted and was fired for: his $6,700 payment to assist Radojevic's struggling family in Yugoslavia. At the time of his firing last June, O'Brien was portrayed far and wide as a long upstanding coach who was being harshly punished for a well-intended gesture, albeit an illegal one.
The NCAA findings released Monday show several other instances of O'Brien's warm-hearted kindness. Unfortunately, those instances were also accompanied by what was either extreme naivete or outright abuse of NCAA rules.
For instance, according to the NCAA, O'Brien gave Salyers two OSU season tickets during Savovic's four-year career. When asked about it by school investigators, he said he was "... doing something nice for somebody [Salyers] that was nice to him [Savovic] when he needed it."
Furthermore, the NCAA said both O'Brien and Biancardi were aware of Salyers' relationship with the Roslovics when they attended a meeting with Ohio State compliance officials in July 1998 to determine where Savovic would live for the rest of the summer. While conveniently failing to mention the Salyers-Roslovic connection, Biancardi suggested Savovic move in with a friend he'd made at a summer basketball league. That friend happened to be Salyers' son, Rob Huston. Savovic was explicitly told he would have to pay rent wherever he moved, but no one from the OSU compliance office ever followed up to see if that was the case because of Biancardi's "assurances that the arrangement was permissible." Meanwhile, Biancardi, who university phone records show was in constant contact with Salyers during Savovic's career, even instructed her to make certain payments on behalf of the player, according to the NCAA.
Finally, the NCAA said O'Brien "did not appropriately monitor the continuing relationship between [Salyers and Savovic] to ensure compliance with NCAA legislation."
Asked Monday about the competency of his compliance office -- which failed to discover the true nature of the Salyers-Savovic relationship even after an article about it appeared in OSU's own game program during the player's sophomore season -- newly hired athletic director Gene Smith instead deflected blame to the coaches. "There are no systemic problems in our compliance area," he said. "The reality is, you cannot legislate integrity."
Both Smith and university president Karen Holbrook made a point of continually emphasizing Monday that the transgressions took place a long time ago; that the school took swift action upon learning of them by firing O'Brien (he has since sued the school for wrongful termination) and imposing a voluntary postseason ban last year; and that almost all the violations disclosed Monday were self-reported by the school.
Of course, they have to say these things.
It's all part of the ongoing process by which the school essentially begs for leniency from the NCAA's Committee on Infractions, which is expected to hear the case in September and will ultimately determine any further sanctions, by being as cooperative and proactive as possible. The school may even impose its own additional sanctions -- like forfeiture of wins and removal of records from the two Big Ten championship teams and 1999 Final Four team for which Savovic played -- but will try to convince the NCAA to spare future teams of further restrictions.