NCAA puts Illinois on probation

By Courtney Linehan

The NCAA placed Illinois athletics on one-year probation Thursday following an investigation into inappropriate benefits, including use of a car, given to a former football player by a booster.

The booster, or representative of the University’s interests, provided special benefits to the former player beginning when the student-athlete was a high school student and prospective athlete, the NCAA said. The gifts, totaling $2,348 in value, continued when the player became a member of the Illinois football squad.

“This is a perfect example of how a student-athlete in need can form a relationship with an individual outside our control and without our knowledge, and then accept benefits he should not have accepted,” athletic director Ron Guenther said in a statement released Thursday. “The institution from start to finish did everything possible to prevent this type of situation.”

The infractions occurred between April 2003 and January 2004. Illinois’ compliance staff, which monitors athletes’ eligibility, learned of the situation and questioned the booster, who denied providing any inappropriate benefits to the athlete. The NCAA said the athlete also misled the University, saying his parents had purchased a car that was actually owned by the booster’s business.

Illinois reported the infractions to the NCAA in early 2004, and completed what the University and NCAA agreed was a thorough investigation of the situation. The University disassociated itself from the booster for a period of at least three years.

“These situations are always very difficult when you are dealing with a booster and a student-athlete, because the university can do everything right but the infractions can still occur,” NCAA spokesman Kent Barrett said.

Because of the extensive work Illinois did in investigating and reporting the violation, as well as the self-imposed penalties and corrective action taken by the University, the NCAA limited its punishment. Illinois will not lose any scholarships and will continue to be eligible for bowl games.

The NCAA will require Illinois to “develop and implement a comprehensive system to track incoming student-athletes and how their pre-enrollment expenses are paid; submit a preliminary report to the office of the NCAA Committees on Infractions by Dec. 30, 2005 … and file with the office of the Committees on Infractions a report indicating the progress made with this program by Sept. 15, 2006,” the NCAA release said.

“Really what a probation is is constructive criticism,” Barrett said. “For the next year there is going to be some increased reporting to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Illinois sports information director Kent Brown said little will change within the University’s Department of Intercollegiate Athletics, as the school already enforces a comprehensive compliance program.

“We have a very high standard of compliance here,” Brown said.

University officials confirmed that the athlete left the University of Illinois this summer, but would not confirm his name.

Illinois football head coach Ron Zook, who coached at Florida when the NCAA violations occurred, said nothing will change as a result of the sanctions.

“We recruit like we’re on probation anyway. You have to. It’s not a thing that has any affect on me at all, or on our staff, or on our program.”

The restrictions apply to Illinois’ entire athletic program. The University has the option of appealing the NCAA decision.

“The probation applies to the entire athletic department because some of the things that need to be in place to make sure this doesn’t happen again need to be at the departmental level, not the team level,” Barrett said.

For a five-year period beginning Thursday, Illinois will also be subject to the provisions of an NCAA bylaw regarding repeat offenses. A second offense could come from any part of the athletic department, and could result in harsher punishment.

Brown said the University will continue to work towards educating student-athletes, boosters and fans on what is and is not appropriate.

“If two people want to break the rules together, there’s no way you can stop them,” Brown said. “All you can do is hope people do care and take stock in how you’re trying to do things.”