Harsh penalties for UNC football

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Harsh penalties for UNC football

From Comcast SportsNet
North Carolina waited four months to learn whether the NCAA would be satisfied with self-imposed sanctions on the football program after an investigation into improper benefits and academic misconduct. When the news came, it wasn't what school officials had hoped. The NCAA infractions committee hit the program with a one-year postseason ban, a reduction of 15 scholarships and three years of probation. In a ruling Monday, the committee said the school was responsible for multiple violations, including academic fraud and a failure to monitor its football program. It also issued a three-year show-cause penalty for former assistant coach John Blake, who had received personal loans from an NFL agent. School officials say they won't appeal, opting instead to move on. "Obviously this has been a painful and difficult experience," UNC chancellor Holden Thorp said Monday. "We don't like to have this kind of attention brought to any part of the university, especially one as visible as the athletic program." The ruling caps a nearly 2-year case that ultimately led to the firing of coach Butch Davis as well as the early departure of longtime administrator Dick Baddour as athletic director. The scandal included players receiving jewelry and other gifts from people outside the program, as well as a tutor providing improper help to players on term papers. Davis, now working as a special assistant with the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has never been named for any violation. In a statement released by his attorney, Jon Sasser, the former UNC coach said he cooperated fully with the investigation. Davis said that his staff "implemented many practices into the program to try to prevent these types of issues." "The NCAA's investigation and report is comprehensive and I am certain that all parties were anxious to be made aware of their conclusions," Davis said. "It has been a difficult process for everyone and there has been a great deal of time and effort, by many people, devoted to this matter. "I am truly saddened this matter has affected so many innocent people. I wish UNC the very best." In September, North Carolina announced it would vacate all 16 wins for 2008 and 2009, reduce nine scholarships over the next three academic years and put the program on two years of probation. The school also issued a self-imposed 50,000 fine but it didn't impose a postseason ban in what the school called "difficult but necessary steps." The committee decided that wasn't enough even though chairman Britton Banowsky commended the university's investigation. The postseason ban is for this fall and prevents the Tar Heels from playing in either the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game or a bowl game. The scholarship reductions would be five per year, also starting in the fall. "I tried to be prepared for anything," Baddour said. "You're always hopeful that others will see it like you do. But I think the important thing now here is we accept it and we move on and we be as good as we can be." The probe started in June 2010 and soon became a crisis for a school that hadn't had a major violation in five decades. In what the committee called "a cautionary tale" about monitoring top professional prospects, 14 players missed at least one game in 2010 and seven were forced to sit out all that season, with four of those either dismissed from the team or ruled permanently ineligible by the NCAA. Among that group was defensive end Robert Quinn, defensive tackle Marvin Austin and receiver Greg Little. All three players were chosen in the first two rounds of last year's NFL draft. School officials appeared before the infractions committee in October, as well as Blake and his attorneys. Blake's close friendship with late NFL agent Gary Wichard became a focus of the investigation, including 31,000 in money transferred from Wichard to Blake that Blake's attorneys have characterized as loans from one friend to another during financial trouble. Blake and his attorneys have denied Blake worked for Wichard's firm nor that there was any agreement to steer players to sign with Wichard. But the NCAA ruled that Blake had worked as an employee for Wichard after being fired as Oklahoma's coach in 1998 and "continued recruiting clients ... even after he returned to coaching in 2002," according to the report. In addition, the committee found that the financial transactions "were made to compensate (Blake) for his work for the sports agency and the access he provided to NFL-caliber student-athletes." The show-cause penalty would prevent Blake from performing any recruiting duties, which essentially prevents him from being able to coach. William H. Beaver II, one of Blake's attorneys, said they're considering whether to appeal. Beaver said attorneys provided the committee with affidavits from former players who denied Blake tried to steer them to Wichard. "We are certainly disappointed in the results and we're disappointed in the way the committee viewed what could only be characterized as circumstantial evidence provided by the NCAA staff -- and then the lack of weight given to the substantive evidence that we provided," Beaver said. Both Blake and former tutor Jennifer Wiley, who graduated from the school in 2009, were cited for unethical conduct. The committee found that Wiley had provided several players with too much assistance on research papers, and also provided about 4,100 improper benefits in travel, parking expenses and free tutoring. Wiley refused to be interviewed by investigators. The school has formally disassociated itself from her as well as former player Chris Hawkins, who had hung around the program in recent years and socialized with players until the school learned he was regarded as a prospective agent by the NCAA. Joseph B. Cheshire V, Wiley's Raleigh-based attorney, said that while the report "is not completely accurate" as to facts about Wiley's case, he was "appreciative" that the NCAA hasn't included additional sanctions against her. "It has been a hard journey for a person whose big heart caused her so much pain," Cheshire said in a statement. "I am glad for her it is finally over." Thorp fired Davis a week before training camp, citing the cumulative damage to the university's reputation by the probe. The day after the school fired Davis, Baddour announced he would step aside early from his planned retirement this summer so that his successor could hire the next football coach. The school hired Bubba Cunningham from Tulsa as AD. He then hired Larry Fedora from Southern Mississippi as the new coach. Defensive coordinator Everett Withers served as interim coach last season and guided the Tar Heels to a 7-6 record along with an appearance in the Independence Bowl. Withers is now assistant head coach under Urban Meyer at Ohio State. In a statement, ACC Commissioner John Swofford -- Baddour's predecessor at UNC -- said it's "disturbing" any time a member school has NCAA issues. "Now that the University of North Carolina has a final resolution from the NCAA, I'm confident it can learn from it, put the episode behind, and move forward," Swofford said.

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Bears DL Akiem Hicks making the most of a chance the Saints never gave him

Bears DL Akiem Hicks making the most of a chance the Saints never gave him

Living well is indeed the best revenge, and sometimes nothing feels sweeter than proving doubters wrong. Akiem Hicks is savoring that exact feeling.

When the New Orleans Saints made Hicks their third-round pick in the 2013 draft, they typecast their big (6-5, 318 pounds) young defensive lineman as a one-trick pony.

“There were people in New Orleans that said, ‘You can’t rush the passer,’” Hicks recalled after the Bears’ win Sunday over the San Francisco 49ers. “They told me from my rookie year, ‘You’re going to be a run-stopper.’”

This despite Hicks collecting 6.5 sacks and 3 pass breakups as a senior at Regina in Canada. The Saints forced Hicks into the slot they’d decided he fit – nose tackle – then eventually grew disenchanted with him and traded him to New England last year – where he collect 3 sacks in spot duty.

Interestingly, Bears GM Ryan Pace was part of the Saints’ personnel operation. Whether Pace agreed with coaches’ handling of Hicks then isn’t known, but when Pace had the chance to bring Hicks to Chicago for a role different than the one the Saints forced Hicks into, Pace made it happen.

Pace likely saw those New England sacks as a foreshadowing or a sign that the New Orleans staff had miscast Hicks. The Bears defensive end now is under consideration for NFC defensive player of the week after his 10-tackle performance against San Francisco. Signing with the Bears last March 13 as a free agent was the career break Hicks has craved. For him it was a career lifeline.

“They have given me the ability to go rush the passer,” Hicks said. “So I love this organization – [GM] Ryan Pace, coach Fox, Vic [Fangio, defensive coordinator] – for just giving a guy the capability to put it out there and do what you feel like you can do.”

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Hicks has been showing what he can do, to quarterbacks. For him the best part of win over the 49ers was the two third-quarter sacks of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Those sacks gave the massive lineman, who the Saints said couldn’t rush the passer, 6 sacks for the season – more than any member of the Saints defense this season. It has been a classic instance of putting a player in position to maximize his skills, not jam someone into a bad fit.

“Akiem has been in a couple of different types of packages before with New Orleans and New England,” said coach John Fox. The Patriots switched from a long-time 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 but “we’re more of a New England-type style. But we’re playing him more at end; he played mostly a nose tackle [in New Orleans]. He’s fit really well for us as far as his physical stature.

"But he does have pass rush ability. It shows a little about his athleticism. So he’s got a combination of both.”

That “combination” has been allowed to flourish at a new level, and the Bears’ plan for Hicks was the foundation of why he wanted to sign in Chicago as a free agent. The Bears do not play their defensive linemen in a clear one-gap, get-upfield-fast scheme tailored to speed players. Nor do they play a classic two-gap, linemen-control-blockers scheme typically built on three massive space-eaters on the defensive line.

They play what one player has called a “gap and a half” system, which requires being stout as well as nimble.

One Hicks rush on Kaepernick featured a deft spin move out of a block, not the norm for 336-pound linemen. He got one sack with a quick slide out of a double-team.

“I’m not freelancing,” Hicks said. “But I’m rushing ‘fast.’ There’s a portion of the defense where you have the [run] responsibility and don’t have the freedom or liberty [to rush]. It’s a great system for me and I love what they’ve let me do.”