Unpacking the silly and the serious in Pitt’s NCAA violations

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In reading Pitt’s press release, the NCAA’s public announcement and its full violation document, former Pitt men’s basketball coach Kevin Stallings’ name is not mentioned.

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

By this time, you probably heard that Pitt athletics was hit with a three-year probation sentence by the NCAA Thursday morning. The punishment, which mostly stems from a series of minor coaching infractions committed by the men’s basketball and football programs from Aug. 2015 to March 2018, also includes a fine of $5,000 plus 0.5% of each of the men’s basketball and football budgets.

While the case is largely open and shut — Pitt will not be subject to any scholarship reductions or postseason restrictions in either sport — there’s still a lot worth unpacking from the whole situation, especially for a couple programs who have been scandal-free since ‘93. So, let’s take a deep dive into some of the serious, but mostly silly, details.

He-who-shall-not-be-named: Lord Stall-demort

In reading Pitt’s press release, the NCAA’s public announcement and its full violation document, it doesn’t take long for one to notice the absence of a key name central to the rule violations — former Pitt men’s basketball coach Kevin Stallings.

Each of these official statements make references to a “former head men’s basketball coach” who committed a series of NCAA coaching violations beginning in June 2016. It doesn’t take a seasoned detective to realize that this shadowy, enigmatic character is none other than Stallings, who coached the Panthers from 2016 to 2018.

So, what was the point of avoiding Stallings name as though he’s an all-powerful dark wizard?

In short, I don’t quite know. It didn’t serve to provide anonymity, as anyone with a brain could make the connection that Stallings was the head basketball coach at Pitt during the time the infractions were committed. In contrast, the report called head football coach Pat Narduzzi, who was found to have committed similar coaching violations, by his name.

It could be because Pitt wants to create a distinction between its current and former employees. Other members of Stallings’ staff, namely former director of basketball operations Dan Cage and former special assistant to the head coach Matt Woodley, were also kept nameless and referred to only by their titles.

But this reason is proven invalid by the fact that current Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke is also kept nameless in the report, being referred to only as “the director of athletics.” All in all, it comes off as a bit goofy that certain names were arbitrarily scrubbed from the report when the individuals can easily be identified.

How did this all come about?

According to the official NCAA case synopsis, it all started in the fall of 2017, when “the institution’s observations of the men’s basketball program raised concerns that a noncoaching staff member possibly engaged in impermissible coaching activities.”

Hold up — what constitutes “a noncoaching staff member” and “impermissible coaching activities?

The ominous terminology used throughout the NCAA’s findings makes it sound like Pitt brought in shady, mercenary-style outside consultants to perform covert coaching operations like securing film of other teams’ practices. In reality, it’s not that sinister.

According to the rules stated under NCAA Division I bylaw 11.7, there are limitations on the number and duties of coaches for every varsity team. The law strictly defines a coach as “a head coach, assistant coach, volunteer coach, graduate assistant coach or student assistant coach by certification of the institution.” It limits the amount of these “countable coaches” to four for men’s basketball and 11 for football.

Only these coaches are allowed to perform permissible “coaching activities,” which the NCAA defines as: providing technical or tactical instruction, helping make tactical decisions during practice or competition and engaging in any off-campus recruiting activities. If any team staff member not considered a coach then performs any such duty, the team is violating NCAA regulations.

Got it.

The report goes on to state that, once Pitt athletics found out the men’s basketball team may have been violating NCAA rules, Lyke and her administration “provided additional education” to Stallings and emphasized that his staff comply with noncoaching legislation. In an effort to police the basketball program, Pitt asked to see footage of the team’s practices.

It was at this point that things started to go south.

Only one practice clip was found on the basketball team’s server — it was revealed later that Stallings had ordered the deletion of team practice film in an apparent attempt to cover up evidence of his noncoaching staff members performing coaching activities.

Like so much of his brief stint at Pitt, Stallings’ cover-up attempt was not successful.

For starters, the one remaining practice clip still showed a noncoaching staff member providing impermissible coaching instruction. It’s unclear if Stallings tried and failed to delete all video evidence, or if he purposely left behind one piece of film in an effort to make Pitt think that that was the extent of the violations. Either way, it didn’t work.

The University brought in the big guns, utilizing “computer forensics experts to recover practice film that had been removed from the men’s basketball staff’s computer systems.” This resulted in the discovery of more noncoaching staff members performing coaching duties during several practices, as well as “12 impermissible personalized recruiting videos, which were shown to prospective men’s basketball student-athletes visiting campus.”

Buzzergate

“Buzzergate,” or the theory that the Houston Astros wore electronic bandages underneath their jerseys that buzzed to let them know what pitches were coming, has dominated MLB headlines for the past couple months.

Now, it turns out Pitt had a Buzzergate of its own.

The NCAA report states that when Pitt conducted interviews with 11 individuals associated with the basketball team in March and April of 2018, it learned that Stallings had implemented “an alert system to ensure noncoaching staff would not be caught on the practice floor coaching student-athletes.”

The system worked in the following way: 

“Whenever an administrator arrived at practice, a team manager positioned outside the doors to the practice gymnasium would send a text message to another manager at the scorer’s table inside. The inside manager then sounded the buzzer, which the noncoaching staff members understood as a sign they should exit the court.”

It’s okay to laugh

When discussing the NCAA’s findings, it becomes harder and harder to keep a straight face. Picturing this scenario is especially hilarious, because it sounds like some extensive behind-the-scenes planning went into deceiving Pitt’s administration. Among the computer forensics experts and elaborate cover-up schemes, you’d think someone was trying to get away with murder, rather than having a couple extra staff members simply give direction to players.

The whole thing gains another layer of humor when you add in the context that Pitt men’s basketball had one of its worst seasons ever in 2017-18, going 8-24 overall and 0-18 in the ACC. For all the extra instruction that Stallings was so determined to maintain, it didn’t result in any on-court advantage. Maybe if some of that cover-up planning had gone toward, I don’t know, helping Pitt actually win games, the team might’ve stolen a win in the ACC.

Why did Stallings do it?

This is where the drama comes in — it sounds like Stallings went through all this effort to mess with Pitt’s athletic administration just to spite Heather Lyke, with whom he apparently did not have a great relationship. The report says:

“[Stallings] confirmed that he instructed or permitted noncoaching staff to perform responsibilities he understood were impermissible and ordered the deletion of video documenting these violations. He attributed his decision to take these actions to the fractured relationship he believed he had with the director of athletics.”

Who else was involved?

The report states that three noncoaching staff members engaged in impermissible activities from June 2016 through March 2018 — the director of basketball operations, the video coordinator/director of analytics and the special assistant to the head men’s basketball coach.

Some quick research tells us that Dan Cage was the director of basketball operations in 2016-17 before being promoted to assistant coach in 2017-18, at which point his coaching activities would have become permissible by the NCAA. As for the special assistant to the head coach — no, not an assistant coach, which would have made him one of the four hallowed figures legally able to provide instruction to players, but the special assistant to the head coach (the whole thing is very Office-like) — Matt Woodley held that role during the specified time period. As for the unnamed video coordinator, his identity remains a secret.

The “coaching duties” performed by Cage and Woodley — and authorized by Stallings — included providing “technical or tactical instruction to men’s basketball student-athletes during summer skill-related instruction sessions, preseason practices, regular season practices, film sessions, scouting report briefings and at halftime of competitions.” And to think, they thought they could get away with such terrible transgressions.

How did the football team get involved?

Okay, I lied — this is where the drama really comes in, because it sounds like Matt Woodley ratted out the football program. The report says:

“The football program became involved in the inquiry when the special assistant to the head men’s basketball coach accused the program of similar impermissible use of noncoaching staff.”

We already established that Woodley was the special assistant to the head coach during this time, so the report again does a poor job of keeping Woodley anonymous, if that was indeed its intention. 

So, it appears that Woodley actually played a massive role in the whole ordeal by tattling on the football team for doing the same thing. His motives for doing so can only be left to the imagination, and we’re ultimately left with more questions than answers.

How did Woodley have knowledge that the football team was engaged in similar coaching violations? Why did he single them out among Pitt sports? Was he perhaps cut from a football team in his youth, forming a lifelong grudge against the sport as a whole? Had he made an enemy specifically within Pitt’s football program? Was this his way of achieving retribution against said enemy?

Maybe Woodley was just exasperated by the constant surveillance and enforcement process focused on the basketball program, and couldn’t help but point out that they weren’t the only ones partaking in illicit coaching activities. Let’s just say it’s a good thing Woodley pursued a career in basketball rather than the Mafia.

What did the football team do?

After Woodley’s notice, Lyke questioned Narduzzi about his use of noncoaching staff. The report says Narduzzi “admitted that he authorized a football quality control staff member to engage in coaching activities over a five-week period during the end of the 2017 season and the institution self-reported this violation to the enforcement staff.”

Upon interviewing members of the football staff and reviewing video of the team’s practices, Pitt determined that three quality control staff members had indeed participated in impermissible coaching activities dating back to August 2015.

What are quality control staff members?

In football, quality control coaches typically perform analytics-based duties like reviewing and charting game film of upcoming opponents. They help the assistant coaches recognize what sort of plays an opposing team runs out of certain personnel groupings.

What did they do that violated NCAA rules?

The report gets very specific who did what and for how long they did it, but to summarize — the quality control staff members held play cards for scout team members during practices and sometimes played catch with players during drills. By committing these coaching acts despite not being considered one of the 11 official football coaches, they put Pitt over the NCAA-allowed coaching limit.

Narduzzi and his staff were apparently aware of the wrongdoing and thus, like the basketball team, developed an alert system to avoid detection in previous years. The report states:

“A factor that contributed to the violations going undetected was the football program’s practice of playing music indicating when outside parties, including athletics department administrators, were present at the football practice facility. Football quality control staff members reported that when hearing such music they would ensure they were distant from football student-athletes.”

What music was played?

This isn’t made clear in the report, but it’s fun to guess. I’d like to imagine a sentinel-DJ posted along the perimeter of the team’s South Side practice facility whose job it was to press a button that overrode the team’s indoor stereo system and played “The Imperial March” to signify an oncoming administrative presence.

More likely, it was some sort of hype music that blended in with the practice atmosphere. With the ultra-popular Canadian rapper Drake releasing one album and three mixtapes during the specified period from 2015-2017, it’s a safe bet that some of his songs were involved.

Connecting the dots

I’m going to take off my reporter hat for a second and engage in some unsubstantiated gossip. Make of it what you will.

It seems odd that Pitt self-reported such minor violations that, as Alan Saunders of Pittsburgh Sports Now pointed out, the NCAA essentially never catches unless the case is brought to their doorstep. Nearly every other college program probably violates NCAA bylaw 11.7, which is an inane formality. No one really expects a team’s auxiliary staff members to shut themselves in an office and have zero meaningful contact with the student-athletes.

So why, then, did Pitt launch such a thorough investigation into its own basketball program for committing harmless penalties that would have otherwise gone unnoticed?

The likely answer — Lyke and the athletic department were trying to build a case against Stallings to fire him with cause.

This correlates with the fact that the administration had started compiling evidence against Stallings since Jan. 2, 2018, after he yelled at a Louisville fan who was heckling his players. 

According to the timeline in the report, the administration ramped up its monitoring of team practices in Feb. 2018. With Stallings’ team dropping games left and right, it’s likely that Lyke had already made up her mind to fire him at season’s end. It’s also possible that Stallings saw the writing on the wall that Lyke had no plans to retain him, which would explain his ill will toward the administration throughout the investigation.

When Stallings was finally fired on March 8, it was reported that Pitt offered him a reduced buyout of $4.8 million, significantly less than the estimated $9.4 million buyout in his contract. The administration planned to fire Stallings with cause if he didn’t accept the buyout.

At the time, the fireable cause was thought to be the comment (“At least we didn’t pay our guys $100,000”) Stallings made toward the Louisville fan. But in hindsight, it seems possible that the Lyke administration tried to use Stallings’ minor NCAA coaching violations in its case to lower his buyout.

Again, this is just speculation. If this was the case, then the football team became an unfortunate and unsuspecting victim once Woodley invoked their misdeeds.

How serious is this scandal for Pitt?

As far as “scandals” go, this is about as low on the totem pole as once can possibly get. When I first saw the headlines announcing the news, my heart skipped a beat. Knowing some of the shady, despicable and disgusting crimes committed within collegiate athletic programs in my lifetime, I feared the worst.

Suffice to say, I was relieved to find out that most of the wrongdoing stemmed from violating an odd NCAA technicality. No dirty money changed hands and no abuse was inflicted. Pitt also self-reported the incident to create as much transparency as possible. 

There are some punishments incurred in the negotiated resolution, but they are so banal that they hardly bear mentioning. In addition to the aforementioned fines, Narduzzi and a few Pitt coaches have to miss a couple team practices for the upcoming season. Add in the three-year probation, which will involve some NCAA officials checking in once in awhile, and that’s it.

The bigger punishments were handed out to Stallings and Cage for their reluctance to comply with the investigation. Both face a three-year show-cause order that requires institutions to explain to the NCAA why they would want to hire either, while Stallings faces the suspension from “30 percent of the first season of his employment.” None of this affects Pitt — or any other school, for that matter, as neither is currently employed as an NCAA coach. Woodley, who did not face punishment, is currently an assistant coach at Drake University.

The short answer is that this … situation, we’ll call it, should have little to no serious implications for Pitt athletics. No parent is going to dissuade their child from playing basketball at a program where *gasp* noncoaching staff members committed impermissible coaching activities. And the incident doesn’t have the seriousness to serve as fodder for opposing fans to mock on game days.

The most damning aspect of the whole thing may have been that both the football and basketball programs seemed to be aware of the NCAA’s coaching regulations and actively covered up their rule-breaking with elaborate alert systems created, at least in part, by the head coaches. I don’t know if this sort of system is commonplace around college sports, and I’m still confused as to why the football and basketball programs went to such great lengths to protect the right of staff members to simply hold up play cards, play catch with and provide basic guidance to athletes.

Anyway, it doesn’t seem to have harmed the relationship between Narduzzi and Lyke, as evidenced by her recent 11th-hour plea to keep him at Pitt. Panther fans can take solace in the fact that their football and basketball teams were not caught committing grave acts of dishonor, but rather carrying out one of the silliest and most harmless rule-breaking schemes in recent memory.

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