Reacting to events on and off the field…
1. Growing turmoil at ASU
The state of Arizona dominated the news this weekend, and it’s unlikely to cause signs of a “bifurcation” on the part of the Sun Devils.
Remember the three assistant coaches who were placed on administrative leave over the summer following allegations of violating recruitment rules during the pandemic? They’re gone. Two have been fired and one has retired.
But the real shock was the resignation of offensive coordinator Zach Hill. Less than a week before National Signing Day, the ASU performer ceased to exist.
The Athletic called Hill’s departure “the final blow to coach Herm Edwards’ Arizona State program, a situation that could worsen before the start of the 2022 season.”
Things could get a lot worse as the NCAA’s investigation into a range of potential violations moves forward.
Among the many things that happened on Friday was this opinion from SunDevilSource:
“Athletics Department officials have privately expressed their concern to colleagues and others about the seriousness and far-reaching implications of the case faced by ASU, which is expected to include Level I violations.”
Level I violations are the most severe in the NCAA penalty matrix; they qualify as serious violations. Basketball in Arizona has faced multiple Level I violations in a case involving former coach Sean Miller and the FBI.
The state of Arizona is also no stranger to serious violations.
In fact, the Solar Devils are in one case from a prominent place in the Pantheon of infamous NCAA infractions.
According to the NCAA database, Southern Methodist has been guilty of 10 serious violations in the history of its athletic department (across all sports).
The state of Arizona is tied for second with Texas A&M, with nine serious violation cases per school.
If the current investigation determines that serious violations took place, and all signs point to this, the Sun Devils will even be pulled with SMU for the highest record in NCAA history.
Talk about a company you don’t want to keep.
2. In the NCAA wheelhouse
One of the reasons Level I violations seem inevitable for the Sunny Devils is that they are an easy target for the NCAA.
Here’s an institution with little credibility, an uncertain future, and a terrible recent record of infringement cases. This is especially true for incidents outside the normal purview of law enforcement, such as academic fraud (North Carolina) and sexual harassment (Baylor).
But the accusations against the Sunshine Devils are based on violations in the recruiting space – that’s the helm for the NCAA. Taking leads during the dead period caused by the global pandemic is a violation of ethical and moral standards, much more egregious than fraud in normal times. If the NCAA criticizes ASU, no one moves an inch to defend the school or process. Politically, this is a winner for an association accustomed to losing.
The case is made easier by the presence of evidence. Not only was a file of documents delivered to Indianapolis, but the main sources of additional information are recruits who signed a contract with ASU or other schools. The NCAA does not have subpoena power, but it controls eligibility: if players don’t play along with investigators, they may not play at all.
Sun Devils are fresh meat in a third respect: their Power Five school status, but not blue blood. The easing sanctions will have a limited impact on college football in general, as well as a limited impact on the Pac-12.
The ASI is big enough to serve as an example that the NCAA enforcement process still has teeth, but it’s not big enough that the foreclosure of a piece of meat will affect the sports mechanism.
3. Recovery phase
According to SunDevilSource, ASU parted ways with four aides who allegedly participated in “unacceptable local meetings with recruits.” But NCAA investigators were reportedly told in interviews that head coach Herm Edwards and defensive coordinator Antonio Pierce were also involved.
They haven’t been fired yet.
It’s hard to imagine Pierce on the team next season. He was the alleged mastermind behind the ASU recruitment plan, although we question the wisdom of a plan so brazen, so egregious and so deplorable that it could cripple the football program for years to come.
Look for him to join the NFL staff and leave behind a path of destruction.
Edwards stay in power? If it’s true that he participated in or knew about the recruiting visits during the dead period, he should be fired – fired, of course.
But since Edwards is a close friend and former business partner of athletic director Ray Anderson, anything is possible. Anderson had already told the players (after the regular season finale against Arizona) that Edwards would be back in the 22nd.
We do not believe that everything is so simple.
If notice of the NCAA charges is delivered to ASU before the start of the season and if Edwards is involved, the optics will force the Sun Devils to make a move.
(Besides, why would Edwards continue to coach under these circumstances? The scrutiny and criticism would be intense.)
Bottom line: the deeper the ASU digs, the longer the ASU resists, the more damage and the longer the recovery.
Every action must be directed towards preparing the next chapter of the program after the NCAA imposes sanctions and the clouds of scandal clear.
4. Dynamics of the division
Take a break from recent events and the picture becomes clear: ASU seems to have missed its opportunity in the south.
Recall the situation in the division when Edwards was hired in the late fall of 2017.
USC had just won the conference title, but Sam Darnold kept moving forward and no one was afraid of Clay Helton’s regime. UCLA and Arizona changed coaches. Colorado has regressed since its rise in 2016, and Utah has lost twice as many conference games as it won.
There were plenty of opportunities.
And here we are, four seasons and one pandemic later, and the Sunny Devils have nothing to show in their self-proclaimed New Leadership Model.
Edwards has not won a division and has not yet appeared in the AP rankings at the end of the season. Instead, Utah filled the void by winning the South at 18, 19 and 21 – not with a new model, but with the same old coach.
And looking ahead, the window seems to be quickly closing on ASU.
Between the busy returning Utah roster and the reawakening of USC under Lincoln Riley, it’s hard to see a path to a Southern title for the Sunny Devils – be it next season or future seasons.
We wouldn’t be surprised if they look to Arizona in two years.
5. Big dollars, no point
To one degree or another, every public university in Pac-12 subsidizes its sports department. Money is funneled from the central campus to sports through student tuition fees, direct institutional support, or indirect funds.
The level of financial support varies by campus and business model. (Even sister schools may take completely different approaches.)
In fiscal 2020 — the latest for which all budgets were made public — Arizona directed $29.4 million from the central campus to its sports department, according to data released by USA Today.
It was the second largest conference grant after Cal ($30.9 million), who has four more intercollegiate sports than ASU. No one else was even close, including Arizona ($14.4 million).
In other words, in fiscal 2020, institutional support accounted for 27.4 percent of Sun Devils’ total operating income ($107 million).
All this money invested in athletics, and the program that was supposed to lead the way—help spread the ASU brand nationally, serve as a shining light in the desert—is engulfed in a scandal entirely of its own making.
A scandal that threatens to embarrass the university and overshadows everything for which the huge monetary costs were calculated.
Perhaps ASU should have allocated a portion of the $29.4 million to ensure football coaches followed the rules.
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