Three mighty athletic programs.
Three migraine-filled encounters with the NCAA's enforcement staff.
Three completely different outcomes.
The events of the past five or so years have forever linked Tennessee, Southern Cal and Ohio State to this era of college athletics. It's an era where rule-breaking has been exposed at unprecedented levels thanks to technology, a savvier group of NCAA investigators and a watchdog national press corps, but it's also a time where the final rulings never seem to satisfy everyone.
In the end, UT was the only institution that came away from its ordeal pleasantly surprised with its verdict.
And even that didn't come without a little kicking and screaming along the way. Former athletic director Mike Hamilton, football coach Derek Dooley and chancellor Jimmy Cheek all respectively aired their grievances about the long, drawn-out process that left a dark cloud hanging over the athletic department for more than two years.
That cloud, though, appears to be drifting away. It certainly may not feel that way after a 5-7 football season and an ongoing men's basketball season that hasn't exactly elicited much optimism, but the heavy rain never did fall on the UT athletic program. All of its scholarships remain in tact and available and it's free to qualify and participate in whatever form of postseason play exists for all of its sports.
The same can't be said at Ohio State and Southern Cal, both of which came away from their cases feeling wronged.
On Tuesday, Ohio State — the program that currently has Aaron Craft, once a recruit at the center of UT's problems with the NCAA, playing point guard on its basketball team — received its punishment for a scandal that started with tattoos and ended with a whopper of a black eye on one of the country's largest athletic departments. The findings seemingly made everyone angry — minus the robotic members of the Committee on Infractions.
Anyone associated with Ohio State — from athletic director Gene Smith to Brutus the Buckeye — came away miffed that the COI didn't think the school's self-imposed penalties were enough. On top of additional scholarship losses and an extra year or so of probation, the school was blindsided by a postseason ban for 2012. Smith, a former member of the COI, said he didn't think there was precedent to warrant such a punishment.
Funny. He should have consulted Southern Cal or former Vols basketball coach Bruce Pearl, a three-year show-cause penalty victim, about the committee's application of precedent. Had Smith done that, he would have quickly gauged that there's no such thing.
Shortly after Lane Kiffin forever connected the Trojans and Vols — two schools that haven't met on the football field since 1981 — Southern Cal was hit with unprecedented, crippling sanctions that could very well affect its football team for the next decade. The reduction of 30 scholarships over a three-year period and a two-year bowl ban was, perhaps, this era's version of the "Death Penalty." As egregious as the school appeared to be in the Reggie Bush-centered fiasco, and as arrogant as former athletic director Mike Garrett was throughout the process, the punishment seemed out of line, almost too bent on "sending a message," which the committee will claim it doesn't even consider.
More than a year later, USC fans continue to stew. Every new, significantly softer ruling from college athletics' version of a judge and jury drudges up bad memories, and Twitter serves as their continuous, 140-character platform to express their displeasure.
They had the right to be steamed Tuesday. Not only did Ohio State play more ineligible players (five) than Southern Cal (one), but it did so with former coach Jim Tressel's full knowledge. Former Trojans coach Pete Carroll was never proven to be "in the know," but that didn't stop the COI from taking away 21 fewer scholarships and applying one less year of a postseason ban for the Buckeyes.
You didn't hear that same kind of reaction from UT fans because, well, there's nothing to gripe about anymore. It's a group of folks who have been through far too much controversy and nowhere near enough winning to be bitter about a case that involves some Big Ten school — even with that palpable sense of animosity that lingers because of the Craft connection.
The Vols rightfully came away with the lightest punishment because the rules they broke never provided an on-field advantage.
The prevention of unfair, on-field advantages is the core reason for why the NCAA rulebook exists in the first place. Every rule in it is designed, ultimately, to prevent schools from establishing advantages on the field -- even if it may take a while in the chain reaction to get there.
UT violated a number of rules in recruiting. Its actions gave it an advantage over other schools on the recruiting trail. Getting an advantage on the recruiting trail can lead to a program improperly acquiring more talented players than its competition, which then establishes an improper advantage on the court or on the field. That, on top of lies from the former men's basketball staff during interviews with investigators, was why it faced punishment from the NCAA.
Ohio State and Southern Cal, though, skipped all of those steps on the trickle-down-effect scale by playing student-athletes who violated rules long after the recruitment process and, therefore, received bona fide, on-field advantages because of it.
The schools' respective infractions cases, of course, certainly weren't that simple. Nothing is in this era of college athletics.
How these three powerful programs found themselves in similar messes of trouble and escaped with dramatically different results will forever serve as a shining example.