For 22 months, NCAA enforcement officials combed through records and interviewed a variety of coaches, players and players' parents before the University of Tennessee received its Notice of Allegations in February for 12 major violations.
Only a small portion of time, however, was devoted to what can be found on the first 11 pages of the 26-page document. Later in the Notice of Allegations, when the focus shifts from the men's basketball program to Lane Kiffin's one-year run with the UT football program, the subject pops up again.
One by one, the Notice lists the 96 impermissible phone calls made by former men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl and his assistants to 12 high school prospects from 2007-09. In a much smaller space, the NCAA then lays out the 16 impermissible calls made by Kiffin's staff to five prospective student-athletes over a seven-day period in January 2010. Also noted are the two impermissible phone calls and two impermissible text messages former assistant David Reaves sent to two high school players.
This wasn't why the NCAA was investigating at UT. But that doesn't mean the school and its former coaches are exempt from the punishments that inevitably spawn from dialing up prospective players one too many times.
"We don't initiate those types of cases," said Tom Hosty, the NCAA's director of enforcement. "There's usually something more important going on."
That something, of course, can be found midway through UT's Notice, where Pearl and his assistants are accused of intentionally misleading NCAA investigators during their initial interviews concerning a controversial barbecue at Pearl's home.
Pearl's breach of NCAA bylaw 10.1 for unethical conduct is what will likely garner the harshest penalties from the NCAA Committee on Infractions, but the excessive phone calls he and his assistants made over that three-year period, and how they went unnoticed until the athletic department self-reported the violations in four separate reports, are what UT's administrators will have to explain in next month's hearing.
"If there's a lot of calls or a pattern of time, say a couple of years, and it maybe involves one or more coaches and a number of prospects, that starts to have a cumulative effect," Hosty said. "Now you're talking about more than a minimal recruiting advantage."
Of the 12 major violations levied in the Notice of Allegations, only one - failing to monitor the men's basketball coaching staff's telephone contacts with prospective student-athletes and their relatives - is directed squarely at the university and not at its former coaches.
The violations for impermissible phone calls made by the football staff are pinned on the former coaches who made them. These calls were placed one month after the UT compliance staff notified the coaches that those types of calls would not be permissible, according to the Notice.
"Will it have a bearing on the outcome? We don't know," UT athletic director Mike Hamilton said at April's UT athletic board Governance/Compliance/Equity committee meeting. "Certainly from our position, we hope that mitigates some of the penalties but we're not guaranteed that."
Five of the 12 then-high school prospects Pearl and his assistants inappropriately contacted - Melvin Goins, Renaldo Woolridge, Kenny Hall, Jordan McRae and Tobias Harris - wound up playing for the Vols. The seven others - Elliot Williams (Memphis), Chris Singleton (Florida State), Josh Selby (Kansas), Rico Pickett (Manhattan), Aaron Craft (Ohio State), Justin Martin (Xavier) and Griffin McKenzie (Xavier) - went elsewhere.
Three of the five players inappropriately contacted by the football staff - Brandon Willis (North Carolina), Seantrel Henderson (Miami) and Ahmad Dixon (Baylor) - did not end up at UT, but the other two, whose names were redacted in the documents, did.
"A lot of recruiting is about relationship building," Hosty said. "If a coach is calling the prospect early, they're able to build that relationship early, establish whatever credibility and rapport and that's a recruiting advantage.
"The other flip side is if you're able to call a prospect more than once a week and all the other coaches were complying with the rule are not doing that, then, again, you're getting an advantage recruiting-wise."
The COI has typically responded by tailoring its penalties to take away whatever advantage was gained.
Of the 16 major-violations cases since 2008 that have involved improper telephone calls or text messages - which have been entirely banned at the Division I level since 2007 - just seven didn't involve any other types of major violations. On most occasions, these schools, much like UT did last September, have self-imposed penalties before they faced the COI, but that usually hasn't been enough to satisfy the NCAA's penalty wing.
Recently, Cal was hit with probation and a variety of recruiting restrictions after a violations case that dealt exclusively with impermissible phone calls in its men's basketball program. Last year, at Chattanooga, the Mocs received probation and a slew of other, minor reprimands for a violations case that involved impermissible phone calls and text messages and a coach who "did not protect the integrity of the investigation."
Technology to the rescue
When Pearl and his assistants first made excessive phone calls in 2007, UT was in the "purchasing process" for technology that helps prevent coaches from violating NCAA rules, but it was still relying on the old-fashioned method of detecting excessive and impermissible phone calls.
"We were trying to implement a system that worked effectively rather than getting out the phone bills and looking for things that we don't know what we're looking for," UT compliance director Brad Bertani said at the April board meeting. "Did we get these things in place quick enough? Probably not. Not as fast as we wanted to, but I think we were trying actively."
In a September 2010 News Sentinel article, Bertani said the school signed up with Roberts Innovations, LLC for its "Comply & Verify" software in fall 2009 as a means to prevent violations. In June 2010, UT selected ACS Athletics as its "department-wide technology provider for managing the student-athlete life-cycle" for services that included "automating and integrating" recruiting, compliance monitoring, student-athlete records and forms, according to the company's website.
Among the wide variety of services and methods of compiling recruiting data provided by the software is technology that stops a coach at the dial tone from making an impermissible phone call.
Once the recruit's name and number is in the database, all calls made and received by the head coach or his assistants are tracked and logged. If a coach attempts to contact the recruit during a time when communication is banned, or within a period too close to the previous call, a warning message will pop up on the phone notifying the coach that it's not OK to go through with the call.
ACS' software also tracks a number of hot-button compliance issues, including practice hours and complimentary ticket distribution. The final secondary violation of Pearl's tenure, which Hamilton cited as one of the reasons why he ultimately decided to fire the popular coach, involved a player receiving too many free tickets to give to his family for the regular-season finale against Kentucky.
"Given the attention from a compliance standpoint and the number of cases we've all seen over the last several years, the institution, down to the coaches, are more concerned about 'What do we need to be doing to be more proactive and be more practically positioned to keep these issues from occurring?' " said Rayan Rutledge, one of ACS Athletics' founders who currently serves as the director of operations.
"Coaches in general are great people and they work really hard to do what they do. They're competitive. They've got a very difficult job to maintain the increased standards of documentation and compliance. It's a challenge."
More than 70 college athletic departments across the country have implemented ACS' software, Rutledge said. For a Division I school such as UT, the cost to install and run the software department-wide can range from $20,000 to $40,000 per year.
"We've been able to put tools in their hands that help them be better recruiters and help them be more efficient, and at the same time help them be protected," said Rutledge, whose company employs a number of former NCAA and college athletic department employees.
"It keeps them from making silly mistakes along the way."
When it presents its case to the COI, UT hopes its partnership with ACS isn't too little, too late for these particular violations.
"I think we can show as it relates to monitoring that it was a proactive intent to monitor," Hamilton said. "Technology has gotten better. We're at the point where we're in a much better place."
Rules are made to be bent
There isn't enough technology in the world to prevent a coach who is bent on cheating from breaking the rules, and there likely never will be.
Recruiting legislation, specifically dealing with the ever-evolving way in which people communicate, is modified on a nearly annual basis, but it's often remained one step behind.
"If a coach is determined to break a rule," Hosty said, "there's always a way."
One of the latest trends, Hosty said, is disposable phones.
Also known as "burners," the pre-paid phones can be purchased cheaply at all types of stores, including gas stations, and are only meant to be used for a short amount of time before they are thrown away.
Because the NCAA only has access to records for university-registered phones during investigations, "burner" calls are nearly impossible to track. Anonymous tips or inadvertent slips of information from prospective student-athletes are what enforcement officials rely on to snuff these phones out, Hosty said.
There are less egregious and completely legal ways to get around the rules, too.
The rapid spread of smartphones could force the NCAA to modify or completely re-evaluate its stance on text messages, which are banned, and emails, which coaches can send on an unlimited basis after the prospect's junior season. Most phones with Internet connectivity present text messages and emails in the exact same fashion, though the NCAA currently views them as two completely different forms of communication.
UT football coach Derek Dooley found himself caught in the NCAA's tangled web of communication-based rules and restrictions last summer.
Instead of sending a private message to a prospect via Facebook's email function, Dooley, using his smartphone, inadvertently posted the information on tight end prospect Nick O'Leary's "wall," an act that is prohibited under the current NCAA rules.
Fortunately for Dooley, his bosses caught the violation before the NCAA did.
It was quickly addressed and relegated as a minor secondary violation.
"You're going to have secondary violations," Hamilton said. "When you're not catching secondary violations, that's where programs fail."