NCAA Rules Compliance: Head Coach Control

Kelleigh Irwin Fagan

Author: Kelleigh Irwin Fagan

POST DATE: 3.14.16
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In August 2013, the NCAA revised an NCAA rule regarding a head coach’s responsibility for his or her program.  Although the rule had been in effect since April 2005, more emphasis has been placed on this concept of “head coach control” since August 2013.  The reason?  The NCAA membership believed that too often head coaches were not being held accountable for NCAA rules violations that occurred in their program because they were not aware it was occurring.  There was a belief among the membership that part of a head coach’s job is to know what is occurring in their programs and to be a leader in promoting an atmosphere of compliance and it sought to prevent ignorance as a defense.

Beginning August 1, 2015, a head coach is now presumed to be responsible for the actions of all institutional staff members who report to them, whether directly or indirectly.  A head coach must promote an atmosphere of compliance and monitor the activities of all people who report directly and indirectly to him or her.  This presumption means that if an assistant coach violates an NCAA rule, a head coach is deemed responsible.  However, the presumption can be rebutted by the head coach.  The Division I Infractions Appeals Committee has set forth factors it will consider when a head coach attempts to rebut the presumption, including:

  • Creating and promoting a culture and atmosphere of compliance, including immediate reporting of NCAA issues to compliance;
  • Demonstrating that the program and head coach understands its responsibility for the integrity of his or her program and holding others accountable who violate those standards;
  • Creating written policies;
  • Implementing monitoring efforts, including frequent spot checking and conducting open conversations with direct and indirect reports;
  • Recognizing and alleviating conflicts of interest for direct and indirect reports who may have multiple responsibilities that may conflict with compliance efforts;
  • Acceptance by the head coach of accountability for his or her program regarding violations or potential violations; 
  • Setting an expectation that those reporting violations or potential violations will be protected;
  • Ensuring frequent education of all direct and indirect reports on NCAA compliance matters and documenting that education;
  • Demonstrating an open line of communication with compliance, including the willingness to ask compliance for help where a gray area exists in the rules

Essentially, head coaches must show they took a number of steps to mitigate—or decrease the likelihood—of a subordinate violating NCAA rules.  No longer can a coach simply state that they were not aware impermissible conduct was occurring and withstand scrutiny by the NCAA Enforcement Staff, Committee on Infractions, or Infractions Appeals Committee.

Three recent cases—2 decided and 1 only beginning—have brought this NCAA rule to the forefront.  In 2015, we saw both Jim Boeheim, men’s basketball head coach at Syracuse and Larry Brown, men’s basketball head coach at SMU, feel the brunt of this NCAA rule that holds head coaches accountable.  Both Boeheim and Brown are suspended for 9 games for the 2015-16 season.  In both cases, neither Boeheim nor Brown were directly involved in the substantive rules violations.  However, the Committee on Infractions found that neither of them took adequate steps or had proper measures in place to absolve them from liability.  Other facts were at play in both cases that led to the 9 game suspensions.  For example, Brown initially lied to NCAA investigators, which is considered unethical conduct and which added to the penalties against him.  However, it remains that if either coach had done more, the penalty may have been less or the coach may not have been charged with a violation at all.  The NCAA Committee on Infractions Public Report on the Syracuse case was particularly illuminating on head coach control.  Repeatedly, it stated that Boeheim simply failed to follow up on a matter that raised red flags related to NCAA violations or failed to inquire with Syracuse’s compliance office.  These simple steps may have revealed information that could have combated the violations that occurred.

The other case that recently attracted media attention to head coach control is the Louisville case, in which there are allegations that a men’s basketball staff member was arranging and paying for prostitutes to entertain recruits.  Head coach Rick Pitino has publicly stated many times he had no idea this was occurring.  Because these allegations go beyond an NCAA rule violation (they are criminal in nature and a grand jury has been assembled), it will be interesting to see how the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions (assuming the case goes to a hearing) views head coach control for conduct that can be deemed both against NCAA rules and in violation of criminal law.  Key for Pitino’s defense is his ability to demonstrate mitigating factors to rebut the presumption that he is responsible for the men’s basketball staffer’s conduct.  If Pitino cannot demonstrate mitigation, he could likely face similar issues as Boeheim and Brown.

While it is impossible for a head coach to know everything that is going on in a program, and some believe that the presumption this NCAA rule now puts on head coaches is unreasonable, there are steps a head coach can take to mitigate his or her risks.  The first step is educating their staff and those that report to them, directly or indirectly, about these rules and how their actions could affect the head coach.  The second step is creating and implementing a head coach control plan.  This plan sets forth what actions each sport will take and what controls will be implemented to decrease the likelihood of violations and promote an atmosphere of compliance.  Creating and following this plan would be mitigating factors in the eyes of the NCAA Enforcement Staff and Committee on Infractions and could lead to a coach not being charged with a lack of head coach control violation or minimize the penalties if there is a charge.

Our sports law practice group has worked with several institutions and head coaches to educate them and their staffs on these rules and help them create and implement a plan to keep their head coaches NCAA compliant while remaining competitive in their respective sports.

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For more information about Kelleigh and CCHA’s sports law practice, please visit her profile.