by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Former hoop coach Jerry Tarkanian and his past battles with the NCAA are well known. And that long-running feud (in which Tarkanian eventually won a significant court settlement) prompted an unforgettable quote by Tark that we often recall when the subject of college sports’ governing body arises.

“The NCAA is so mad at Kentucky,” Tark said in the mid ’80s, “that it put Cleveland State on probation instead.”

Tark, of course, was referring to long-perceived selective enforcement procedures by the NCAA, which for years seemed to overlook blatant infractions by the “power schools” only to mete out punishments to the Cleveland States of the world.

Recent developments suggest that dynamic has been altered somewhat, though not entirely, due in part to a media environment much different than the one which existed at the time of Tarkanian’s infamous quote in the 80s.

The big boys are now a target for an expanding media presence that has changed the college sports landscape significantly.

More specifically, it’s the internet and the introduction of countless potential whistle-blowers that have altered the dynamics.

It’s worth noting that in both the Reggie Bush controversy at Southern Cal, and the recent Ohio State scandal, that it was Yahoo Sports >(specifically correspondent Charles Robinson) doing most of the early investigative work. On-line giants such as Yahoo didn’t even exist a couple of decades ago to pursue such stories, which were often taboo for local media outlets to uncover.

Throughout previous decades, the NCAA infractions process would usually begin with some subtle finger-pointing within the college ranks themselves. It was rare for media outlets to get the ball rolling, but not any longer. Although countless internet sites and blogs spew far more misinformation than legitimate scoops, the number of potential whistle-blowers, and their ability to gain notice, has grown exponentially in recent years. And when a media giant such as Yahoo decides to turn its gumshoes loose, the NCAA effectively has a ready-made enforcement arm that will do a lot of the investigative dirty work for it.

The latest development involves Ohio State’s recent punishment from the NCAA, the latest in a series of high-profile schools to come under the scrutiny of college sports’ governing body.

The Buckeyes received a decent, though by no means lethal, slap from the NCAA last week when hit with a postseason ban for the 2012 football season, as well as other lesser penalties. Ohio State AD Gene Smith acted a bit incredulous at the whole scenario, but most shrewd observers believe the Buckeyes got off rather lightly. Indeed, some believe Smith erred when not self-imposing a bowl-ban for the current season, which was the course chosen by Miami-Florida, another school in the NCAA crosshairs. Even Buckeye diehards in Columbus could have lived with that scenario, and not be forced to watch OSU and Florida tangle in a battle of disappointing 6-6 teams at the Gator Bowl, if it might have lessened the chance of sanctions going forward and at least allowed a bowl carrot for new hire Urban Meyer’s first season on the job next fall.

Still, considering the gravity of the charges against the Bucks and compared to other penalties imposed elsewhere in recent years, the sentence seems a bit light against OSU. The NCAA saved its harshest penalty in the matter for a component no longer involved with the Buckeyes, former HC Jim Tressel, who was given a five-year show-cause sentence for any school interested in hiring the coach with the vest. That penalty, more harsh than the recent three-year show-cause issued to former Tennessee hoops coach Bruce Pearl, effectively deters Tressel from coaching on the college level until 2017. And it might have impacted matters elsewhere, especially Akron, which was said to be considering hiring Tressel as its new football coach but wanted to hear what sanctions might be handed to the ex-Buckeye coach before making any formal offer. Once the Tressel penalty was announced, the Zips wasted little time in hiring Terry Bowden, the former HC at Auburn and recently at North Alabama.

An interested observer to the Ohio State penalties was Southern Cal, which was handed a more severe sentence in the spring of 2010 from the NCAA in relation to the aforementioned Reggie Bush scandal. The immediate reaction from the Trojans was one of outrage, wondering why their penalties were harsher than the ones handed to the Buckeyes.

The answer to that, according to most sources, has to do with the discovery process in both situations. Southern Cal, and then-AD Mike Garrett in particular, reportedly did very little to cooperate with NCAA and Pac-10 (now Pac-12) investigators during the Bush fiasco, stonewalling the process whenever possible. Most of the evidence in the Bush case was first introduced by Yahoo Sports and eventually provided through the court system and resultant lawsuits, behind which Garrett and the Trojans hid for several years until their contents became part of public domain. Related developments, such as throwing hoops coach Tim Floyd under the bus and the hiring of Lane Kiffin (who demonstrated much disdain for the rule book during his one-year stint at Tenenssee) to replace Pete Carroll as football coach also didn’t do the Trojans any favors in the eyes of the NCAA.

Southern Cal, by all reports, did far less to cooperate with the NCAA investigators than did Ohio State, although, as it turned out, various Buckeyes (Tressel included) were not completely forthcoming with the governing body.

And therein seems to lie an important distinction in the current NCAA penalty environment. Cooperate with us, and we’ll take that into consideration when it comes time to sanction. Don’t cooperate, and risk suffering harsher consequences. And whatever you do, don’t lie to us (as, apparently, did Tressel).

Speaking to those dynamics, we thought a more-revealing case came last summer when Georgia Tech flashed across the NCAA radar with what seemed to be a few rather insignificant infractions. On the surface the violations didn’t seem like much, especially those on the football side that involved two players (reportedly star former gridders Demaryius Thomas & Morgan Burnett) allegedly accepting $312 worth of clothing from a friend of a sports agency employee. Hardly the sort of transgression that sends an offending school into the NCAA cooler.

And while the Yellow Jackets didn’t lose scholarships or get slapped with a postseason ban, they were put on probation for four years, forfeited three wins at the end of the 2009 season (including the ACC title game win over Clemson), and fined a hefty $100,000, which is a bit more than a slap on the wrist. All for a couple of shirts and a pair of shoes?

Well, sort of. Sources in the ACC say the school apparently offered little or no cooperation to the NCAA and its Eliot Ness wannabes, which played a large part in the hefty penalties for such seemingly benign infractions. Which related, mostly in spirit, to the price Southern Cal had to pay for much more severe rule-bending, and the Trojans’ attempts at stonewalling the NCAA wherever possible. Those tactics did SC no favors when the punishments for its crimes were announced, just as they cost Georgia Tech some significant cash and unnecessary embarrassment for a misdeed that is the college sports equivalent of jaywalking.

The message to other schools that might in the future be on the NCAA radar is to cooperate with the investigation no matter how minor the infractions might be. Just ask Georgia Tech or Southern Cal.

As for Tarkanian’s long-ago comments, some believe they still hold at least partly true, although the new orders of the college and media landscape have changed the dynamics. The NCAA can no longer afford to look the other way when one of the big boys flies across the infraction radar. The modern media, fueled by the internet, will make sure the NCAA doesn't turn a blind eye.

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