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March Madness Threatened by Dollar Dementia: Scott Soshnick

One thought came to mind while watching DePaul face Connecticut in the opening game of the Big East tournament the other day: What is UConn coach Jim Calhoun doing here?

The National Collegiate Athletic Association, the governing body for college sports, last month imposed a three-game suspension against Calhoun for his failure to monitor recruiting violations that included more than $6,000 in improper benefits given to a former player. Only three games, but that’s another story. This isn’t about the what, but the when.

Calhoun, a hall of fame coach who led UConn to national championships in 1999 and 2004, will serve his suspension next season. Caught today, punished tomorrow -- in other words, when really important games, the kind that networks pay billions to televise, aren’t being played.

The NCAA, mind you, last year announced a 14-year television, Internet and wireless rights agreement with CBS and Turner Broadcasting to present its marquee men’s basketball tournament. The networks paid almost $11 billion for the right to televise what’s known as March Madness.

For that amount of money, CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus and Turner Sports President David Levy said the other day, the network bosses each should be allowed to hand-pick a Final Four team beforehand. They were joking, of course, but you can’t ignore just how much influence television executives have over sports decision-makers these days. Those doling out punishments included.

Premier Program

After all, UConn is a premier program. And Calhoun is its face. Network bosses want him and the Huskies around for the long haul. Just like they want Mike Krzyzewski and his tradition-rich Duke Blue Devils, who, because they’re loved and loathed, deliver huge audiences. For TV folks, the first two rounds of the tournament are about upsets. The Final Four, however, is about big-name coaches and dominant teams.

Higher ratings mean higher prices for commercials and Internet ad rates, which in turn let the networks enrich the NCAA.

Besides Calhoun’s punishment, if you can even call it that, UConn will forfeit a total of three scholarships, one each year through the 2012-13 season, and serve a three-year probation period when it will face recruiting restrictions.

“The head coach is responsible for what’s going on in his program,” said Dennis Thomas, chairman of the NCAA’s Division I Committee on Infractions.

This isn’t about UConn. It’s about the NCAA and how it deals, or doesn’t, with punishment. The NCAA, because of money, is fond of practicing deferred discipline, which is why too many coaches haven’t taken the necessary steps to rid their programs of rules-breaking shenanigans.

High Time

The time has come for the caretakers of college athletics to once and for all send a message that coaches, many of them the highest-paid employees at their universities, will pay a hefty price when their program runs afoul of regulations.

The NCAA has a funny habit of letting star players and coaches pay for their mistakes on layaway.

Take, for example, the five Ohio State football players -- including quarterback Terrelle Pryor -- who last season received five-game suspensions for selling awards, gifts and university apparel.

Only the punishments didn’t begin immediately. All of the players were allowed to participate in the Sugar Bowl, where a game with no stars means no interest, no tickets and no ratings. The players will serve their suspension at the outset of the 2011 season, missing games against Akron, Toledo, Miami (Florida), Colorado and Michigan State.

Sanctions Needed

This is the same football program that two days ago suspended coach Jim Tressel for the first two games of this year’s season and fined him $250,000 for failing to notify the school of the players’ involvement in the rules-breaking practice of selling memorabilia.

Next up is the NCAA, which can -- and must -- add sanctions.

Remember what Thomas, the NCAA infractions committee chairman, said: The head coach is responsible for what’s going on in his program.

Tressel can’t argue, as other coaches have, that it’s impossible to police a roster of young men. This isn’t about what some teenager did. This is about the coach covering up what he had to know would result in suspensions to some of his best players.

Ohio State is a heavyweight program. Tressel is the face. He single handedly made the sweater vest cool around the university’s hometown of Columbus.

Any penalty has to hurt. Shame can be a powerful motivator. Just ask Calhoun, who in the Big East opener removed Alex Oriakhi from the starting lineup. The kid responded with 25 points and a team-best 19 rebounds off the bench for the Huskies, who then beat Georgetown for the right to face top-seeded Pittsburgh today.

That’s a lesson for the NCAA.

(Scott Soshnick is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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