One disclaimer before you read the article (which I've linked and copied below)... I can assure you that during my nearly-hour-long conversation with Mr. Rhoden, I, AT NO POINT, referred to myself as "the unsung MVP" of the department! Just so that's clear...
Earlier this week, the University of North Carolina completed an impressive run to the Division I men’s basketball national championship. Wayne Ellington was named the most outstanding player of the Final Four, but the unsung M.V.P. for the Tar Heels’ athletics department was a 5-foot-8 mother of two who never took a shot.
Amy Herman was back in Chapel Hill with her 7-month-old and 3-year-old daughters. As the university’s director of compliance, Herman speaks to coaches every other day. She sees the players each month when they pick up scholarship checks. “I’ve actually got to the point where I’ve got a decent relationship with each of them, so I totally felt that I was a part of it,” she said.
At a time when the bar for committing major violations seems lower than ever, Herman and her associates across the country walk a fine line. They are paid by their athletic department, but their overriding responsibility is to protect the university’s interests.
In a highly scrutinized world of big-time intercollegiate athletics, where one violation of the rules can embarrass a university and cause head coaches to lose their jobs and players their eligibility, compliance officers have become an athletics department’s most important employee. Also the most resented. Theirs is a cordial but often contentious relationship.
“There will always be that inherent tension; really, it’s probably better that way for the protection of the institution,” Herman said. “If that tension were to go away, I think you would have trouble.”
The role of the compliance officer became a heightened source of interest last month during the West Region of the N.C.A.A. tournament, when Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun was being grilled about accusations of recruiting violations. Specifically, whether a former UConn student-manager who became a professional sports agent was functioning as a representative of the university during the recruitment of Nate Miles.
Calhoun wondered how he was expected to be familiar with the entire N.C.A.A. manual. “Do you think every N.C.A.A. investigator knows what’s in every one of those 508 pages?” he asked. The manual is 427 pages long.
Herman said: “We don’t expect them to know all the rules because we don’t know all the rules, and we deal with it on a daily basis. What we expect of them is that they know enough of the rules to know when to ask. If they have a question about something or if something raises even a tiny red flag, that they know to pick up the phone and make the call to us.”
Nicole Green, the assistant athletic director at Memphis, tells coaches that they should ask before they act.
“When in doubt, let us figure it out,” Green said.
Last week, the Kentucky men’s coach, John Calipari, set up a meeting with a high school senior who had signed with Kentucky. “I had to ask, could I meet Daniel Orton, who had signed already, at the school,” he said. “They told me: ‘No. You have to meet him away from the school.’ So I had to go off campus.
“If I would have met him at the school, it’s a secondary violation and I would have had to turn it in and it would have been crazy. People would have said, There he goes, that’s what we thought.”
Every N.C.A.A. coach is required to take an annual recruiting certification exam, and cannot recruit off campus until they pass the test.
The second part of the UConn investigation revolves around N.C.A.A. rules that limit how often a coach can call a recruit.
Judy Van Horn, the associate athletics director and senior woman administrator at Michigan, wants to abolish rules about phone calls she feels are unenforceable. “If you have a coach who is intent on cheating, all they have to do is not give you all the phone numbers,” said Van Horn, who is also president of the National Association for Athletics Compliance.
Van Horn’s idea is to put the power into the hands of the student-athletes. Athletes who are inundated by calls or have coaches contacting them from universities they are not interested in attending would be able to go to the N.C.A.A.’s online eligibility center and pull up a list and click on those programs with which they no longer wanted to be associated. An e-mail message would be sent to compliance officers at those universities and the coaches would be told to stop calling. If the calls continued, the recruit could report it to the N.C.A.A.
Such a process would empower the recruit and free the compliance officer. Van Horn said, “I don’t have to worry about whether a coach gives me all the phone numbers or whether there is a disposable phone or whether my coaches are disadvantaged because they are following the rules and I know these coaches out there are not.”
The coaches’ eternal quest for the great player and the competitive edge continues — under the sharp eye of the compliance officers. For all the talk of being on the same team, the compliance director’s primary responsibility is the university’s best interests.Seasons may end, but the N.C.A.A.’s internecine game of cops and robbers never will.