NCAA investigating Tennessee's use of hostesses in recruiting: fallout from aggressive recklessness?

Well. While y'all and the rest of the sports world were discussing the NCAA's investigation into Tennessee's recruiting practices and its use of its hostess program, I was recovering from some particularly nasty bug, watching reruns of JAG in the dark on the sofa for the past two days. For what it's worth, here's my take.

Let me start with what I don't know, either because it hasn't been reported, it is still in dispute, or just because I'm playing catch up and haven't seen it yet. First, I don't know all of the pertinent NCAA rules except for the one that reportedly prohibits university representatives from recruiting players off campus. I have no reason to doubt that, but there are obviously some exceptions to that rule. Coaches go to high school games and players' homes, right? What other exceptions might there be? I also don't know whether the NCAA is more interested in the hostesses' trip to the South Carolina game or their use of social media to communicate with recruits. I don't know if the hostesses were asked to do any of that by the coaching staff or whether they did it on their own. I don't know whether or how much that matters, whether they can put on and take off their hostess hats or whether once they join the program the word HOSTESS is stamped onto their foreheads until they graduate or leave the program.

So, there's a lot we don't yet  know, and it's probably best to just wait and see what the investigation uncovers, what rules are implicated, what those rules actually mean, and how they apply to the situation.

I do, however, have a couple of preliminary thoughts. First, assuming that the NCAA rules don't expressly address the use of social media in communicating with recruits, I would bet that Kiffin and his staff are not only using it but are pushing the limits with it and that other coaches have turned them in for it. Why? It's happened before.

Back in February, 2009, I posed this question to Bruce Feldman, author of Meat Market, the seminal book on college football recruiting:

RTT: Back in 2006, there were reports that some unidentified coach had been reported by some seven different schools for alleged recruiting violations. Do you think it was Orgeron they were reporting, and what do you think it was all about? Could it have had something to do with Orgeron's staff videotaping prospects at their high school practices, which I understand was a loophole that Orgeron had discovered and was exploiting before anyone else had thought of it?

FELDMAN: Honestly, there’s probably not a coach in the country who starts doing well on the recruiting trial that hasn’t been allegedly "reported" for some supposed recruiting violations. Remember the mess around Nick Saban down in Florida or the Urban Meyer/Carl Moore stories? Ron Zook? I think the thing that happens quite a bit is some coach tells a reporter they know "Off the record, just a heads up here: The league office might be looking into so-and-so for some recruiting violations . . . . " And then it appears as a blind item in some notes column, a blog or on some message board, and how often does anything really substantial come of it? Very rarely.

The videotaping of practices and basketball games and just about anything else Orgeron could get his assistants to observe while they were out on the road apparently caught a lot of other college coaches off guard. There was a lot of suspicion about what the Rebel coaches were up to. But Ole Miss had checked with its compliance office and found out it wasn’t against the rules so Orgeron had them all go out on the road with camcorders. I’ll never forget how fired up Orgeron was to see that footage of Bradley Sowell doing footwork drills or Chris Walker flying all over the basketball court.

One thing I learned about Lane Kiffin and his staff this season is that they're aggressive. There's been a lot of talk about the six secondary violations Kiffin's had since he's been here and the many comments Kiffin's made to and about other SEC coaches and SEC officials, and one of the main questions is whether this is all a result of sheer stupidity or some intentional master plan.

I think it's neither of those as much as it is just planned aggression, a sort of intentional recklessness with an understanding that it can be high risk, high reward, or a combination of both. On the field, if you go for the 1st on 4th down, you might keep a drive alive and even go on to score. On the other hand, you could give half the field to your opponent. Off the field, aggression can get you additional scrutiny and increase the odds of violations of the many rules of an over-regulated area, but it can also get you an excellent recruiting class.

One of the areas in which Kiffin is aggressive is in exploiting loopholes and soft spots in the regulations and directives from authorities, which is often viewed as an unfair advantage by others who are not as aggressive. Orgeron's use of video cameras at high school camps and practices is just one example. It ticked off the other SEC coaches who either hadn't thought of it or weren't innovative enough to see the benefit of new technology that wasn't expressly prohibited by the rules. Perhaps they were a bit timid or more submissive to the over-careful compliance department and would rather report Orgeron and get a ruling from the authorities than try it themselves. If I remember correctly, Nick Saban's use of video conferencing a couple of years back was the same sort of thing.

Perhaps Facebook and MySpace and Twitter is the new mode of communication with recruits that is not actually prohibited. I don't know, because I haven't actually looked at the rules, but I know that bodies that tend to overregulate every little thing are usually playing catch up to technology.

According to Feldman, rivals ratting out other coaches for trying something new happens all of the time, and that's exactly what I think may have happened here, especially considering the source of the original report.

The very first thing that struck me about the original article was that it came from the New York Times. The New York Times? Really? Not ESPN's Chris Low (long the best-sourced reporter on UT athletics) or a Knoxville beat reporter like Wes Rucker or Austin Ward? Not someone from the South Carolina local media?

Why is that? Was it perhaps, as Feldman suggested nearly a year ago, because these guys are always hearing stuff like this and recognizing it for what it is? Maybe they really hadn't already heard and discounted it, and maybe they would have done exactly the same thing the NYT guys did had they gotten it first, but I doubt that they would have used the phrase "oral commitment" (recruiting experts use the phrase "verbal commitment") or exaggerated for effect the six secondary violations Tennessee's had over the past year without also mentioning that that number pales in comparison to several other notable schools that are not getting nearly as much publicity for it.

No, it looks to me like somebody fearful of the possible high-reward of Kiffin's intentional aggression took the complaint to reporter who knew little about college football recruiting with the hopes that he would buy the exaggerated version and hit the publish button.

At least that's what I hope it is -- Kiffin and his staff poking at the soft spots in the rules and permissively exploiting loopholes inadvertently left open by the rules committee. Or hostesses acting on their own without a full knowledge of the rules. Or whatever set of facts results in either no violation or an inadvertent violation of rules due to an aggressive recruiting culture.

Of course, it's also quite possible that Kiffin and his staff either didn't know the rules or didn't interpret them correctly and will get the program it's first major violation for this. Or that it doesn't matter, and the hostesses acting on their own constitutes a major violation. We just don't know all of the facts yet or the rules that will be implicated or how they'll be applied to the facts that are discovered.

We just have to wait and see.

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