NCAA president Mark Emmert during a news conference in Indianapolis....

NCAA president Mark Emmert during a news conference in Indianapolis. (Aug. 9, 2011) Credit: AP

The history of college football is rife with stories of scandal and wrongdoing, but the epidemic of misdeeds that has come to light in the past two years at many of the biggest powers has reached a grand scale -- Ohio State, Southern California, Oregon, Auburn, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and, most recently, Miami.

Just over a year ago, Dr. Mark Emmert took over as NCAA president and was greeted by a landscape akin to the one Wyatt Earp faced in Tombstone. Lawlessness is rampant, prompting him to call for massive reform.

"Mark is probably dealing with the worst series of major schools being involved in these kinds of situations in a short period of time,'' Big East commissioner John Marinatto said. "He stepped into a situation where all of this stuff, in terms of a perfect storm, seemed to come together. All of those things give us a black eye. Mark wants to deal with those things in a better way from a governance standpoint.''

In the past year, Emmert has met privately with the commissioners of all the BCS conferences, and earlier this month, he convened a retreat attended by 54 university presidents to discuss the actions he wants to take. Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive recently outlined an agenda that Marinatto said reflected the ideas Emmert has discussed in private.

It calls for major changes in four primary areas, including increasing benefits for student- athletes to match the full value of their scholarships, raising eligibility requirements for athletes coming out of high school, streamlining the rules governing recruiting and enhancing enforcement penalties.

"It's his belief -- and I agree -- that we're at a crossroads, and just tweaking things isn't going to get the job done,'' ACC commissioner John Swofford said of Emmert. "We need significant changes to get back on course and address financial sustainability and, more importantly, integrity and the public trust involved with being part of college education.

"He has specific ideas about academic reform and already has begun the overhaul of the compliance situation. We may have more predetermined consequences that focus on what I call the 'felons' as opposed to the 'jaywalkers.' We have to focus our resources on the problems that are truly significant. Hopefully, the process will be quick with strong consequences and, at the same time, fair. There is due process.''

Miami's Hurricanes are at the center of the storm. According to a investigation, former Miami booster Nevin Shapiro admitted providing improper benefits to 72 athletes, including 65 football players, from 2002-10. He is serving a 20-year prison sentence for his role in a Ponzi scheme said to amount to $930 million. Emmert, who declined Newsday's interview request, has said the NCAA investigated Miami for months before Shapiro went public.

On Friday, Miami announced the suspension of 13 football players pending the completion of the NCAA inquiry. Some have speculated that the Hurricanes' football program might be the first to receive the death penalty since Southern Methodist's program was shut down in 1987-88 and forced to start over, and Emmert has left that option open.

"If, and I say if, we have very unique circumstances where TV bans and death penalties are warranted, then I don't think they are off the table and I would be OK with putting those in place,'' Emmert said in an interview with The Associated Press.

He was careful not to specifically reference the ongoing investigation at Miami, but Emmert made it clear he favors harsher penalties, adding, "I think there's a difference between conventional wisdom that's been around for almost 30 years now and what we need to do for appropriate deterrence.''

Cynics wonder if some major college football schools have become too big to fail because of the revenue they generate and the impact it would have on their fellow conference members. Miami is a marquee member of the ACC.

Speaking generally to a question about the practicality of the death penalty in the current economic environment, Swofford said, "If it is a valid option, it would have to be for a terribly egregious violation of the rules. Finances within a conference are intertwined between institutions. You want institutions who defy the rules to pay a significant price, but I don't think most people believe the intent should be to put an institution out of business . . . But I emphasize that no program should be outside the system.''

At the moment, there is a wide gap between penalties for major infractions and those for secondary violations. According to conference commissioners, Emmert is intent on setting up a continuum of penalties to address a range of violations in a more appropriate way. While institutions may suffer more severe penalties, the NCAA is studying ways to enforce penalties against individuals involved in committing rules violations.

"Everyone should be held accountable in dealing with the rulebook,'' Marinatto said. "It's the job of the athletic department or the compliance department to make sure everybody knows the rules. They have to educate everyone on campus and within their fan base as well.''

West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck, who is an attorney, said the NCAA must establish procedures modeled more closely on criminal law. "There needs to be a way to punish individuals if they're found guilty of major wrongdoing,'' Luck said. "You can still penalize the institution in some form or fashion, but really, it's people. If you fine the company, big deal. They just take it out of corporate profits. Individuals only change their behavior if they're looking at serious consequences.

"As a lawyer, I would use the old phrase: 'Known or should have known.' Whoever knew or should have known is liable. It could be the university president, a provost, fundraising folks, the athletic director, coaches. It could be a whole passel of people. That's been the standard applied, and it makes sense.''

West Virginia was facing penalties for violations in football and men's soccer when Luck became athletic director more than a year ago, and the NCAA accepted the school's self-imposed penalties. Luck said the onus should shift from the NCAA, which must oversee a wide variety of schools, to each university, which is responsible only for upholding its own standards.

"I just think that the power structure within [a] university, which starts with the chancellor or university president and filters down, needs to get much more proactive," Luck said. "I've only been doing this for a year, but compliance people need to be aggressive, and they need to feel empowered to look at these things because this stuff doesn't happen in a vacuum.

"There clearly needs to be a sharper focus on university administration . . . The athletic department should be something looked at extraordinarily closely by the entire university. A lot more transparency is necessary.''

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