NCAA: GOOD NEWS AND BAD FOR U-M

Everyone checks their mail this time of year. But the folks at Michigan weren’t looking for Christmas cards. They were waiting for a letter to render judgment on their basketball program. And this week, just before the holidays, the NCAA dropped some news in the mailbox.

Now, in the spirit of the holidays, I will not reprint the actual NCAA language here, since reprinting anything the NCAA says could result in instant sleep, and who needs that with all the Christmas shopping left to do?

Instead, I will give you the essence of the message, the likely end result and then take questions. You know. The Cliff Notes version.

Ready?

ESSENCE OF MESSAGE: “Tom Goss, we agree with you.”

The NCAA found no smoking guns. After poking into the situation, it basically unearthed the same thing Michigan unearthed with its internal probe: 1) some evidence of small violations, 2) some whispers of big ones, 3) nobody who is willing to talk.

And as I’ve been saying since this thing began, if the NCAA — which is not the FBI — can’t get people to talk, it has to live with the lack of results.

So in the end, the only charges leveled were that a booster gave some improper cakes and rides to recruits and their families, that this same booster was improperly present at a recruiting visit, and that this booster was improperly visited by U-M players with a recruit.

Of course this booster, the central figure in this whole mess, is the former autoworker/basketball junkie named Ed Martin.

He doesn’t talk. Not to the NCAA. Not to the press. He denies everything. And so, without hard-core proof of any terrible violations (such as stuffing cash in a player’s pocket), the NCAA had little choice but to conclude what it did, which is pretty much what U-M’s law firm concluded.

Still with us?

A slap on the wrist

LIKELY RESULT: This is what most fans want to know. What’s going to happen to the U-M program? My guess is — and I’ve also been saying this all along — very little. Secondary violations such as these are not enough to close a program down, or even to cause it to forfeit an appearance in March Madness.

The NCAA is giving Michigan until the end of January to recommend its own punishment. Goss says he’s already suggested “limiting a couple of scholarships” for the team. This is not uncommon. I wouldn’t be surprised if the NCAA says, “Yeah, that sounds right. Case closed.”

Still with us? OK.

QUESTIONS:

What’s the best part of this for U-M?

That the NCAA didn’t feel the need to send its army into Ann Arbor and conduct a full-blown, all-out investigation. This means the end of this affair is within sight.

What’s the worst part for U-M?

That Martin was indeed considered a “representative” of U-M athletic interests. In other words, a booster. Under that definition, the school is on the line for anything he did wrong.

Is the reason the NCAA is not pushing further because U-M already fired its coach and has a new athletic director in place?

It’s possible. The NCAA will never admit this, and when I asked it of athletic director Goss, he said, “I don’t know” — which is often a way of saying, “I’m not going to admit that.”

The fact is, the NCAA may well feel that U-M has been punished enough, that the old regime is gone, and that new personnel are not likely to allow Ed Martin within 100 miles of the team.

Does that mean that firing coach Steve Fisher was the right thing?

Not at all. As I’ve said all along, Fisher was fired because the new bosses didn’t like the way he did business. Goss and president Lee Bollinger felt the shadows around the program were not seemly for U-M. There is no right or wrong. They’re the bosses. It’s their prerogative.

But would Fisher have been fired anyhow with these NCAA findings?

Not necessarily. There are coaches all over America whose programs have been found guilty of similar things, and they’re still on the bench.

Any more questions?

The bottom line

Last one. Is this good or bad for Michigan?

Well, let’s be honest. It’s never good when the NCAA says, “We agree, your school is guilty of infractions.” The best thing would have been if none of this ever happened.

The good news for Michigan is it will keep its program mostly intact. The bad news is this whole thing has been an embarrassing lesson in how much control it takes to keep a high-profile basketball team operating under the onerous rules of the NCAA. You have to watch everything and everybody. And players need to clearly know who’s safe and who’s not.

Having said all that, I want to add this. Somewhere in Ann Arbor, for the first time in decades, Steve Fisher and his family are preparing for a Christmas without a team or schedules or games or practices. And knowing how much he loves coaching, I know this hurts. I have never believed that Fisher did anything maliciously, nor was he trying to cheat the rules with Ed Martin. It doesn’t mean he’s blameless; it was on his watch, and the captain takes the blame.

But when that letter arrived, it was almost like sending a storm report after a hurricane. The damage is done. Lives have been changed. All that remains now is a final punishment, another piece of mail coming from the NCAA.

That one won’t have Santa on it, either.

Mitch Albom will sign copies of his new book, “Tuesdays With Morrie,” 7:30-8:30 p.m. tonight, Borders, Flint; 10:30 a.m.-noon Saturday, Barnes & Noble, Saginaw; and 2-3 p.m. Saturday, B. Dalton, Oakland Mall, Troy. To leave a message for Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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