NCAA spares USC Gamecocksavoid punishment beyond self-imposed penalties

South Carolina athletic director Eric Hyman and football coach Steve Spurrier. File/Associated Press

COLUMBIA — The University of South Carolina’s self-imposed penalties and cooperation with the NCAA turned out to be enough, as the NCAA decided Friday to not punish USC further for major violations of its rules, primarily involving the football program.

USC’s most significant self-imposed penalties were three years of probation, a loss of six football scholarships, a reduction of three scholarships for the incoming freshman football classes of 2013 and 2014, and a fine of $18,500. The NCAA accepted all the penalties and also cited USC for failing to monitor its athletic department — a charge USC agreed with.

The NCAA Committee on Infractions said it “decided not to impose more stringent sanctions in this case, including a postseason ban, because the cooperation exhibited by the institution went beyond its obligations under (NCAA bylaws), the violations were limited in scope, the institution self-imposed significant penalties and there was no unethical conduct in this case.”

USC self-imposed penalties in December while admitting major violations in its football program in 2009 and 2010. The school essentially pled guilty to all of the NCAA’s accusations, rather than trying to hide from them. And that was a major development in the case.

In February, USC representatives met with the Committee on Infractions in Los Angeles to discuss the case. The committee had the option of adding penalties, such as exclusion from bowl games, which it has done in other cases involving major violations.

“A university has a choice to make,” said the committee’s chairman, Britton Banowsky, who is the commissioner of Conference USA. “It was obvious to the (Committee on Infractions) staff that the university wanted to get to the truth. In some cases, they went beyond what the NCAA was doing (in the investigation).”

As part of an investigation that began in summer 2010, the NCAA charged USC with three major infractions in September: athletes receiving impermissibly discounted rates at a Columbia hotel, two USC graduates giving athletes and recruits improper benefits, and USC failing to monitor both situations, which the NCAA said resulted in athletes receiving $59,000 of improper benefits, including $51,000 from the hotel.

USC athletic director Eric Hyman said the school went beyond the NCAA’s investigation by doing “a lot of things from an interview standpoint, from a discovery standpoint. We were intent on finding where we made our mistakes and to try to not make those mistakes again. When we found something, we weren’t trying to hide anything.”

The NCAA slightly tweaked USC’s scholarship reduction, while not eliminating more scholarships. The football team is normally allowed to carry 85 scholarship players. USC proposed that number be reduced to 84 next season, 82 in 2013 and 83 in 2014. The NCAA decided USC will play with 85 next season and 82 in both 2013 and 2014.

The NCAA made no other changes to USC’s self-imposed penalties and announced that the school’s three-year probation period began Friday. If USC violates NCAA rules during that period, it could face stricter penalties than it normally would.

USC self-imposed the $18,500 fine because four football players competed while ineligible in 2009.

USC could have faced harsher punishment as a repeat violator of NCAA rules. The football program committed major violations under coach Lou Holtz, who preceded current coach Steve Spurrier. The probation period stemming from those violations ended in 2008, for a case decided in November 2005. The Committee on Infractions had the option of invoking the repeat violator clause, because the recent violations occurred within a five-year window of that punishment.

But in the end, the committee gave USC credit for its openness in the investigation and decided to not drop the hammer. Hyman believes USC avoided additional punishment largely because senior associate athletic director Judy Van Horn oversaw an internal investigation that the NCAA deemed thorough and cooperative. Hyman hired her in November 2010, several months after the NCAA launched its investigation. “I’ve said this numerous times: She was just what the doctor ordered,” Hyman said. “I hugged Judy when she came here, and I hugged her today after this was overwith.”