PINEHURST, N.C. — If Georgia Tech running back Roddy Jones ever planned to seek advice on how to handle lingering NCAA uncertainty, he didn’t need to look far.
Seated at a table some 20 feet away Sunday were two North Carolina players who spent the past year under a similar cloud.
For more than a year, the NCAA has been investigating allegations of improper benefits and academic misconduct in the Tar Heels’ program. More recently, the Yellow Jackets must give back their 2009 Atlantic Coast Conference championship trophy and vacate their subsequent appearance in the Orange Bowl.
“People make mistakes,” Jones said during the league’s preseason media day. “Understanding that and moving forward from that probably will be the biggest lesson. Dealing with adversity and the stuff that we’re going through now, blocking out distractions. Those are the biggest lessons that we should probably learn from this.”
Those probes have combined to make for yet another long summer across the ACC, and the man who heads the league wants those questions answered so the focus can return to competition — not compliance.
“Any time one of our schools has an NCAA problem, wherever it is and whichever one it is, I’m disappointed and concerned because that’s not who we are as a league,” commissioner John Swofford said. “When you have those kinds of problems, you don’t step back from what your cornerstones are and what you’re all about. You try to fix them and move forward.”
Swofford touched on a range of mostly business- and rule-related topics during his 45-minute question-and-answer session, saying that multi-year scholarships are an idea worth discussing, that college sports are “at a tipping point” because so much money is involved and that the stoked emotions and intense competition in college sports inevitably lead some to exercise bad judgment.
“When those bad choices are made, quite honestly, to have the risk of doing so needs to be that, ‘Hey, I’m not taking that risk. It’s not worth it,’” Swofford said. “I’m not sure we’ve done that.
“I don’t want to get out of balance here in terms of giving you the impression that I think everybody’s head should be cut off. That’s not what I mean,” he added. “But I am for tough ramifications for rule-breakers. I am for consistency and how that’s applied from case to case. I am for expediency. And I am for simplicity, so that people can understand what’s going on, how it’s going on and understand and see the consistency from case to case to case.”
North Carolina continues to wait for the conclusion of an NCAA investigation that surfaced publicly last summer and wound up costing 14 players at least one game.
The school received its notice of allegations from the NCAA in June outlining “potential major violations,” including unethical conduct by former associate head coach John Blake and a failure to monitor the conduct of current and former players, and is scheduled to appear before the NCAA’s committee on infractions in late October.
“Honestly, we don’t really think about that too much,” North Carolina center Jonathan Cooper said. “It’s in the back of our minds, but that’s just it. It’s on the back burner. ... I don’t have any control over what happens.”
Yet he hasn’t been able to keep himself from occasionally wondering just how good the Tar Heels could have been, had seven players — including star defensive end Marvin Austin and receiver Greg Little, both declared permanently ineligible by the NCAA — not been held out all season as part of the probe.
“Sometimes you do find yourself doing that, but you just try to stay away from that and think about what we can do in the future with the guys we do have,” Cooper said. “But you’d be crazy to deny the potential that was there with all the guys that we had.”
The Yellow Jackets, Jones said, don’t want to have those same “what-ifs?” at this time next year.
They were placed on four years of probation, fined $100,000 and stripped of their final three games in 2009 — including their ACC title game win over Clemson and their Orange Bowl loss to Iowa — for using an ineligible player.
“I get to keep my ring, and I get to tell people we won the ACC championship in 2009,” Jones said. “I get to go out and play this year. The NCAA has no bearing on what goes on this year, and we’re very focused on getting back to an ACC championship game this year, because that would really, I guess, alleviate a lot of the stuff that’s been going on around us.”
The NCAA says the school should have declared receiver Demaryius Thomas ineligible for accepting $312 worth of clothing that year from Calvin Booker, a former Georgia Tech quarterback working for an agent. It also said athletic director Dan Radakovich violated NCAA rules by telling coach Paul Johnson that Thomas and another player would soon be interviewed.
Johnson “definitely had to address it when it came up, but in his address, he said, ‘It doesn’t mean anything to us. It doesn’t mean anything to the 2011 team,’” Jones said. “A lot of the guys didn’t play on that team, or didn’t play a lot, or weren’t at Tech at the time. So for the older guys, it’s about setting an example and moving forward, and I think we’ve done a good job of doing that.”