The “paper class” scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill ended with a whimper. A toothless NCAA recognized that it has no power to impose rigorous academic standards on member institutions. Only accrediting agencies (in this case the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools) can judge the credibility of curricula.
UNC came out unscathed. Oddly though, UIUC did not.
“Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life” was a hollow platitude.
The same praise could be offered for Illini basketball’s former academic counselor, Jessica Goerke. But every member of John Groce’s teams would have meant it sincerely. Coaches too.
Goerke was also among the most fashionable persons on campus. So it’s no surprise that she had an idea about helping with a Fashion Design class. Two Illini players enrolled in that course during the autumn semester of 2016. You could probably guess who they were if you follow Illini basketball sartorially, perhaps via Instagram. Mike LaTulip and Kendrick Nunn would be candidates had they been enrolled that semester.
But in fact, it was D.J. Williams and X. X asked not to be identified in this story.
While UNC’s Tarheels celebrated A.C.C. and national championships, while Tarheel (non-)student-athletes accepted unearned degrees; athletes at other universities (like this one here in Urbana-Champaign) faced heightened scrutiny from their own compliance departments, as if academics were the province of the NCAA.
In helping X with his fashion class, Goerke earned a formal reprimand. An investigation concluded that she’d done her job correctly, not exceeding the appropriate level of assistance an academic counselor is expected to provide.
Here’s the official report:
In short, Goerke gave X a used shirt that was otherwise on its way to Goodwill. She gave him the shirt not to wear or sell, but for use in a class assignment. And although X received an entire education, books, computers, unlimited meals, a high-end apartment complex with its own pool, gym & beach volleyball court, and reasonable travel expenses gratis and well within NCAA restrictions; that used shirt was deemed an impermissible benefit.
X was required to pay for it.
But because the shirt had no traceable owner, and was essentially destroyed in pursuit & completion of the academic assignment for which it was offered, X had to pay not for the shirt itself, but for the idea of the shirt. For the same reasons, there was no one to whom X could directly pay for the idea of the shirt. Instead, U of I compliance decided X could pay the value of the shirt to a charity of his choice, which is standard practice in rectifying bullshit NCAA violations.
X says he can’t remember who chose the Make-A-Wish Foundation, but that’s where the money went. He paid $20.
Those of you who frequent thrift stores will immediately recognize that $20 is an outrageous overestimation of retail value, for anything.
The facts emerged during a normal debriefing with Goerke’s supervisor, Marlon Dechausay. That is, Goerke sat in Dechausay’s office and described her on-job activities for the week, and the academic progress of student-athletes assigned to her care.
Dechausay was two months into the job of Associate Director of Athletics/Academic Services. When he heard the story of the polo shirt, he wondered whether an impermissible benefit had been conferred. He reported his findings to Benjy Wilber, himself two months on the job as Director of Compliance.
If this all seems far-fetched, keep in mind the reason X didn’t want to be named in this story: The new staffers weren’t looking for impermissible benefits. They were looking for academic cheating. It wasn’t that the shirt had value. They were investigating whether Illini players were doing their own classwork.
But, as with the NCAA’s Lou Henson-era investigation, the investigators found something. And since those Lou Henson-era investigations, the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics has been proactive about self-reports.
Ironically, the emphasis on academic improprieties shifted focus from day-to-day compliance monitoring. The final compendium on Groce-era violations wouldn’t fill a respectable pamphlet.
That’s odd, because Team Groce exhibited just as many instances of the same secondary-level infraction that Bruce Weber’s administration most frequently violated, the “too many coaches” rule. That rule cost Special Assistant to the Head Coach Gary Nottingham a day’s pay (his penalty for the final iteration of that infraction).
Yet not a single self-report was ever processed by U of I Compliance for the Groce years.
For the first four of those years, Ryan Squire was head of Compliance. I asked for his opinion on the disparity.
My observation is that it was just a difference in the ways that the two staffs were assembled and operated. Gary Nottingham was a lifelong coach who was put in a noncoaching role and had trouble keeping himself from coaching in the heat of the games despite our instructions and warnings.
On Coach Groce’s staff, his noncoaching staff were not people who wanted to be coaches so they were able to avoid any instances where they provided instruction to student-athletes during the games. You may have been familiar with Mark Morris, his operations person, and Darren Hertz, his special assistant. Both of them came from noncoaching backgrounds so it was easier for them to avoid these kinds of violations.
In my observation, Brandon Miller, Groce’s first SATTHC, did not engage in coaching activities during games.
Mark Morris (Director of Basketball Operations) did violate the rule once. That is, I have only one picture of Morris standing up, cupping his hands around his mouth, and hollering something at the game’s participants. I took him aside at Ubben the following week and explained the situation.
“I’m sure you were just yelling at the referee,” I told him. “But you want to avoid that kind of behavior. Someone might conclude that you were coaching.”
It never happened again.
I didn’t see Ryan Pedon engage in coaching during his time as SATTHC. But then Darren Hertz arrived. I don’t recall anything from his first year on the job, so maybe Ryan Squire’s observation was accurate.
And then …
So it would appear that U of I Compliance was distracted.
Now that the UNC investigation has (inconclusively) concluded, perhaps things will return to normal. Brad Underwood’s SATTHC Geoff Alexander would be wise to take a page from Nottingham’s revised playbook, and simply not speak to players during practices and games.
The unspoken story of the DIA’s investigation of X is that Jessica Goerke didn’t provide impermissible academic assistance. Nevertheless, she received a reprimand.
Goerke is no longer with the program. In September, she left Illinois to become Assistant Athletic Director/Academic Support at the University of California-Santa Barbara.
But as X would tell you — if he trusted you and hadn’t been hounded about this very issue by the same people who were ostensibly looking out for his best interests as a student & athlete — the whole thing left a bad taste in his mouth.
Benjy Wilber & men’s basketball Compliance Coordinator Sarah McPhee declined to comment for this story. Marlon Dechausay referred all questions to Associate Director of Athletics/Media Relations Kent Brown, who responded in writing: “The DIA won’t be making a statement about this particular issue. “