Murphy, Paxton Situations Demonstrate New Landscape

Money has changed college baseball

DALLAS—College baseball's offseason was full of big-picture stories. The NCAA continued to enforce the "no agent" rule, which it had virtually ignored in baseball for the last 20 years, and seems likely to keep Kentucky lefthander James Paxton—the top-rated senior in the country—off the mound. (For more on Paxton, see Aaron Fitt's story and the College blog.)

In December and January, attention turned to the schedule, which was compressed two seasons ago to 13 weeks to play 56 games. Division I coaches argued successfully for the season to expand to a reasonable 14 weeks, but the 56-game schedule continues to come up for debate with university presidents. American Baseball Coaches Association president Dave Keilitz says more often than not, cuts to the 56-game schedule get discussed, and in January, Division II decided to cut the baseball schedule, down to 50 games.

The other bit of news that came out of the ABCA convention in Dallas was how well college baseball as a sport is doing, at least financially. The new TD Ameritrade Park is being built in downtown Omaha and will provide a venue, built at a cost of around $150 million, that is essentially there just for the College World Series. Creighton will play there, but somehow I don't think Creighton would have built a $150 million ballpark with four clubhouses on its own.

Television ratings hit a peak for the CWS in 2009, and interest in the game has never been higher. But that's a double-edged sword.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Many college baseball coaches liked it better when the NCAA didn't pay much attention, and frankly the NCAA didn't pay much attention until there were crises. That has changed in the last few years because college baseball has become profitable. The NCAA even referred to baseball as a "revenue sport," lumping it in with men's basketball and football in an Academic Progress Report in 2009.

It's that increased scrutiny that produced the Paxton situation, a sequel to Oklahoma State lefthander Andy Oliver's 2008 suspension prior to regional play. Oliver fought the NCAA all year and won in court, but then settled out of court and the NCAA reinstated its no-agent rule. Paxton and Oliver did what baseball prospects have done for years, but now the NCAA has decided to enforce the rule.

This atmosphere appears to have aided the forced resignation of Pat Murphy at Arizona State as well. Since his November resignation, Murphy has made only one public statement, but others have been speaking for him. At the ABCA convention, two Murphy confidants echoed the sentiments of big leaguer Willie Bloomquist, who played for Murphy in the late 1990s who penned an op-ed piece in an Arizona newspaper in January.

The actual allegations against Murphy, Bloomquist and his defenders insist, did not rise to the level of firable offenses. Murphy and his assistants are alleged to have made too many phone calls to recruits, to have improperly logged those calls, and then to have conspired to get their stories straight to prepare for an NCAA investigation. They don't even necessarily dispute that those things happened, though Murphy's representatives downplay the number and significance of the phone calls. Does a dropped cell-phone call count as a call? Do compliance directors across NCAA institutions use the same standards for how recruiting calls are logged?

Show Me The Money

Whatever the specifics, Arizona State clearly was spooked by the NCAA's investigation into the baseball program. According to Murphy's representatives, Arizona State's own internal investigation considered the phone-call issues to be secondary NCAA violations. In documents obtained after BA went to press, in fact, I learned that Arizona State's own internal review told the Pacific-10 Conference office that a joint inquiry between ASU and the Pac-10 had found four violations, all "secondary in nature." The report, whose introduction is signed by athletic director Lisa Love, was put together after interviews with 44 sources and coordinated by the Indianapolis-based law firm Ice Miller LLP. It concludes:

"All eligibility issues were timely identified and processed in accordance with NCAA legislation and no student-athletes competed while ineligible during the 2007 season. The University believes that although several infractions were discovered from this review . . . these violations do not represent a deliberate attempt to obtain a significant or material advantage for ASU's baseball program or its student-athletes. Thus, ASU did not gain any unfair advantage over our competitors . . . (and) they should be processed by the NCAA as secondary violations."

But the NCAA's read was different; it levied a "lack of institutional control" charge at Arizona State, the second in five years. (The other stemmed from a shooting incident in 2005 between two Sun Devils football players.) While this was the first such charge made during the tenure of Love, who was hired in July 2005, it was the second during school president Michael Crow's term, which began in 2002.

It's a neat theory, and one that paints Murphy's mistakes in a more flattering light. Murphy's defenders contend that other programs did many of the same things. One of the minor allegations against Murphy, they say, is that volunteer coaches and baseball operations staffers performed functions reserved for on-field coaches, such as throwing batting practice or hitting fungoes.

Coaches from other schools confirmed that they were forced to meet with NCAA investigators, with no prior knowledge of what the meetings were about. NCAA investigators then showed them video—shot apparently by Arizona State—of those teams using their volunteer coaches in similar fashion.

Murphy's next move is up in the air. He's still not talking, but those close to the coach insist he wants to remain a college coach, rather than move on to the pro side. If he is hired by another NCAA institution, Murphy should realize, in light of his ASU situation and the Paxton case, that the NCAA is paying attention to college baseball now.

Coaches and players can't get away with status quo ante pecunium—that is, college baseball before it made money.