Louisville's punishment isn't ringing so hollow anymore, and it shows NCAA can hit schools where it hurts

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — As of 1:15 p.m. local time Tuesday, the banner still was in the rafters at the KFC Yum! Center. Workers were busy on the arena floor, oblivious to what was hanging high above them, and its freshly sealed fate.

On red cloth, in white letters, it says, “2013 NCAA Champions.” And after the NCAA again lowered the boom, it is time to lower the banner. Roll it up, put it in a closet and wear the shame of it all.

Just 75 minutes earlier, the NCAA had released the ruling in Louisville’s appeal of sanctions applied in 2017 — sanctions that would strip the Cardinals of the most recent of its three basketball national championships. The school’s appeal had been denied, to the surprise of very few but to the indignation of a great many in this basketball-obsessed city.

“We believe the NCAA is simply wrong to have made this decision,” said Louisville interim president Gregory Postel.

“My emotions go from mad to sad,” said Louisville interim athletic director Vince Tyra.

I asked one longtime Louisville staffer, one of the most upbeat people I know, how he was doing.

“Shi–y,” he said, and walked off.

Louisville must vacate its 2013 men’s basketball title following an NCAA appeals panel’s decision to uphold sanctions against the men’s program due to a sex scandal case. The Cardinals will have to vacate 123 victories including the championship, and return some $600,000 in conference revenue from the 2012-15 NCAA tournaments. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

For the first time in college basketball history — but not college sports history — a championship banner is coming down.

The sport had dodged this dark day a few times — a lot of Final Four appearances have been vacated over the years, but never a title. Closest call came when Mario Chalmers’ buzzer-beating 3-pointer saved Memphis from occupying that place in infamy a decade ago. (Instead, John Calipari has to settle for being the only coach to have Final Fours at two different schools vacated — the other being Massachusetts.)

Now here it is. And the impact is very real.

For years, people have made fun of the NCAA penalty of vacating wins from the record books. They said it was a hollow punishment, just another way in which the governing body of college sports failed to deal substantive blows to those who broke the rules.

They’re wrong. This hits schools where it hurts.

Ask the people in Louisville, who Tuesday saw the signature moment of the Rick Pitino Era ripped from the record books. (Along with the 2012 Final Four, which also was vacated.) Even before the federal investigation of corruption in college basketball piled on top of this scandal and ran Pitino out of town, plenty of Louisville fans would gladly have traded their Hall of Fame coach for keeping that banner.

And ask the people at Notre Dame. When their appeal of an NCAA ruling vacating all football victories in the 2012 and ’13 football seasons due to academic fraud was denied last week, the school was furious. University president Rev. John Jenkins released a strident letter in response, calling the NCAA’s view of academic autonomy “perverted” and saying Notre Dame is “deeply disappointed” and “strongly disagreed” with the findings.

The vacation of wins at Notre Dame affects the Fighting Irish’s 12-1 season of 2012, when they played Alabama in the BCS Championship Game. That stood as the school’s most successful season since winning its last national title in 1988 — but now it is officially off the books.

The reactions from the two schools and their fans make clear a couple of things:

* Winning an NCAA ruling appeal is a long shot. Neither school enjoyed the process of the appeal hearing, that’s for sure, and harboring any hopes of a reversal of a major Infractions Committee ruling is wishful thinking.

* Vacating records leaves a mark — not just in terms of record books, but also in prestige and community morale. Schools hang those banners for a very good reason — to memorialize accomplishments, to remind everyone of the good times, to perpetuate the expectation of more good times to come.

When the banners come down and the trophies go into storage, embarrassment and disappointment fill the void. History was made and now history is nullified.

Which, generally speaking, is how it should be for major rules violators. The punishment should be severe. As we have seen with the developing storm clouds related to the aforementioned federal investigation, the NCAA’s chronic inability to catch and prosecute cheaters has led to rampant cheating, which means those who are busted should be subjected to harsh sanctions.

That day is likely coming for many basketball programs — including Louisville, which is just now dealing with its first dose of strong medicine with another to come.

If it were up to me, the next dose would be fatal: Shut down Louisville basketball for a season. It almost certainly won’t come to that, but it might be the only thing to rid the city of a newfound victim mentality.

Louisville fans — and some local media members — were taking up NCAA-bashing with great vigor Tuesday. As much as Postel disagreed with the appeal ruling, he sure wasn’t going to play the “But North Carolina Got Away With Everything” card or try to minimize what actually led to these sanctions.

Which, reminder, was this: strippers and hookers in the dorm, “entertaining” players and recruits, some of whom were minors. It was as lurid as it gets.

“People don’t send their children to a university to encounter those kind of things,” Postel said. “It’s appalling.”

Louisville’s issue is how the appalling circumstances fit in the NCAA’s famously flawed rules manual. Did the Infractions Committee enhance penalties because it was filled with righteous indignation? Probably. Did the Appeals Committee halfheartedly indulge Louisville’s argument and basically say, “Don’t care. Strippers in the dorm”? Perhaps.

“The overriding nature is so appalling,” Postel said, “they don’t listen.”

So the takeaway is this: Don’t have your staffers engage in appalling stuff. If they do and get caught, the sanctions could be massive — up to and including taking down a national championship banner.

And if you don’t think that’s a painful penalty, come to Louisville and ask the fans how they’re feeling right about now.

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