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Bill Self vs. The NCAA: The Inside Story that Nearly Changed KU Hoops History

Part one of a series looking behind-the-scenes at the NCAA's IARP investigations

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  1. Inside Story of The NCAA vs. Bill Self

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Part One: Bill Self vs. The NCAA

In the early morning hours after winning his second national title, Bill Self was still partying in the eighth floor conference room of the New Orleans JW Marriott. The clock pushed past 6 a.m. Self’s players, past and present, passed around a flower vase full of Tito’s Vodka like it was the Stanley Cup. But behind Self’s celebration, there was a secret that made the championship all the more special.

He had tried, more than once, to sit out the NCAA Tournament he’d just won.

Just one month earlier, Self agreed to sacrifice himself. He told the NCAA he'd sideline himself for the entire 2022 NCAA Tournament if KU could move past the five Level 1 violation charges against his program.

It was a staggering concession, the sort of trophy the NCAA needed to fix its public image in the wake of a major college basketball corruption scandal. For Self, it would protect the long-term future of Kansas basketball. Both sides could move on.

The reason it never happened, according to sources inside the process, was the NCAA’s system itself. Over the last 20 months, KUHearings investigated the veiled inner workings of the NCAA’s deliberately complex world. More than a dozen people involved detailed a failed process: dissenters ousted, independence kneecapped, allegations deemed void of “value or merit,” and destroyed reputations for those caught in its seemingly never-ending path.

I'm more and more convinced (the NCAA) is the worst bureaucracy in the history of bureaucracies,” said one involved source. “It’s something awesome to behold in terms of their bureaucratic stubbornness and lack of flexibility.”

Enter the IARP. Introduced in 2019, it stood for “Independent Accountability Resolution Process” and promised to be a game changer — a noble attempt at minimizing perceived conflicts of interest in enforcement. It promised to be “completely independent from the NCAA.”

For the first time, truly independent parties witnessed the NCAA’s opaque rule-enforcement process. It turns out the promise of the IARP was too good to be true.

Self and the IARP’s independent investigators, lawyers and experts all came to an agreement for Self to sit out the NCAA Tournament in 2022. In the normal world, this is called a settlement. But this is the NCAA’s world. The decision to accept the agreement wasn’t up to the independent experts.

Instead, the decision went to a controlling few that sat above the new IARP process, officially titled the “The Independent Oversight Committee.” On paper, however, the group doesn’t seem so independent.

Splashy names like NBA star Grant Hill and former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates headlined the Oversight Committee, though Gates later left the group. The other two members also happened to serve as respective chair and vice chair of the Division 1 Board of Directors, the powerful rule making body in charge of the NCAA.

By the end of the IARP’s existence, all four oversight members either currently or recently sat on an NCAA board.

And the independent lawyers saw the world differently than NCAA enforcement.

Each of the five Level I charges against Kansas could have resulted in a four-year postseason ban. On Wednesday, six years after the saga started, Kansas walked away virtually unscathed and the IARP officially disbanded.

In an exclusive email statement to KUHearings, Christina Sarchio, the independent attorney who led the panel on Kansas, said it was an honor to work with the other distinguished experts who reached the independent conclusion.

“Regardless of your team allegiance, it's unfortunate that the IARP has been dissolved,” Sarchio said. “The IARP [was created] to provide a fair, impartial, and independent process for resolving NCAA infractions cases. Ours was the last case to have the benefit of this process. What now?”

If the NCAA wanted to see Kansas get punished, its bureaucratic maze instead became its own undoing.

The idea of independent oversight wasn’t popular within the NCAA from the start.

To some insiders, the NCAA’s problem with the IARP was that it threatened one of the NCAA’s primary functions as a watchdog of amateurism and fairness in sport. One former NCAA employee said the creation of the independent process led to “agitation” internally. Another source involved directly in the IARP cases took it further.

"It's a simple thing called job security,” the person said.

The IARP was born from recommendations made by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the wake of a 2017 FBI case linking apparel companies to illegal college basketball recruitments. Rice called NCAA rules “incomprehensible” and laid out a number of sweeping recommendations in 2018. Independent enforcement was the headliner.

The NCAA responded with a system that couldn’t get out of its own way. The IARP was limited by layers of oversight on top of oversight, acronyms on top of acronyms, and toothless rules that couldn’t hold anyone accountable to its own deadlines.

Cases dragged on for years without findings or penalties. Eventually, the national narrative shifted. Prominent media members blamed the IARP for dragging its feet. It was hardly mentioned, though, that the same people who govern the NCAA were also governing the IARP.

Multiple sources said the NCAA didn’t consult the independent panelists on how to move cases along faster. Panel members — who weren’t allowed to speak publicly to defend themselves — began to conclude that the attempt at oversight wasn’t genuine.

“People need to know this really good idea that didn’t get off the ground because nobody seemed serious about it,” said a source.

While independent oversight can be vital to industries and even free societies, multiple sources said the NCAA set up the IARP for failure. From the beginning, they asserted that it never had a chance.

Kansas was thrown into the bureaucratic nightmare in 2017.

The NCAA’s allegations against the school were delivered with more of a sledgehammer than a scalpel: Five Level I violations, including two allegations that particularly stung — a lack-of-institutional control and a head coach responsibility charge against Self.

The consequences Kansas faced appeared historic. On his May 2020 podcast, national college sports insider Pat Forde said the Kansas case could result in some of “the biggest penalties we’ve ever seen.”

In order to charge Kansas with such serious penalties, the NCAA had to show that Self was negligent in allowing a non-compliant atmosphere to occur. So the organization proposed a rule change that would shift the modern landscape of college athletics: declaring Adidas, as a booster, not a sponsor. Nevermind the fact that the NCAA has known about the influence of shoe companies on college basketball since 1991.

When, exactly, Adidas went from paying sponsor to booster has never been defined by the NCAA.

“All nonsense,” said one source, with no ties to Kansas, about the charges against the school. The IARP later agreed.

In other instances, the IARP determined allegations against KU were beyond the NCAA’s jurisdiction. Kansas was initially charged with a Level I Failure to Cooperate violation. The reason? The school didn’t assume the legal risk of sharing a federal Grand Jury Subpoena with the NCAA.

There were other oddities in the initial allegations against KU, including a “history of violations” committed by the school. Yet five of the six cases the NCAA identified took place either 32 or 63 years earlier. The most recent case involving KU was in 2006, 14 years before the new allegations.

The point wasn’t included in the IARP’s final 162-page report.

On Nov. 17, 2021, the Independent Oversight Committee – the group of NCAA Board members sitting above the investigators and panelists – officially got involved. According to multiple people familiar with the process, the Oversight Committee made a decision to deny the settlement behind closed doors.

Kansas was told the rules didn’t allow for a settlement. In reality, the rules don’t mention settlements at all. It was left open to interpretation.

"Every other institution in the United States is set up to try to find alternative ways to resolve disputes," said another source involved. "It's an idiotic idea that you can't allow informal resolution."

Kansas wasn’t the only school involved in attempts to settle. Two sources told KUHearings former Louisville head coaches Rick Pitino and Chris Mack both independently expressed interest in settlements to varying degrees. Both sources struggled to have a clear understanding of who exactly decided the coaches couldn’t settle.

Oversight Committee member, University of San Diego President James Harris III, however, pushed back on the idea of interference from the NCAA. Harris also recently served as vice chair of the rule-making Division I Board of Directors and chair of the NCAA’s Infractions Process Committee.

"The committee is looking at, 'Is it fair? How do we follow the rules?'” Harris told KUHearings. "I don’t see there being [NCAA] sway. You’re talking about really powerful people. These folks are not going to bend to the will of the NCAA."

Meanwhile, in January 2022, that same Division I Board of Directors that Harris heads suspended referring cases to the IARP, effectively spiking the idea of independent oversight. The recommendation to do so came from the IARP Oversight Committee.

"It's corrupt,” said one source directly involved with the cases. “Completely intellectually dishonest. They use people to do what they want for a short-term gain. They used [the independent panel], put them up as a barrier for protection and then created a half-assed structure around it.”

In late January of 2022, three months before the championship game and the flower vase full of vodka, Self slunk into the seat of a private Cessna Bravo Jet holding a beer that couldn’t have been any less celebratory. Instead of players, Self was surrounded by lawyers and KU’s top administrators. They were racing 43,000 feet above ground to get back for one of the team's biggest games of the season against Kentucky after an exhausting, painstaking week in Indianapolis negotiating the settlement.

Publicly, Self canceled the team’s practices under the guise of player rest, but behind closed doors, confusion ran deep. The coach made it home one day before the Kentucky game. The Jayhawks suffered a rare 19-point home loss.

"No one knew what was going on," a source close to the team said. "Starting prep the night before a game, especially against Kentucky, was unprecedented."

One source close to the team said it was the “darkest” they’d ever seen the basketball program.

The violations, the investigation and the unfolding fight with the NCAA were never addressed with Kansas players in any detail. Self wanted his team’s focus on basketball, telling players the situation was on his shoulders alone.

Only a select few would know just how far Self was willing to take it.

While the NCAA may not have landed the devastating punishment for Self or Kansas, it did finally rid itself of independent outsiders looking over their shoulders, combing through their work. But in their bid to control the narrative, they inadvertently set up the ultimate backfire one year earlier.

Self coached Kansas to the pinnacle of the sport for the second time in his career, cementing his place as one of the great coaches in college basketball history. And as the confetti fell and celebrations began in New Orleans, the defining moment was dripping with poetic irony: NCAA president Mark Emmert handing Bill Self the championship trophy.

Note: This is the first part of a series looking inside the NCAA's IARP investigations. Part 2, coming early next week, will look at due process concerns and soiled reputations.

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