The independent news organization of Duke University

Taking control of recruiting regulations

Editor’s note: The following story is the third in a four-part series examining how Duke stays compliant within increasingly complex NCAA guidelines. The previous article can be found here. The next final part will run Friday. The full story will also be available on The Chronicle’s website at the end of the week.

At Duke, those most responsible for NCAA compliance present a united front, saying unanimously that Duke’s “culture of compliance” begins at the very top, with President Richard Brodhead and Kevin White, vice president and director of athletics. But the specific point person is Deputy Director of Athletics Chris Kennedy, who does the day-to-day defining of the University’s approach to matters of compliance. For Kennedy, it starts with two key principles—hiring and education.

“For years, I clung as tightly as I could to what I felt was the proper compliance model, which is hiring and education, rather than the NCAA concept of it, which is monitoring and regulating, and keeping track of everything your coach does,” Kennedy said. “So there’s a form for everything. I always thought that the coach that wants to cheat is going to cheat, and he’s not going to put it on a form.”

And at least as far football is concerned, the athletic department has hired a coach that refuses to compromise on following the rules. Head coach David Cutcliffe is unequivocal in his views about compliance, and he is respected enough in the college football world to express those views as the only coach on the NCAA Football Issues Committee, which serves as an advisory body on all manner of questions facing college football today.

One of the questions he has raised before that committee has to do with controlling the troublesome third-party access to coaches’ recruiting visits. Having meetings at a prospect’s high school rarely creates problems, since a principal or other designee of the school has to give approval. But within 24 hours of the school visit, the coach can meet the recruit at home, and this is where the process can be tainted.

“I love going into people’s homes, and that’s a legitimate thing, but that’s where you start getting into a lack of control over who’s there,” Cutcliffe said. “I’ve gone into homes, I had no idea who half the people in there were.”

And that is a deal-breaker for Cutcliffe.

“They’re not a recruit anymore,” he said. “I’m pretty quickly going to excuse myself. I didn’t deal with people like that anywhere I’ve been. Why would I start now?”

The in-home visit, though, is far from the only evaluative tool for Cutcliffe and his staff. Even before they look at a player’s grades and academic standing to ascertain whether he can handle Duke’s rigorous course of study, they do a full evaluation of the player’s character.

“The only thing I’m interested in on a transcript initially is the days they attended school,” Cutcliffe said. “If I see 30 absences or I see 50 tardies, I drop them…. You talk to school housekeeping, the ladies in the lunchroom. There’s a lot of information out there.”

Once the prospects are at Duke, Cutcliffe does not have the time to be a one-man police force while he also tries to coach a football team. Fortunately, he does not have to. Although players will not always feel comfortable approaching their coaches with questions or information about rule-breaking, they have another resource—the trainers and academic support staff, who Kennedy called “the most effective surveillance team that we’ve got.”

“[They] are in a position where their only interest is in the kid’s well-being,” Kennedy said. “I learned the damndest things when I was the [football program’s] academic advisor.... [The players would] come in and pour their soul out to you, about their roommate troubles or whatever.”

Kennedy also said players would ask him for advice about how to avoid putting themselves in situations where impropriety might occur.

The final piece of Duke’s compliance puzzle is the donor base that provides the capital to keep the athletic department running. Boosters, and their increased access to players and coaches, have caused significant problems for many universities. But the administrators of the Iron Dukes, the University’s membership program for active donors to the athletic department, take an active role in compliance.

“My office is in the middle of the hallway, and at the end of our hallway is [associate director of athletics/compliance] Cindy Hartmann, [associate director of athletics/compliance] Todd Mesibov and our compliance office,” Jack Winters, director of the Iron Dukes, said. “We’re not going to take somebody or request to have somebody be at a practice unless we felt that it was somebody that would have good common sense.”

Some significant donors are allowed sideline access during games, but they are always accompanied by someone from Winters’ office, and those visits are limited to one or two people per game. The Iron Dukes also print “do’s and don’ts” in their monthly magazine that is distributed to the membership, and personally contact bigger donors to explain how to support student-athletes without running afoul of the NCAA.

It seems like common sense to keep some distance between the financial backers and the teams, but Yahoo! Sports writer Charles Robinson pointed out that common sense can sometimes be obscured by other motivations. Robinson broke the story about booster Nevin Shapiro at Miami, who provided thousands of dollars of illegal benefits to Hurricane athletes over the course of eight years.

“There was an allowance [at Miami],” Robinson said, “to let an individual get as close to that program as he did. And it ended up being that he was a valued booster. And every single program out there has a valued booster or boosters who receive a higher level of access because of the value that they bring to the table.”

At Duke, though, common sense seems to prevail. A paramount reason for that, and for the overall effectiveness of Duke’s compliance policies, is the commitment shown by the University’s top athletic officials. Cutcliffe spurned a head coaching offer from SEC powerhouse Tennessee to remain at Duke. Winters started at Duke in 1987 as an intern, and has been in the Iron Dukes office ever since. And Kennedy, who expected to hold his position as an academic staffer in the athletic office for just one year while he finished his graduate English degree in 1986, has now worked at Duke for 25 years.

“You can do great things for a kid from an impoverished background by putting them in a university setting,” Kennedy said. “It can be a life-changing experience, change the trajectory of his whole life. But you bring a kid who’s been financially strapped for his whole life, and he has one parent or whatever. You bring him to Duke and it isn’t just that there are agents around every corner waiting to wave $100 bills at him. He’s immediately in an atmosphere where half the student body can afford to come here without financial aid. They’re driving nice cars, and they’ve been to France and they go on spring break to Costa Rica…. And that…is a situation you need to pay attention to.”

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