Arizona State leadership's credibility at stake after latest round of alleged NCAA violations

·7 min read

Every year for nearly a decade, Arizona State president Michael Crow made a habit of calling all the head coaches and their specific athletic department bosses together for a meeting. Some years it was held in ASU’s massive football team room.

Crow delivered some version of the same theme in his address: If you want to guarantee ending your employment here, break the rules. Winning is important, but compliance is the most important thing. If you have to prioritize the two, you should prioritize following the rules.

Crow would tell the dog-eared story of Arizona State baseball’s major infractions case from earlier in his tenure, when the NCAA hammered ASU baseball in 2010 and gave the school the infamous distinction of having the most major NCAA violations for a Power Five school. Crow made it clear he didn’t want to endure something similar again.

Those who attended the meetings deemed them effective. The meetings aren’t unusual, as in 2018 the NCAA made rule changes that hold presidents and chancellors “personally accountable” for following the rules.

The tenor and flair in which Crow would give his annual address offer compelling insight into the tricky crossroads Arizona State faces as the NCAA investigates the Sun Devil football program. Yahoo Sports has viewed the dossier of evidence that ASU compliance and the NCAA enforcement department have been sent by an anonymous source. It includes allegations of potential NCAA violations that include assistant coaches purchasing and helping arrange visits for recruits during the NCAA dead period and coach Herm Edwards meeting with recruits when NCAA rules explicitly didn’t allow it.

“I think this really puts to test whether Dr. Crow was sincere about this topic or will be shown to be a hypocrite,” said a source familiar with the inner workings of Arizona State. “He doesn’t like to be wrong. He hired Ray Anderson, and that can’t be a bad decision because he made it.”

Arizona State coach Herm Edwards walks the sidelines during the first half of a college football game against USC. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Arizona State coach Herm Edwards walks the sidelines during the first half of a college football game against USC. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Crow has been president at ASU since 2002, a generally successful and celebrated tenure. But during that time, he has developed a reputation for protecting the confidants in his cabinet, like Anderson, and acting like an autocrat and dictator to everyone else.

The compliance criticism already began from former baseball coach Tracy Smith, an Anderson hire who was dismissed in June just months after his contract was extended through 2023. Smith said in a Facebook post that he’s “upset” at the “disturbing” allegations against ASU football. “We are held to the public standard of winning, even if some of our competitors [and in this case, colleagues] aren’t following the rules,” Smith wrote in the Facebook post.

Crow, Anderson and Edwards are all tied together amid these allegations. Crow recently extended Anderson until 2026, and Crow has expended much of his capital in college athletics by being viewed as the enabler and behind-the-scenes bully who protected outgoing Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott as he and the Pac-12 languished under his leadership. Crow was the last leader in the Pac-12 to realize Scott wasn’t fit for the job.

This NCAA investigation will be a litmus test of a hire that fit thematically with one of Crow’s favorite buzz words — “innovation.” When Anderson hired Edwards in December of 2017, it included a news release that essentially bragged that ASU would be reinventing the college football model.

Those remarks were roundly mocked at the time, as Edwards hadn’t coached in nearly a decade and was much better known for Coors Light commercials and working as an ESPN talking head than an actual coach. Edwards, now 67, was 20 games below .500 as an NFL coach. He arrived having last coached in college as an assistant in 1989, with his aura not so much as a coach but as a leader and mentor. “Eventually what we do in the dark comes to the light,” Edwards has been fond of saying.

Few athletic directors and head coaches are tied together as tightly as Edwards and Anderson. Anderson is Edwards’ former agent, and hiring a coach in his mid-60s with virtually no college experience and no market to coach elsewhere in college was a considerable risk. Also in the crosshairs at ASU is associate athletic director Jean Boyd, the so-called GM of the program, who had all of these alleged things happen under his direct watch. The Athletic has reported that Boyd “was made aware of potential recruiting violations during the winter” and it is uncertain how he responded to learning about them. 

Arizona State University president Michael Crow mingles during an opening ceremony of a new student pavilion on campus in Tempe, Arizona on Oct. 5, 2017. Bonnie Jo Mount/Getty Images)
Arizona State University president Michael Crow mingles during an opening ceremony of a new student pavilion on campus in Tempe, Arizona on Oct. 5, 2017. Bonnie Jo Mount/Getty Images)

The Edwards hire included a nod to Crow’s ego and preferred branding, as Anderson used a version of Crow’s pet word “innovation” twice in the opening quote of the news release. Meanwhile, ASU has gone 17-13 in his tenure and coaches are predicting the most innovative legacy of Edwards’ tenure will be the varied ways he and his staff have been accused of breaking NCAA rules.

The three assistant coaches implicated in the documents viewed by Yahoo Sports — Chris Hawkins, Prentice Gill and Adam Breneman — all had no on-field Power Five experience before Edwards either hired or promoted them. They arrived or emerged at ASU amid a culture that former staffers described as one where those who dove into NCAA gray areas in recruiting were rewarded and those who didn’t were ostracized.

Anderson’s public attempts to deflect in the local media and push through the season have been greeted tersely by his peers around the Pac-12 and around the country. One Power Five coach described the cheating ASU is alleged to have done as sticking its middle finger up to those who it recruited against and its peers in the Pac-12. While ASU certainly wasn’t the only school in the country hosting visits during the dead period, which stemmed from COVID-19, it has emerged as the national symbol for brazen behavior.

This NCAA investigation is going to be a defining point for Crow, Anderson and Edwards. ASU’s public actions now indicate it wants to save a promising season where 20 starters return and it is a trendy pick to win the Pac-12 South.

While he said “we own it” and Edwards “owns it,” Anderson’s remarks to azcentral.com quickly pivoted to the talented roster that ASU has accumulated under Edwards. He mentioned the talent of the quarterback and the depth of the offensive and defensive lines. “We’re going forward,” Anderson said. “That’s something that we can’t control. It can’t be something that bogs us down. We’re heading forward with our offseason.”

Perhaps Anderson saw how schools like Arizona, LSU, Kansas and others rode their star coaches for years through the federal basketball investigation. The NCAA investigations stemming from those cases are still ongoing after that federal case became public in 2017. In college football, we’ve seen delay tactics work, until they don’t. Ole Miss delayed and diverted as evidence mounted around Hugh Freeze’s recruiting, but the comeuppance eventually came from the NCAA.

Regardless, the blatant nature of the alleged violations in the dossier mean it’s going to be difficult for ASU to avoid a revival of its reputation as the school that’s the leading rule breaker in major college sports.

As ASU lurches ahead absorbing the sneers of college football, it’s amid a storyline that will be closely watched. Crow’s own athletic department and peers around the Pac-12 are watching closely whether his rhetoric around compliance is backed up with decision-making. (Crow declined comment to Yahoo Sports, saying that ASU has agreed with the NCAA to not speak publicly.)

Will ASU take advantage of a talented roster and win the school’s first solo conference title since 1996? Or will it get caught from behind by the NCAA and add a 10th major violation to a total that already leads major conference schools? To use Edwards’ pet phrase — it depends if the NCAA can formally bring to light what was allegedly happening in the dark.

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