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Caltech is on NCAA probation. No, really

BILL PLASCHKE

The highly academic school turns itself in for violations that never would have been found. But relax, that basketball victory still stands.

July 15, 2012|Bill Plaschke
  • Caltech basketball coach Oliver Eslinger takes a question following a basketball game in Pasadena.
Caltech basketball coach Oliver Eslinger takes a question following a… (Damian Dovarganes / Associated…)

In the wake of a scathing Penn State report that fractured faith in the integrity of college athletics comes the news that, buried under an astrophysics books somewhere, there is still hope.

Caltech, the school that couldn't succeed at sports if it cheated, has turned itself in to the NCAA for cheating.

One of the country's losingest athletic programs has chosen to vacate wins it doesn't have, shut down the recruiting it doesn't do and be ineligible for championships it never wins.

In an announcement as stunning as the ones that brag about a professor discovering the secrets of the universe, Caltech said this week it has joined the likes of USC and Ohio State in NCAA jail by being placed on three-years' athletic probation.

Probation from what, exactly, we're not entirely sure. The Beavers aren't on TV, they don't give scholarships, they rarely qualify for postseason tournaments. The baseball team will vacate all wins during a period in which it went 0-112. The men's water polo team will vacate wins achieved while going 0-66.

The probation seems silly, the ramifications are bizarre, but, after witnessing this week's destruction of the myth of Happy Valley, the message is clear.

While other programs often falsely brag that they're winning the right way, seemingly only at Caltech do they have the guts to lose the right way.

"This is our integrity at stake here," said Betsy Mitchell, who discovered the violations shortly after she was named Caltech athletic director last summer. "It stinks, but we did the right thing, and we're going to take our medicine."

You know what stinks? This Pasadena brain boutique is essentially being punished because its classes are so difficult.

The NCAA has a rule that student-athletes must be taking a full course load to be eligible. Though Caltech students are studying from the moment they set foot on campus, they don't officially take a full course load until the end of the third week of every term because they are allowed to shop the difficult classes before making final decisions.

It's hard to blame them. When deciding between, "Markov Chains, Discrete Stochastic Processes and Applications" and "Computational Fluid Dynamics," shouldn't one be allowed to sleep on it? One wrong choice could send your term spinning into a maze of all-nighters.

"It's really important to know about the class before you take it, the scheduling and the workload, because you have to make sure it fits your other classes," said Albie Lavin, a junior co-captain of the baseball team.

When Mitchell took over last summer with the mandate of fostering a stronger connection between the forlorn athletic department and the rest of the university, she took a quick look at the school practices and realized this could be trouble. Her subsequent investigation into the four-year period of 2007-10 uncovered 30 students who were competing for teams for brief periods without officially taking full course loads.

The ineligible athletes weren't stars. They didn't create championships. In keeping with that funky Caltech tradition, many of them probably were kids who were just learning the sport and needed a break from splitting the atom.

The NCAA never would have found this. The NCAA never would have even looked for this. This wasn't the loud stumbling of a Goliath. This was a tiny trip by Little Red Riding Hood. If anything, you can imagine the folks at the NCAA headquarters hanging up after hearing Mitchell's confession and quietly giggling.

"None of that mattered," Mitchell said. "Even though it was very technical, we weren't doing it right, and around here, doing it right is what matters."

Her bosses agreed. Her coaches agreed. They knew that the revelations would cause a brief media firestorm, but they didn't care. Mitchell, using the same resolve that helped her once become a silver medal Olympic swimmer, immediately fixed the problem and told her administrators to expect the worst.

When the news finally hit this week, she was visited and offered support by two important athletic boosters — Bob Grubbs, the Nobel laureate, and John Grotzinger, who is working on a rover mission to Mars.

"This is about educational athletics versus entertainment athletics," Mitchell said. "We teach through our sports, and we're teaching through this."

Caltech initially decided to punish itself by placing a 2012-13 postseason ban on 12 sports, vacating wins achieved by teams using ineligible athletes during that four-year period, eliminating off-campus recruiting for the upcoming school year and paying a $5,000 fine.

That should have been enough, but, of course, the knucklehead NCAA jumped in with that public censure and three-year probation. One would think officials there could have quietly shooed Mitchell away after she devised their own penalties, but, oh no, monstrous Penn State thus far goes untouched while Division III Caltech gets publicly ripped.

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