Cal Poly

Cal Poly hit with major NCAA sanctions — and it could lose its one March Madness berth

The Cal Poly athletics department is facing major sanctions at the hands of the NCAA — including having to vacate wins and postseason participation over a three-and-a-half year period — for providing improper stipends to help students pay for textbooks.

The university will also be placed on probation for two years and pay a self-imposed $5,000 fine.

Among the wins that could be vacated? The 2014 Big West men’s basketball championship that sent the Mustangs to the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history. That berth falls within the timeline of when violations occurred, meaning it could be scrubbed from the record books.

The NCAA found the violations to be wide-ranging; 265 students athletes in 18 sports from the 2012-13 academic year to the fall term of 2015 received $800 book stipends and those funds exceeded the actual cost of books in 72 cases. The report says Cal Poly “shall vacate all regular season and conference tournament records and participation in which the ineligible student-athletes competed from the time they became ineligible through the time they were reinstated as eligible for competition.”

The university is required to submit a report to the NCAA detailing what athletes have been determined ineligible within 45 days of the ruling.

The NCAA ultimately found Cal Poly failed to monitor its book stipend program. The investigating committee said the stipend exceeded the actual cost of books by $16,180 — ranging from $5 to $734 — and caused 30 athletes to exceed their individual financial aid limits.

Cal Poly maintains that the violation was an inadvertent error, saying in a news release Thursday that it self-reported to the NCAA when the error was discovered by the Cal Poly Athletics Compliance staff. The university said it submitted a report to the NCAA in August 2017 detailing the facts and self-imposed penalties.

“Cal Poly has cooperated in every way with the NCAA throughout this process that began in 2015,” Cal Poly Athletic Director Don Oberhelman said in the release. “There was never an intent to violate NCAA rules, and when we discovered the issue, we self-reported it to the NCAA.”

Former Cal Poly baseball star Alex McKenna, who didn’t join the team until 2016 and was drafted by the Houston Astros following his junior season two years later, said that even though he wasn’t around when the violations occurred, “from what i understand they are punishing some athletes at Cal Poly that had no idea this violation was even occurring.”

The baseball team’s NCAA playoff appearances from 2013 and 2014 could be vacated thanks to the ruling.

“Those guys that played on those teams from 2012-15 played on the most historic teams in Cal poly history, and to see that all get ‘vacated’ is a travesty in my eyes,” he told The Tribune. “Those guys worked their tails off to get to where they did and put Cal Poly on the map and are going to get that all taken away. And for the other sports ,it is just as sad. It is just very disappointing anyway you look at it. These athletes don’t deserve to be punished for something they did not know was happening.”

Cal Poly disagreed with the NCAA’s findings, claiming only 30 student athletes were over-awarded an average of $174.57 for books, amounting to $5,237.10 over the three-and-a-half-year period.

The committee said Cal Poly “lacked a fundamental understanding of NCAA rules about book stipends. ... The university mistakenly treated the book stipend in the same manner as room and board stipends, which are used by student-athletes as they see fit to cover off-campus living expenses. Instead, NCAA rules require book stipends equal the exact cost of the books required for coursework.”

The committee did not believe the university broke the long-standing rule on purpose but said, “There is no ambiguity in the wording of the legislation and thus no room for misinterpretation. Cal Poly simply failed to abide by this rule.”

Other notable postseason appearances by Cal Poly teams that could be wiped away include:

The football team’s 2012 FCS second-round playoff appearance.

The women’s basketball team’s NCAA tournament berth in 2013 and NIT appearance in 2014.

The men’s soccer team’s 2015 NCAA tournament appearance.

Correction: This story reflects the accurate number of students who received book stipends that exceeded the actual costs of books.

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