Academic fraud leads to NCAA penalty
The Purdue women's basketball program was hit with penalties stemming from major and secondary violations Wednesday, ending a 16-month investigation into academic malfeasance.
The Division I Committee on Infractions found that former assistant coach Katrina Merriweather committed academic fraud when she provided help for Cherelle George, a player, on a term paper during the 2005 fall semester.
"The coach proved substantive assistance to the athlete in writing a term paper," committee chair Josephine Potuto said during a teleconference Wednesday afternoon. "Then, when the University investigated the academic fraud, both the former coach and former student-athlete lied to the investigators and denied any academic misconduct.
"This case is an abject lesson in why coaches should not involve themselves in any way in trying to help student-athletes with their academic work."
In its findings, the Committee says Merriweather admitted to conducting research and reading a textbook to help George, though she wouldn't admit to academic fraud. Also, Merriweather admitted typing, correcting and making revisions to the paper, which led the University in its own investigation to conclude that the paper was partially plagiarized.
Additionally, the Committee found that Merriweather and George provided false and misleading information to the University's athletics compliance office during its investigation.
Among the penalties, Purdue University will be placed on two years probation, from today until Aug. 21, 2009, but the Boiler women's basketball team will be allowed to play in the post-season. Also, the Boilermakers will forfeit two scholarships during the upcoming season, though both slots were set to be vacant this year regardless. (Purdue currently has 13 scholarship players, two less then the standard 15 allowed by the NCAA). The university already reduced one scholarship during the 2006-07 academic year.
"The matter has now been adjudicated, and it is time to put it behind us," athletics director Morgan Burke said in a statement. "It deeply disappoints me when this University, its employees and student-athletes are brought into such a situation. While we can not guarantee behavior, we will deal with each issue in a fair and objective manner upholding the rules and values of Purdue University, the Big Ten Conference and the NCAA."
The penalties may have been harsher, says Potuto, had Purdue not taken steps to rectify the situation following the start of its own investigation Feb. 14, 2006. Under then head coach Kristy Curry, both Merriweather and George were suspended indefinitely March 1, 2006, the day before the start of the Big Ten Tournament; they missed six post-season games. Purdue's investigation came after allegations of misconduct were brought forward by assistant coach Jannon Lampley.
In the aftermath of that season, Merriweather was fired and Curry left for Texas Tech, ending a seven-year stint at Purdue. Lampley, who was not likely to be retained as an assistant, also departed when Curry, and her assistant and husband Kelly, left the program.
On May 1, 10 weeks after the start of its investigation, the University determined that Merriweather and George committed academic misconduct. In its self-imposed penalties, Purdue declared that George not be allowed to return to the program and docked itself one scholarship for the '06-07 season. George, who stayed on scholarship despite her ineligibility, was at Purdue last year; she's since transferred to an NAIA school.
"Had the University had the information and sat on it," Potuto said, "that would have turned out to be a failure to cooperate and it would be an independent violation and a very serious one."
Aside from the issue of academic fraud, Purdue, in its original report, found that Merriweather made a total of 105 impermissible recruiting calls, many of them to one-time Purdue verbal commitment Dee Dee Jernigan. The University did not see those as a major infraction, because it didn't feel as though they constituted a major recruiting advantage. The Committee, however, disagreed, concluding "that because the impermissible calls were neither isolated nor inadvertent, they did not fit the definition of a secondary violation and must be considered a major infraction, regardless of the level of recruiting advantage."
Burke says the University continues to disagree with that stance.
"Our position was, and is, that one prospect had already committed to Purdue and that 37 of the 40 impermissible calls, made over a five-month period, were less than two minutes in duration," he said, "and that the other 65 calls made, over a three-month period, were to a person we were not recruiting."
As a result of the impermissable calls, the academic fraud and other secondary violations, Merriweather received a three-year show-cause penalty, severely limiting her prospects for an NCAA coaching gig in the near future.
"If there's an NCAA University that is interested in employing her during that three-year period," Potuto said, "that institution and the coach would have to come before the Committee, so the Committee, the institution and the coach could discuss what restrictions might be placed on her."
Although Curry escapes without penalty, the Committee did find some of the former coach's behavior "troubling."
On two occasions, the Committee points out, Curry was made aware of allegations of academic fraud. But on those occasions — first in November 2005, then in January 2006 — Curry dismissed the allegations as not credible after her own inquiry.
That approach, however, is in direct conflict with university policy, which states that Curry should have brought the allegations forward to the school administration.
Regardless, Curry is now gone, leaving new coach Sharon Versyp , who was hired in the midst of Purdue's investigation in April 2006, to deal with the penalties stemming from the prior regime.
Potuto says the fact that none of those involved in the violations remain at Purdue was never considered in the Committee's investigation.
"Although the Committee is sympathetic to that claim — in other words, 'we've gotten rid of the people' — it doesn't diminish one wick the fact that they were institution representatives committing major violations," she said.
Versyp, who is entering her second season at Purdue's helm, says she's ready to move on.
"Speaking not only as the head coach who inherited this situation, but also as a Purdue alumna, it is a relief to have this process completed," she said in a release. "My staff and I have been — and will continue to be — committed to conducting ourselves with integrity and within the NCAA rules."
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