OSU basketball: Lamont Evans case's resolution has Mike Holder ready to fight for Cowboys
Mike Holder isn’t known for his combat skills.
He’s even known to be a pretty good shot when quail are being hunted.
But wrestling? Or boxing? Nothing like that has ever been his forte — but that isn’t going to keep the Oklahoma State athletic director from fighting for his men’s basketball program.
That was clear Friday afternoon when Holder spoke publicly about the sanctions the NCAA has leveled against the Cowboys. A one-year postseason ban. A loss of three scholarships for the next three seasons. On and on the list went for the punishments stemming from former assistant coach Lamont Evans accepting bribes to influence players.
“I find it almost impossible to reconcile the severe penalties imposed by the NCAA for the violations detailed in today's report,” he said. “The NCAA agreed that Lamont Evans acted alone and for his own benefit. The NCAA also agreed that OSU did not benefit in recruiting, commit a recruiting violation, did not play an ineligible player and did not display a lack of institutional control.
“In short, ‘You did the right thing.’”
The penalties indicated otherwise.
“I’m shocked by the ruling today,” Holder said, “and determined to vigorously fight against this injustice.”
On a day when OSU fans everywhere were staggered — the promise of a resurgent season with Cade Cunningham and Co. seemed to evaporate in an instant — there were way more questions than answers. Would Cunningham and the rest of this highly ranked incoming class ask out of their letters of intent? Would veterans like Isaac Likekele, Avery Anderson III or the Boone twins seek a transfer?
Anything seems possible.
But if you’re looking for a sliver of hope upon which to hold, there is this: OSU might just have a chance to get this decision changed.
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Almost immediately after the NCAA announced sanctions, OSU announced it would appeal the decision to the NCAA’s Infractions Appeal Committee. No surprise there. Any time someone gets what they believe to be a harsh sentence, whether from a parent, a teacher, the NCAA or our country’s justice system, they appeal.
So, does OSU have a chance?
“Any appeal is an uphill battle,” Chuck Smrt said.
The former NCAA director of compliance would know. Smrt, who led OSU’s internal investigation after Sports Illustrated’s “Dirty Game” series leveled serious but mostly unfounded charges against the football program, was retained by the school again last year to serve as a consultant on the Evans case.
In the hours after the NCAA’s ruling came down, Smrt began digging for past cases that were similar to OSU's.
“Most of the cases that had similar penalties, it appeared from reading the summaries that there was an attempt or there was a gain for competitive or recruiting advantage,” he said.
“You did not see that here.”
A quick rewind on the specifics of this situation: in 2016, Evans agreed to steer players with pro potential toward certain financial advisers in exchange for money. The coach got cash to help the advisers get a foothold with possible lucrative clients.
The scheme started when Evans was at South Carolina and continued when he moved to OSU.
Evans’ wrongdoing was uncovered by the FBI’s investigation into college basketball corruption in 2017, and within days of being implicated, he was fired from OSU.
He pled guilty in January 2019.
OSU has never disputed his wrongdoing.
“While OSU is very disappointed that this occurred,” the school said in a statement last November, “we were relieved to learn that there were no other recruiting or other major violations on the part of the institution.”
The NCAA echoed that Thursday. Even though Evans had been entrusted with the well-being of his players, the Committee on Infractions' decision said, “he abused this trust for his own personal gain.”
Smrt said that distinction — “personal gain” — was important. In this case, Evans took more than $20,000 and beefed up his bank account, but there was little evidence his actions did much of anything to give OSU an advantage. Not a competitive one. Not a recruiting one.
Still, the NCAA categorized the infraction against OSU as Level I.
When the NCAA did that, OSU officials argued the decision, but they believed if the categorization held, the infraction would fall into Level I's lowest tier of severity, mitigation.
Instead, the infraction was placed in the middle tier, standard, within Level I. The range for penalties increased as a result. A postseason ban became two years maximum, one year minimum.
Had the violation been Level I mitigation, the level of punishment would have been less. A postseason ban, for example, would’ve been either zero or one year.
Even though OSU officials hadn’t had a chance to discuss strategy for their appeal prior to talking with reporters, it seems clear the heart of OSU's appeal will be that the infraction was misclassified.
How likely is a reduction in penalties?
“Penalties in the past have been modified,” Smrt said.
But even if that weren’t the case, even if no school had ever gone in front of the NCAA’s appeals committee and gotten a favorable decision, Mike Holder sounded like he was ready to start working on an appeal right away.
“I can’t tell you what the percentages are for success on that,” he said. “I just know that I feel as the athletic director that we’ve been wronged in this case.
“And we want to stand up and fight for what we believe is right.”
He’s always been a competitor.
He's ready to fight.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.