Sanctions through history: Do they hurt programs on the field?

I've seen a lot of talk about whether or not the sanctions against Penn State (or USC or Miami or UNC) will have any effect, and I wanted to see what had happened in the past. To that end, I looked at recent scholarship penalties and tried to determine what effect they had on the programs.

Unfortunately, comparisons are hard. One difficulty is the lack of penalties anywhere near the severity of those received by USC and Penn State. Only 5 penalties since the death penalty were of at least 20 scholarships. In contrast, USC lost 30 scholarships, while Penn State lost 80. The word 'unprecedented' is overused, but these are easily the harshest penalties since SMU.

Another confounding factor is separating the effect of the sanctions from other problems with the program. Just because a team becomes bad doesn't mean the sanctions caused it, and most schools receiving sanctions have other problems. For instance, schools under sanctions tended to have new coaches. Hiring a new coach is generally a lottery, and several schools coming out from sanctions clearly made good hires (Frank Beamer, Steve Spurrier, Dan Mullen, Mike Leach).

With all those caveats, I think a clear trend emerges. Bowl bans get headlines, but have little long term effects. However, in the cases most similar to Penn State and USC (major program gets significant scholarship penalties), the teams went into significant declines. Miami, Alabama, and Oklahoma had historic slumps. Tier-2 schools like Washington and Oklahoma State also became substantially worse. Penn State fans will likely point out the noticeable trend that schools who hire good coaches tend to have the least negative effects, and claim O'Brien is that sort of coach. (USC is screwed.)

Here are the cases I found since 1987 involving losses of at least 10 football scholarships or a bowl ban.

Note: Most of the links go to the official NCAA sanctions database, though newspapers and other sources sometimes provided better summaries of the appeals vs self-imposed vs penalties removed for good behaviors.

1. New Mexico

Penalty: 15 initial and 15 total over 3 years (2008-2011) (I had trouble figuring the exact timeline for this case, between self-imposed penalties, additional penalties, and appeals).

Effect: Severely negative

New Mexico was pretty respectable before these sanctions, having at least 6 wins each year from 2001 to 2007. They've gone 11-38 since then. It's a little difficult to separate the effects of the sanctions and the effects of hiring Mike Locksley, but I think the sanctions played a significant role.

2. Mississippi State

Penalty: 8 over 2 years, 1 year bowl ban (2005-2006)

Effect: None

If anything, Mississippi State was better after the sanctions than before. If the sanctions led to hiring Dan Mullen, they were probably a net positive for the other MSU.

3. Alabama

Penalty: 21 initial over 3 years, 2 year bowl ban (2002-2004)

Penalty: 17 initial over 3 years, 1 year bowl ban (1995-1997)

Effect: Negative

Alabama had some good years in this period, but it was clearly their worst in living memory (depending on how long you've been living). In an 11 year period, they lost 6 games or more 6 times. In last 50 years, they've lost 6 or more games only two other times. However, it is again hard to separate bad coaching hires from the effects of sanctions, as Alabama made a series of uninspired choices.

4. Kentucky

Penalty: 19 initial over 3 years, 10 total over 2 years, one year bowl ban (2002-2004)

Effect: None

Kentucky was pretty bad before the sanctions, so becoming worse was difficult.

5. Wisconsin

Penalty: 10 initial over 2 years (2002-2003), 4 total over 3 years (2001-2003)

Effect: None

Wisconsin had a bit of a 3 years slump (2001-2003), but I can't see any way to blame that on the sanctions. That press release basically mocks the sanctions on initial grants:

"This limits the university to 20 initial grants. (The university has averaged 21 initial football grants during the past four years.)"

6. Texas Tech

Penalty: 18 initial over 3 years, 10 total over 2 years (1998-2000)

Effect: None (Positive?)

Texas Tech went from winning 6-7 games a year to 8-9 games a year. They also hired Mike Leach in 2000.


Penalty: 10 initial, 11 total over 3 years (1996-1998)

Effect: None (if anything UTEP got better)

8. Mississippi State

Penalty: 13 initial, 5 total over 1 year (1997)

Effect: None

9. Miami (FL)

Penalty: 31 initial over 3 years, 15 off total scholarships over 3 years, 1 year bowl ban (1995-1997)

Effect: Significantly negative

From 1985 to 1994, Miami won ten games every year but one. From 1995 to 1999, they didn't win ten games in any season.

10. Mississippi

Penalty: 24 initial over 2 years, 2 year bowl ban, 1 year television ban (1995-1996)

Effect: Little or none

Ole Miss wasn't very good before or after the sanctions. This was the last television ban to date.

11. Washington

Penalty: 20 initial over 2 years, partial television ban (1994-1995)

Effect: Maybe a little negative

Washington was pretty good 1990-1992 (31-5) and pretty average 1994-1999 (44-26-1). Caused by sanctions? Who knows.

12.Texas A&M

Penalty: 1 year bowl and television ban, (1994)

Effect: Maybe negative?

A&M went 10-0-1 in 1994 under the ban, its fourth consecutive season of ten wins or more. They only won ten games once in the next seventeen years. Coincidence? Very possibly.

13. Auburn

Penalty: 3 initial, 6 total over 4 years, 2 year bowl ban, 1 year television ban (1993-1996) (There are discrepancies in the scholarship totals)

Effect: Very little

It may have cost Auburn a national championship as they went 11-0 and finished #4 in 1993 with no television coverage. However, I can't find any general trend in their before or after records.

14. Florida

Penalty: 1 year bowl ban (1991)

Effect: None or less

This was the beginning of Steve Spurrier as the Florida coach. The team was much better after 1991 than before. (Florida is the 8th and final current SEC school on this list.)

15. Minnesota

Penalty: 1 year bowl ban (1991)

Effect: Negative (arguably)

Coincidence or not, Minnesota got substantially worse after this ban was announced. They were consistently a 6 win team in the years before 1991. However, they didn't win 6 or more games in a season again until 1999. (This was another sanction accompanied by a coaching change.)

16. Oklahoma State

Penalty: 20 initial over 4 years, 3 year bowl ban, 2 year television ban (1989-1992)

Effect: Severely negative

This might be the most stark before-and-after of any of these penalties. Oklahoma State won 10 games in 1984, 1987, and 1988. They didn't have a winning record until 1997 and didn't win ten games again until 2010. The low point was a 0-10-1 performance in 1991.

17. Oklahoma

Penalty: 14 initial over 2 years, 2 year bowl ban (1989-1990)

Effect: Negative? (Hard to say)

Oklahoma went into a bit of a slump by Oklahoma standards starting in 1989. Losing Barry Switzer as coach probably had more of effect than the scholarship reductions, though. (But the sanctions led to Switzer's departure so...)

18. Houston

Penalty: 10 initial over 1 year, 2 year bowl ban, 1 year television ban (1989-1990)

Effect: Severely negative

Houston was coming off 3 nine win seasons in a row. They would not win 9 games again until 2006. On a larger level, these penalties likely played a role in both the breakup of the Southwest Conference and Houston banishment to the conference hinterlands.

19. Cincinnati

Penalty: 13 initial over 3 years, one year bowl ban (1989-1991)

Effect: Negative

Cincinnati went from winning about 4 games a year to consecutive one win seasons.

20. Texas A&M

Penalty: 5 initial over 1 year, 1 year bowl ban (1988)

Effect: Very little A&M had a 3 year slump from 1988 to 1990. If you want to blame on the one year bowl ban, I won't stop you.

21. Virginia Tech

Penalty: 13 initial, 20 total over 2 years (1988-1989)

Effect: Very little

This is another example of the "have sanctions, get new coach". Virginia Tech got Frank Beamer, who worked out okay.

22. Southern Methodist

Penalty: Death (more specifically, one year of no football and two years of bowl ban)

Effect: Death

SMU has never recovered or come close to recovering from these penalties. They won more than 6 games in 2009, the first time since restarting the program.

Here are penalties ongoing or about to begin.


School: Ohio State

Penalty: 9 total over 3 years, 1 year bowl ban (2012-14)

School: UCF

Penalty: 15 initial over 3 years, 15 total over 3 years, 1 year bowl ban (2013-2015)

School: North Carolina

Penalty: 15 initial over 3 years, 15 total over 3 years, 1 year bowl ban (2012-2014)

School: Boise State

Penalty: 9 total over 3 years (2011-2013)

School: Penn State

Penalty: 40 initial over 4 years, 80 total over 4 years, 4 year bowl ban (2012-2015)

These numbers are correct. Penn State lost more scholarships than any 3 other post-death penalty sanctions combined.

School: USC

Penalty: 30 initial over 3 years, 30 total over 3 years, 1 year bowl ban (2012-2014)

The linked article, written August 14th, 2012, is titled "USC prospers despite sanctions".

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