The Buck Stops Here: Head Coach Responsibility and Guidelines from the Boeheim Case

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Bennett Speyer

“The buck stops here.” This is a common adage used when talking about responsibility for actions undertaken by a person or someone associated with that person. For all coaches and especially college head coaches, “the buck” literally stops with them. Collegiate head coaches bear ultimate responsibility for almost all actions undertaken by members of their programs.

NCAA Bylaw 11.1.1.1 states, “An institution’s head coach is presumed to be responsible for the actions of all institutional staff members who report, directly or indirectly, to the head coach. An institution’s head coach shall promote an atmosphere of compliance within his or her program and shall monitor the activities of all institutional staff members involved with the program who report, directly or indirectly, to the coach.” This section is more commonly known as the head coach responsibility bylaw. It was first adopted by the NCAA in April of 2005, but a revision in  October of 2012 created a “presumed responsibility” on the head coach which has been the basis for suspensions of various head coaches the past couple years.

The gravity of this bylaw is highlighted by the recent case concerning Syracuse University and its Head Men’s Basketball Coach, Jim Boeheim. After more than four years of investigations, multiple violations by staff members of the men’s basketball program at Syracuse University were uncovered by the NCAA. Head Coach Jim Boeheim was punished for those violations by the NCAA pursuant to the head coach responsibility bylaw and ultimately served a nine-game suspension. However, following the initial ruling by the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions on March 6, 2015, Boeheim filed an appeal with the NCAA, and a decision was rendered by the Appeals Committee on December 3, 2015.

On appeal, the decisive issue centered on the appropriate standard to be used in determining whether there is an “atmosphere of compliance.” Under NCAA bylaws, when a serious violation occurs in a program, and the violation is attributed to a staffer of the program, there is a strong presumption that the head coach is ultimately responsible.  It is then up to the head coach to rebut the presumption by affirmatively establishing that everything necessary to create an atmosphere of compliance has been done.  In Boeheim’s case, the Appeals Committee found he did not affirmatively establish that he did all that was necessary to create an atmosphere of compliance and, therefore, he was ultimately responsible for the infractions under the head coach responsibility bylaw.

Nonetheless, the Appeals Committee proactively provided factors, which if shown by the head coach to be present, could rebut the presumption of failure to create an atmosphere of compliance. Factors the committee will consider to determine whether a head coach has rebutted the presumption are as follows:

  • Shared responsibility of compliance with the program and compliance staff, establishment of clear expectations for reporting actual and potential violations, and independent inquiry by compliance staff into issue or potential issues;
  • Evidence of understanding within the program that ultimate responsibility rests with the head coach, and violations by staff will result in punishment for the head coach;
  • Written policies for issues involving elite athletes;
  • Active participation by the head coach in uncovering compliance problems and evaluating evidence of potential violations;
  • Actively soliciting feedback to determine if compliance systems are functioning properly;
  • Avoiding conflicts between program success and compliance efforts;
  • Timely personal initiative by the head coach for any violations or potential violations, including staff conversations about future and current student athletes;
  • Whistleblower protection for staffers who report violations or potential violations;
  • Written evidence of consistent continuing education of all persons in the program as to compliance rules; and
  • Regular consultation with compliance staff, and asking before acting in ambiguous situations.*

While these factors will be a helpful tool for head coaches and compliance offices in the future, the NCAA makes it abundantly clear that the list is not exhaustive, and the facts and circumstances of each individual case involving a potential violation may consider additional factors.  Accordingly, in assessing potential situations where a head coach might face punishment under the Head Coach Responsibility Bylaw, compliance offices and head coaches should carefully evaluate and analyze their specific circumstances and determine whether to institute additional procedures and protocols to ensure that a head coach is promoting an atmosphere of compliance and has tangible means to demonstrate the same.

* (See NCAA Infractions Appeals Committee Report)

For more information please contact Bennett Speyer at bspeyer@slk-law.com.  University of Toledo law student and Sports Practice intern, Brett Schuelke, contributed to this article.
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