RABALAIS: LSU sullied, but avoids big penalties

Former LSU assistant coach D.J. McCarthy. Show caption
Former LSU assistant coach D.J. McCarthy.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Akiem Hicks never played a down of football for LSU. D.J. McCarthy no longer coaches there. They have passed through the program like a ship on the foggy Mississippi, sailing past the LSU campus on its way to some distant port.

But the Hicks/McCarthy “era” has left a stain, not a shadow, on LSU football. Tuesday, the NCAA Committee on Infractions announced it had found LSU guilty of major violations and placed the football program on one-year probation stemming mainly from Hicks’ recruitment and impermissible recruiting phone calls made by non-coaching members of the program.

In a practical sense, LSU is getting off with a slap, not a slap down. The most serious sanctions - reduction of two scholarships for the program overall and two in recruiting - were absorbed by last year’s team and by the class LSU signed in February. LSU is back to a full 85 scholarships this fall and may sign 25 players in 2012.

While LSU must still deal with recruiting phone call restrictions in September and a 10 percent cut in recruiting visits for the 2011-12 academic year, most of the damage has been done. LSU doesn’t even have to fear being saddled with repeat offender status if any previously committed violations emerge over the next five years. New violations would as always mean major problems for LSU, of course.

But make no mistake. The Hicks/McCarthy episode is a a black eye for LSU. Click on any major sports website and see if LSU’s probation isn’t commanding a prominent headline. On Tuesday afternoon, ESPN’s SportsCenter featured the LSU probation as a major story.

According to a CBS

sports.com report, LSU was one of two Southeastern Conference football programs - along with Vanderbilt - never to have been found guilty of major violations dating to 1987. That arbitrary date is the year that SMU football received the death penalty for widespread cheating.

Not every case is the same, certainly, and to equate LSU with SMU’s lawless days from the 1980s or the Hicks/McCarthy case to the Reggie Bush scandal at Southern California would be irresponsible.

Nonetheless, LSU is now tarred with the same broad brush that has swiped almost every other BCS football program. Only 21 BCS schools have been unscathed in the past 24 years.

Pride may be bruised, but it’s an injury that will heal. And LSU was and should be commended by the NCAA for its cooperation and proactive efforts. Otherwise, LSU would have likely faced a two-year probation as is customary with major violations. In the end, what will be the legacy of this case? Hicks will be forgotten, like a blue-chipper who signed with a far-off school LSU never played. McCarthy’s tenure will one day require a glance at LSU’s media guide or old newspaper clippings to accurately recall.

But on their way down the river they kicked dirt on LSU’s good name. Dirt that won’t quickly be washed away.