Not So Fast: Memphis Fights NCAA Ruling

The Memphis Tigers bench cheer on their team in the final minutes of the game against the Oral Roberts Golden Eagles during the First Round of the 2006 NCAA Division 1 Men's Basketball Championship Tournament on March 17, 2006 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

No banners are coming down anytime soon. Not the 2008 Final Four banner nor the one honoring three seniors for an NCAA-record 137 wins.

Memphis isn't giving up any of its 38 victories without a fight.

The NCAA announced Thursday that Memphis must vacate the 38 wins and the national championship game appearance from the 2007-08 season as punishment for using an ineligible player believed to be NBA star Derrick Rose. Memphis didn't wait even an hour before declaring plans to appeal what school president Shirley Raines called unfair penalties.

"If the appeal fails, the banners come down," Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson said.

Memphis has 15 days officially to notify the NCAA of its intent to appeal a punishment that came down 16 months after the Tigers lost the national title game in overtime to Kansas. Then there's a 30-day window to file arguments why the best season in school history should remain on the books.

"We did everything we could to determine the student-athlete was eligible and that the rules were being followed," Raines said.

School officials refused to detail that argument but Memphis will point to flaws in the NCAA eligibility center - the clearinghouse that approved the athlete before he was admitted and again when the university pointed out a grade change in high school. Johnson noted the center was lauded for doing a "great job" during the NCAA call announcing the penalties.

The NCAA said the infractions committee pressed Memphis officials during a June hearing about why steps weren't taken in November 2007 to bench the ineligible player and avoid problems. Asked Thursday what will happen in the future if a player's eligibility is in doubt, Johnson made the school's position clear.

"If they've gone through the clearinghouse and cleared university admission requirements, then they will participate," he said.

If upheld, then this will be the second time that both Memphis and now Kentucky coach John Calipari have had Final Four appearances vacated. Memphis also lost the 1985 Final Four under then-coach Dana Kirk, while Calipari's 1996 trip with Massachusetts was erased.

"We would rather obviously that not happen," Johnson said.

Raines thanked Calipari for cooperating with the investigation and noted he was not involved in any allegations. Calipari said he was "very disappointed and disheartened by the NCAA's findings" in what will be his last comment until Memphis' appeal ends. He's happy coaching at Kentucky, where he has full support.

"I'm not worried about it because they have never said Coach Cal did anything wrong at all," said Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, who appeared with Calipari at the Kentucky State Fair on Thursday before the NCAA announcement. "I think he's a very upstanding guy. I think that's his reputation and I think that reputation will be with him here. I really don't foresee any problems."

Memphis finished 38-2 in 2007-08, setting the NCAA record for wins in a season. The infractions committee said it struck hard because the ineligible player was used the entire season. Rose played in all 40 games, starting 39.

The NCAA report did not identify the ineligible player by name, though descriptions of the athlete involved lead to the conclusion it could only be Rose. He was the lone player who was there just that season - a fact noted by the governing body of college sports. Rose went on to be selected by the Chicago Bulls as the No. 1 pick in the 2008 draft and later won the NBA rookie of the year award.

The player was accused of having another person take his SAT exam in Detroit so he would be eligible as a freshman after failing the ACT three times in Chicago.

Memphis was alerted to questions over the test and investigated. The player told officials he took the test. But SAT officials later conducted their own investigation and said letters were sent to the player in March and April 2008, the second three days after Rose and the Tigers lost to the Jayhawks.

The player did not respond to either letter, so the agency notified the player, the university and the NCAA's eligibility center they were canceling his test in May 2008.

Rose issued a statement through his attorney Thursday and said "it is satisfying to see that the NCAA could find no wrongdoing on my part in their ruling.

"I think it is important for people to understand that I complied with everything that was asked of me while at the university, including my full participation in the university's investigation of this issue, and was ultimately cleared to play in the entire 2007-08 season by the NCAA clearinghouse and the university."

Memphis already has paid $85,000 and must return money received from the NCAA tournament to Conference USA while also being prevented from receiving future shares doled out in the conference's revenue-sharing program - a total loss estimated at $530,000 on top of the $85,000 already paid by the school.

If Memphis loses the appeal, Johnson said approximately $300,000 in bonus money Calipari earned from that season would be paid back. The athlete? No, Memphis won't ask for any refund from him.

Meanwhile, Tigers fans are trying to hold onto their memories after first losing Calipari to Kentucky earlier this year and now watching a magical season at risk of being erased. Lifelong fan Marcus Williams, 33, tried to be optimistic near campus Thursday.

"It could've been worse. We could've actually won the game, and they would've taken our national championship too," he said.
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