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NCAA places Wichita St. baseball program on probation

      Wichita State University’s baseball program has been placed on one-year probation and fined by the NCAA because of impermissible benefits received by 21 baseball players over a two-year period.

 
     The violations occurred in 2012 and 2013 under longtime Shockers coach Gene Stephenson, who was fired in June 2013.
 
     Stephenson’s successor, Todd Butler, who played at Wareham in the Cape Cod Baseball League in 1986, discovered the infractions in late 2013, shortly after taking over. He notified the athletic department, which launched an internal probe that culminated in a report to the NCAA confirming that 21 members of the baseball team had received 50 percent discounts on shoes, clothing, hunting gear and other items from Under Armour, which supplies the school’s baseball uniforms and other apparel.
 
      An NCAA infractions panel announced Thursday that it generally agreed with the university’s findings and self-imposed penalties (Wichita State suggested that it be placed on probation and suspend eight players for three to nine games). The panel imposed a one-year probation and a $5,000 fine. Additionally, it ruled that the team’s record be adjusted downward, vacating more than 70 Shocker wins during the 2012 and 2013 seasons. Wichita State also was directed to inform recruits that the program is on probation and publicize that fact for the next year.
 
     The sanctions will not disqualify the Shockers from postseason play.
 
     Stephenson had led Wichita State to 26 NCAA tournaments and seven trips to the College World Series during his 36 seasons as head coach. His 1989 team gave the school its only national championship.
 
     “He was at the school for a very long period of time, had a highly compliant program during that period, never had a major violation,” said Eleanor W. Myers, chief hearing officer for the NCAA Division I Committee on Infractions. “This occurrence ... was something that went on over a period of time when he was not in the office as much as he once was.”
 
     Myers said the NCAA found that Stephenson had inquired about the discounts and was assured by a former administrative assistant that the athletes were paying for the apparel and that the purchases were legal.
 
     The NCAA’s investigation found that the school did not properly monitor the former aide’s use of a VIP account with Under Armour. Because it was not provided to the full student body, family and friends, the 50 percent discount was considered an extra benefit for the players, a violation of NCAA rules. The assistant reportedly provided her log-in information to the players, who used it to access the VIP account and purchase the items.  
 
     In a prepared statement, Wichita State president John Bardo said the school agrees with and accepts the probation and fine, but is appealing the loss of victories.
 
     Bardo’s full statement:“As the NCAA findings report, Coach Todd Butler uncovered this problem when he took over the program in November 2013. He immediately alerted the leadership of the Athletics Department. The NCAA was then informed, and WSU took steps to accept responsibility and correct past errors.
 
     “The violations principally involved an administrative assistant in the Athletics Department and players who didn’t realize they were acting improperly. They received a benefit – discounted merchandise – that wasn’t available to others.
 
     “We believe that the penalties of the one-year probation to be served, the $5,000 fine, and the player suspensions that are already completed are appropriate for these infractions. The student-athletes involved acted without guilty knowledge. It seems unfair to permanently tarnish the records they achieved as a team.
Todd Butler (Wareham, 1986) / photo courtesy of Wichita State University
     “The university elected not to self-impose any specific penalties on the baseball program for the following reasons: (1) Because this was a Level II case with significant mitigation, NCAA penalty guidelines provide the option of having no institutional, competitive or recruiting penalties; (2) The primary violation in this case did not relate to financial aid or recruiting, thus a scholarship reduction or a recruiting limitation penalty would not fit this case; and (3) The violations in this case did not result in a competitive advantage.
 
     “The Athletics Department has revised its athletics apparel and equipment policies to ensure that no intercollegiate sport is able to interact with an athletics equipment and apparel manufacturer without the oversight of the equipment manager and sport supervisor.”
 
      Last February, the NCAA ruled that eight WSU baseball players still with the program would miss games as a result of its investigation. Notification of the penalties came just four hours before WSU’s 2013-14 season opener. Butler’s immediate response was to keep catcher Tyler Baker and infielders Erik Harbutz and Dayne Parker out of the lineup. Each received a nine-game suspension.
 
     Wichita State’s pitching staff was hardest hit by the ruling. Starting pitcher Cale Elam (Falmouth, 2012) missed six games while starter Kris Gardner and relievers Drew Palmer and Foster Vielock each missed nine. Starter Garrett Brummett missed three.
 
     Eight players who ordered less than $100 worth of merchandise repaid the money.
    
     Neither the school nor the NCAA identified the players involved in the violation who are no longer on the team.
 
     “We feel the outcome is fair,” Sexton said in a news release. “We have been working cooperatively with the NCAA national office since we first discovered that we had potential eligibility issues. Now that those issues appear to be resolved, we will continue to work with the NCAA in bringing any remaining issues related to this situation to resolution.”
 
     Wichita State Athletic Director Eric Sexton said the NCAA gave the university a 50 percent reduction in penalties because it self-reported and because of other mitigating factors. According to NCAA rules, athletes who receive an improper benefit of $100-$400 could miss 10 percent of their season. The penalty grows to 20 percent for $400-$700 and 30 percent for more than $700. The NCAA baseball season is 56 games.
 
     Wichita State has sent many outstanding players to the Cape League over the years. Most notable recently was switch-hitter Casey Gillaspie (Falmouth, 2013), the younger brother of Chicago White Sox third baseman Conor Gillaspie (Falmouth, 2007). Casey hit .321/.402/.521 with eight home runs, 27 RBIs and a league-leading eight home runs in 43 games as a Commodore.
 
     The Tampa Bay Rays selected the 6-foot-4, 240-pound first baseman in the first round of the 2014 draft. He signed immediately and was sent to Hudson Valley in the Low-A New York Penn League, where he batted .262/.364/.411 with seven homers and 42 RBIs in his first pro season.
 
     Brother Conor hit .345 in ’07 to win the Thurman Munson award as Cape League batting champion and the Pat Sorenti Award as the league’s Most Valuable Player. He helped the Commodores make it to the playoff finals against eventual champion Yarmouth-Dennis. The San Francisco Giants made Conor their first-round draft choice (37th overall) in 2008. He was traded to the White Sox in February 2013.
 
     Wichita State sent two players to the Cape League in 2014: right-handed pitcher Sam Tewes (Cotuit) and outfielder Daniel Kihle (Hyannis). In 2013, Gillaspie was joined on the Cape by Shocker lefty Kris Gardner (Bourne). Right-hander Cale Elam pitched for Falmouth in 2012.
 
     One Shocker is enshrined in the Cape League Hall of Fame, former Cleveland Indians and Seattle Mariners manager Eric Wedge (Y-D, 1988), who was inducted with the Class of 2011. Wedge is one of two former Boston Red Sox catchers from Wichita State to have played in the Cape League. The other, Doug Mirabelli, was a Hyannis Met in 1990.