NIC hoops hit with NWAC sanctions

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  • LOREN BENOIT/Press file Highline College guard Coby Rothwell looks for a teammate as North Idaho College defenders add pressure in this 2017 photo.

  • 1

    MacLennan

  • LOREN BENOIT/Press file Highline College guard Coby Rothwell looks for a teammate as North Idaho College defenders add pressure in this 2017 photo.

  • 1

    MacLennan

COEUR d’ALENE — Conference officials have stripped more than pride from the North Idaho College men’s basketball team.

The college announced today a list of penalties issued by the Northwest Athletic Conference against its men’s basketball program for league violations.

The penalties include vacating league championships from the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons, the loss of four scholarships for each of the next three years, a 10-game suspension of head Coach Corey Symons, a three year-ban from postseason play, three years probation for the Athletic Department and a $30,000 fine.

NIC must also fund an annual audit for the next three years by a company chosen by the NWAC. While on probation, the athletic director must have approval from the vice president of student services on decisions regarding eligibility, athletic grants and booster club payments.

The violations found by the investigation committee of three commissioners from neutral regions include:

• using booster club funds to pay for housing during the summers of 2017 and 2018;

• using booster club funds without NIC Business Office oversight; and

• operating basketball camps in violation of NWAC rules.

The sanctions were handed down despite NIC’s appeal of the findings of the investigation, which was prompted by an anonymous complaint.

“I accept responsibility for the practices and behaviors that have led us to this place with the league,” NIC President Rick MacLennan wrote in a memo sent to NIC staff.

“The college will agree to the sanctions NWAC has placed on NIC, and I am committed, as is VP Graydon Stanley, to working with the league and its member institutions to foster a positive and collegial future for us all.”

MacLennan described NIC’s appeal as “largely unsuccessful.”

NWAC’s executive board adopted the investigation’s findings with three modifications, including:

• During the summer of 2021, NWAC will work with NIC to conduct a review of the college’s progress on league rule compliance;

• NIC Athletic Director Al Williams may not serve on the NWAC executive board while the athletic department is on probation; and

• Of the $30,000 fine, $10,000 is suspended pending review in 2021 and the executive board’s determination of satisfactory progress.

“Such determination may at the executive board’s discretion result in the waiver of the remainder of the fine and the reduction by one year of the penalties imposed with respect to post-season play, athletic grants in aid and probation of the athletics department,” NWAC Executive Director Marco Azurdia wrote to NIC officials.

NIC officials acknowledged that some practices have been noncompliant with NWAC code. They also said the college began steps to clean up some practices before the investigation.

“NIC recently demonstrated our commitment to these principles when we undertook an independent investigation last fall into suspected academic integrity violations within our own athletics department,” NIC’s appeal states. “The results of our investigation concluded that certain isolated, non-systemic academic policy violations had in fact taken place.”

In its appeal, NIC officials stated some of the investigation’s findings were inaccurate, that the sanctions were excessive in relation to the findings, and that the probe appears to have been influenced by inaccurate allegations reported by a “biased and disgruntled former employee” just before the investigation.

According to NWAC rules, student-athletes can receive no more than 65 percent in tuition scholarship and cannot receive outside funds for housing.

NIC’s basketball program joined the NWAC from the National Junior College Athletic Association during the 2016-17 season.

NIC’s overall record in its three seasons of NWAC membership has been 81-15. It finished 31-2 last season en route to its league championship.

Before NIC made the move to the NWAC in 2016 to cut costs, it could issue full-ride scholarships with booster club funds.

While the investigation committee found no evidence of extra benefits for meals from the booster club account, it learned the club operates its own account separately from the college business office, which violates NWAC rules.

In its response to NWAC, NIC acknowledged that using booster club funds to pay for housing provides an indirect benefit to student-athletes that’s not available to all students.

“Trail Lodge Apartment management was notified on May 6 that the contract would not be renewed,” the response states. “Going forward, student-athletes will only be provided housing assistance and services consistent with those provided to all NIC students.”

NIC officials said that during the summers of 2017 and 2018, the apartments were held and paid for by the booster club, as had been done in previous years, but there were no student-athletes residing in the apartments at that time.

“The athletes, at all times, paid their own rent when they were actually living in the apartments,” the response states. “Also, no particular student-athlete’s rent was ever covered by the booster club.”

In its response to the basketball camp finding, NIC argued that NWAC’s codebook doesn’t discuss rules for operating camps. The only reference to sport camps is about tournaments.

“Because these are guidelines, it is unclear to use what specific rules have been violated,” the appeal states. “Post-investigation correspondence among the committee members evinces a lack of actual investigation into this issue.”

Williams and head men’s basketball coach Corey Symons could not be reached for comment today.

“Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the athletic director to ensure that all full-time and part-time staff of the athletic department, appropriate staff members and booster club members fully understand the NWAC code as it pertains to their areas,” Azurdia wrote in the violations report, adding that admissions of guilt were made.

“These statements, along with comments made by other individuals interviewed, clearly indicate that little to no administrative oversight is in place at NIC and that the NIC athletics department is free to operate at their own discretion.”

NIC spokeswoman Laura Rumpler said both Williams and Symons remained employees of NIC today. She said that without their permission, she can’t provide more details on their employment status such as whether they have been or are on administrative leave.

Under the league championship sanction, all championship memorabilia will not be displayed at NIC and must be returned to the NWAC. The titles will be stricken from the NWAC record books, websites, social media and other sources.

The investigation also cited other points of concern, including a coach being a co-signor on the apartment lease and alleged loose oversight of student employment hours.

MacLennan said NIC is looking forward to improved compliance with NWAC rules.

“Ultimately, our commitment is centered on creating the best student-athlete experience possible while ensuring that NWAC codebook compliance is an embedded focus for our institution and that we move forward in partnership with NWAC as we compete fairly and act honorably,” he wrote.

NIC Board Chairwoman Christie Wood said the board has confidence in the college leadership as it navigates the sanctions.

“We support the president as he looks at all our options to move our athletics program forward to preserve the best experience for our students and look out for the best interest of North Idaho College,” she said in a written statement.

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