Minor academic violations have turned into a major headache for University of Alaska Fairbanks athletics.
The WCHA hockey playoffs and NCAA basketball tournaments will be Nanook-free zones this school year, and four seasons' worth of hockey victories and an indeterminate number of wins in four other sports will become losses, the NCAA announced Wednesday following an extensive investigation of academic ineligibilities at the Fairbanks university.
A series of minor, systematic academic violations were committed over a five-year span from the 2007-08 school year to the 2011-12 school year, according to the school and the NCAA. In many cases, the violations occurred because athletes had not declared majors, were not completing sufficient credits toward their declared majors, or did not meet eligibility requirements for students transferring from junior colleges.
The immediate impact is the loss of 67 victories and 25 ties recorded by the hockey team from 2007-2010, plus an unknown number from the 2011-12 season. The Nanooks must also surrender their 2009 and 2010 Governor's Cup championships to the University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolves.
If the Nanooks are among the top eight teams in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association this season, the ninth-place team will advance to the playoffs in their place. And neither basketball team can advance in the NCAA Division II playoffs this season.
Besides the single-season postseason ban and the vacated victories, UAF faces a $30,000 fine, the loss of 10 athletic scholarships, three years of probation and public censure.
School officials blamed the violations on its administration and staff members, not its athletes.
"These infractions were the result of university errors and not by wrongdoing by any of our university athletes," UAF chancellor Brian Rogers said at a press conference Wednesday.
The NCAA agreed, saying in a press release that the school lacked institutional control when it came to ensuring its athletes were academically eligible. UAF had an inadequate compliance system, did not sufficiently train the staff members responsible for monitoring academic eligibility and "failed to follow through" despite warnings that its system was deficient and needed to be improved, the NCAA said.
The sanctions mark the second time this year the NCAA has issued major penalties to an Alaska university. In May, the NCAA punished UAA after an investigation revealed that former women's basketball coach Tim Moser and an assistant coach illegally deposited more than $7,000 into the bank accounts of two players.
UAF didn't get into trouble for anything as sensational as paying players. Its violations were essentially the result of not being vigilant about the NCAA's academic requirements, in part because the school lacked the resources to track academic records. UAF has since hired a full-time academic advisor for the athletic department.
The infractions involved 42 athletes in nine of UAF's 10 sports. UAF officials said the school discovered the violations in 2011 and reported them to the NCAA that same year.
The only program with a clean record was the women's cross country team. The hardest hit programs were hockey, men's and women's basketball and swimming.
Both basketball teams will lose one scholarship each year for three seasons, the swim team will lose 1.53 scholarships each year for two seasons and the hockey team will lose one scholarship for one season.
"We realize that these sanctions will present challenges to at least four of our sports that have the postseason ban and the scholarship reduction," athletic director Gary Gray said at Wednesday's press conference.
Each of those teams, plus the women's ski team, will also forfeit any victories obtained when using ineligible players.
According to the NCAA findings, the hockey team used ineligible players in every game played from the 2007-08 season to the 2010-11 season. The Nanooks were 67-66-25 over that span, and the wins and ties will all become losses.
Four of the wins and two of the ties came against rival UAA, which will get to adjust its records during those seasons to reflect the changes.
An unknown number of victories from the 2011-12 season are also at risk. UAF used ineligible players in 60 percent of its games in that 12-20-4 season, and the school is in the process of figuring out which games will be impacted.
Also unknown is how many wins the basketball teams and other programs will have to forfeit. Every sport but women's cross country used ineligible players in hundreds of competitions staged over six seasons. Gray said the department will go through the results of each of those competitions to determine which involved ineligible athletes.