TALLAHASSEE — For the past few weeks and perhaps longer, Florida State officials have been fine-tuning their game plan, anticipating the likely attacks and practicing their counters.
It's game-on Saturday in Indianapolis.
FSU will appear before the Division I Committee on Infractions regarding an academic misconduct scandal that involved 61 student-athletes in 10 sports and three former employees in the Athletics Academic Support Services office.
"I'm not that nervous," athletic director Randy Spetman said recently, though he's never been in that room. "I'm really not because the university has been so transparent and so thorough in the investigation."
FSU has imposed some penalties on itself, including scholarship reductions, but Spetman and the rest of the FSU contingent might avoid further sanctions — or at least limit them — if they articulately and persuasively answer pointed questions.
And that gets back to their prep work.
Chuck Smrt, the consultant whose group has been shepherding FSU through the case for more than a year, said it's not uncommon for school officials to review things they could be asked and then rehearse that give-and-take in a moot court.
"You often sit down, either in person or over the phone, and talk through those things," said Smrt, speaking in general terms and not specifically about his client in this case.
"It's ridiculous to take anybody in there cold turkey and expect them to be able to react to all that will happen," added former FSU compliance director Bob Minnix, who worked at the NCAA for two decades, the last seven as director of enforcement, and is now at Washington State. "It's not that they beat you up when you walk through the door, but it'll be unlike any hearing they've ever been to. A court of law is different. The state legislature is different. This is really a hybrid."
The room in an Indianapolis hotel will resemble a scene out of Law & Order sans Sam Waterston.
The committee members (Miami's Paul Dee is on the nine-person group, but he must recuse himself due to conference affiliation) sit in the front of the room. They're the judges. They're flanked by the NCAA's enforcement staff, the prosecutors, if you will, and the members of the institution or the accused.
A court reporter records the opening and closing statements and everything in between: the NCAA's allegations and the support for each as well the school's side.
"But we don't have witnesses who testify under oath; the rules of evidence don't apply, so it's not a formal trial that you might see on TV or you'd see if you went over to the courthouse," said Josephine Potuto, the committee's most recent former chair (her term expired last month) and a law professor at Nebraska.
Individuals involved, however, typically want to be heard and the committee wants to hear from them. The three former employees at the center of the scandal, former learning specialist Brenda Monk, an adviser, Hillard Goldsmith III, and an unnamed tutor were all invited to attend.
Monk and her attorney will be there and she told the Times that she's paying her way to tell the committee that she didn't help her students cheat and isn't "dishonest." The tutor won't go and it's unknown what Goldsmith may do, but he hasn't cooperated with the investigation unlike the other two.
"As a committee member, you have the written record, but there's always questions you have," Potuto said, referring to the Notice of Allegations, a case summary from the enforcement staff, and the responses from the school and any individuals.
Sometimes, she said, things can seem "pretty bad" as you read them, but hearing from folks on that day, in that setting, can mean "you get a different picture" and that can affect the final judgment that usually is announced a month or so after the hearing.
"We've got a major concern to assure that whatever is being done is fair and is perceived to be fair by all the other universities and teams that compete against the one that's before the committee," she said. "Even in cases where there's agreement (between the school and the enforcement staff), that pushes the committee to ask more questions."
FSU officials can expect to field the Nixonian questions of what did they know and when did they know it, but Potuto said that when there's an allegation of a school failing to monitor, which FSU has self-reported, you can bet the school will be asked about what it had in place to detect or head off potential violations early on.
To that, FSU can point to a plethora of changes that include remaking the Athletics Academic Support Service office, dramatically increasing funding there, providing more structured environments for online tests, increasing the supervision of tutors and monitoring more closely grade and enrollment trends.
"We'll be able to show where we've put resources and what we've done (in other areas)," Spetman said.
"There's reams and reams of paper, but it's much better for an institution to be able discuss what's in those written reports," added ACC associate commissioner Shane Lyons, who has helped FSU with the case and will be in Indianapolis. "So the institution needs to walk through that or walk through the statements they want to make."
Brian Landman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3347. Check out his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/seminoles.