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BOZICH | Louisville's NCAA penalty wasn't nothing. It was nearly everything.

KFC Yum! Center

The KFC Yum! Center at night.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The penalty the University of Louisville men's basketball program received from the NCAA on Thursday was nothing.

A wrist slap. A pillow tap. A wink that said you can take that NCAA rulebook directly to the shredder. Confirmation of a new world order where anything goes in college basketball.

"Why do we need compliance departments to monitor things like text messages and unofficial visits?" one college coach asked me.

Situations that seemed outrageous when the FBI uncovered them in September 2017 drew shrugs from the NCAA in November 2022.

I heard people say those things. Didn't you?

A $5,000 fine — or 5% of the money that was allegedly promised to Brian Bowen, once a five-star recruit, to play for the Cardinals. Two years of probation. Minor restrictions on recruiting. But nothing that will put first-year U of L coach Kenny Payne and his staff at a disadvantage for a player they're eager to sign.

Even Josh Heird, the Cards' athletic director, said that ruling was more favorable than what he envisioned as a best-case scenario.

When Heird recruited Payne to become U of L's new coach last spring, Payne asked Heird for his forecast on the pending NCAA penalties.

Worst case: postseason ban for more than one season, Heird said.

Best case: probation and the loss of several scholarships, Heird said.

So the ruling by the Independent Accountability Review Panel was better than the best case that the school's athletic director envisioned. Louisville has every scholarship to give and every opportunity to qualify for postseason play. Play on.

But the penalty was not nothing.

It was far from nothing. For Louisville, the penalty has been losing nearly everything the program worked to build for years.

The penalty has been the waiting and all the costs tied to that waiting as the NCAA tried to figure out what it stands for and intends to be.

What the IARP believes is different from what the Infractions Committee believes which is different from what the enforcement division believes which is different from what NCAA administrators believe which is extremely confusing.

The penalty has been more than five years of constant diminishment of the brand, once one of the top five in college basketball. The penalty has been more than five years of unrelenting negative recruiting, which has left the program with a team beaten by 10 points by a Division II team in its exhibition game opener four days ago. A team that will be fortunate to escape last place in the Atlantic Coast Conference this season.

The penalty has been a five-year toxic news cycle that drained the enthusiasm of the fan base and changed the status of a Louisville basketball ticket from "tough," to "where would you like to sit?" Empty seats followed by empty rows followed by empty sections at the KFC Yum! Center.

"As positive of a day as this is, we can't forget the last five years and what it has done to this program," Heird said.

"The millions of dollars that this program has spent, the millions of dollars this program has lost, the opportunity for the student-athletes to compete at the highest level, which is the expectation when they come to the University of Louisville.

"It has been a big impact. I don't think anyone can undersell how much of an impact it has been. It is not going to go away today. We are going to have to build this program back up. Today is a step in the right direction to do that."

The penalty has been the loss of jobs and reputation for coaches (Rick Pitino) and administrators (former AD Tom Jurich).

The penalty has been watching programs like Kansas, North Carolina and Arizona essentially thumb their noses at the NCAA and chase national championships while Louisville dispatched Pitino and slid into the wilderness.

For Louisville, the penalty was not nothing. For Louisville, the penalty was more than five years of trying to exist in a world the competition said the U of L program was everything that was wrong about college basketball.

How often were opposing programs using looming NCAA penalty against Louisville?

"Constantly," Heird said.

Constantly?

"Constantly," Heird repeated.

"Coaches are highly competitive. They're going to use every advantage they can get. We were at a competitive disadvantage. And other programs tried to take advantage of it."

I asked a member of the current Louisville basketball staff if that was true. He said that it certainly was. How many recruits asked about likely NCAA probation?

"Every one," the staff member said.

It became such an inevitable and considerable obstacle that the staff quickly decided the best way to deal with it was to discuss it in the initial meeting with prospects and their parents.

Asked what they were hearing about the future of Louisville basketball, potential recruits tossed out forecasts of the death penalty and NCAA probation.

Every recruit that Payne and his staff signed or earned an oral commitment from since last spring had to be convinced Louisville basketball could navigate the process.

After Thursday, the Louisville basketball staff won't have to navigate those conversations any more.

But Louisville's punishment was not nothing. It was nearly everything the program built — and now must build back.

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