Cal Poly to appeal NCAA records penalty on Thursday

Cal Poly's president and athletic director will make their case to an NCAA appeals committee in Indianapolis on Thursday for why they believe the NCAA's vacation of records penalty imposed in a case involving minimal extra book money for some of the school's student-athletes should be overturned.

In April, the NCAA announced it had placed Cal Poly on two years of probation and would force the school to vacate individual and team records involving several sports between 2012 and 2015. The decision came after Cal Poly self-reported that 30 students exceeded their individual financial aid limits by between $5 and $734 -- an average of $174.57 -- due to a flaw in the way the athletic department distributed money intended for books and supplies.

Don Oberhelman, the school's athletic director since 2011, said the NCAA's decision to vacate records for something he believes is obviously a minor accounting error is baffling. The part he has the biggest problem with is that by vacating individual records, he thinks the NCAA is punishing individuals who had no awareness of what was going on.

"[Investigators] came to campus and interviewed all the students that were still on campus who were involved and not one of them had any knowledge of it. Not one of them had any idea," Oberhelman said. "So now we've got a system of justice where you're seeking to punish an innocent and I just can't let that stand.

"We have one student involved who got $4.61. For $4.61, we're going to vacate her career records. That just does not pass through the lens of common sense."

Cal Poly became aware its process for distributing the book stipends did not follow NCAA rules at a Big West Conference financial aid summit in October 2015, which led the San Luis Obispo, California, school to hire an outside agency to review its financial aid practices and eventually self-report the error to NCAA enforcement staff. The process was corrected in 2015. "We literally handed them a three-ring binder filled with all the information," Oberhelman said. "It said, 'Here's what we did, here's how we fixed it.'"

The NCAA acknowledged that Cal Poly did not break the rule intentionally, but said the lack of intent was not factored into the punishment.

"There is no ambiguity in the wording of the rule and there is no room for misinterpretation," said Big East deputy commissioner Vince Nicastro, who served as the chief hearing officer for the panel that issued the punishment. "Cal Poly simply failed to follow the rule."

As part of its justification for the imposed penalties, the NCAA report cited minor Cal Poly infractions cases from 1987 and 1995. "As I was reading the initial report, I was getting angrier and angrier. Finally, I got to that point and I just started chuckling," Oberhelman said. "When they cited those old cases as an aggravating factor, I was like, 'Oh, my God, are you kidding me?' It was pretty amusing once it gets to that point. The further they go, the more ridiculous it gets."

The NCAA declined further comment Tuesday. Oberhelman believes the NCAA's handling of the case shows how out of touch the organization, which spent over three years investigating it, has become with its purpose.

"They're going to spend several hundred thousand dollars prosecuting this, in terms of time, man hours to travel, the source of all the other things to try to do this," Oberhelman said. "Financially, it doesn't make any sense. Logically, it makes zero sense. It just doesn't pass any single test in any case that I've ever seen them prosecute.

"When [Cal Poly president Jeffrey Armstrong] and I go in there, and we're the two people there representing Cal Poly, there's going to be 30 people in there working for the NCAA, probably all them all making six-figure salaries. Really? You guys are spending this much time and money on this?"

Asked how he felt the NCAA was justifying its action, Oberhelman was stumped. "I got some theories," he said. "I think one is they're under attack for not really having the power to go get some of the -- there's some obvious cases that we've all read about out there that they haven't been able to quite get completed. Maybe this is the way to help justify their existence -- flex their muscles, if you will."

Cal Poly fields 20 NCAA-affiliated teams and competes primarily in the Big West and the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation. Its football program plays in the Big Sky Conference as part of the Football Championship Subdivision. If the NCAA upholds the vacation of records penalties, the Mustangs' Big Sky football co-championship in 2012 would be erased.

In the NCAA's initial report, it said the Cal Poly students who received extra funds used the money for things like "food, rent, utilities and car repairs."