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The school that set the death penalty bar

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A.J. Perez

A.J. Perez previously worked at USA Today, AOL and CBSSports.com, covering beats ranging from performance-enhancing drugs to the NHL. He has also been a finalist for an Associated Press Sports Editors award for investigative reporting. Follow him on Twitter.

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Waterloo University’s decision to levy the death penalty against its own football team, as expected, wasn’t well received by many around the Ontario college.


South of the border, the decision was met with disbelief.

“Jokingly, I was asked what I was still doing there,” Waterloo University president Feridun Hamdullahpur told FOXSports.com.

Hamdullahpur was actually promoted from provost after he backed the decision to cancel the 2010 season when nine players tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, including North America’s first positive test for human growth hormone. Sure, Canadian college football doesn't mean what top-flight conferences with automatic Bowl Championship Series postseason berths mean here.

They may have us beat on ethics.

Waterloo returned to action on Monday after a season off and the result was what you’d expect with 36 freshmen on the 47-man roster: the Warriors lost to the University of Western Ontario, 86-22.

Southern Methodist University, the last football program stateside to suffer through a death penalty, was similarly blown out after its two-year hiatus ended in 1989. But that’s pretty much where the comparisons end.

The Canadian Interuniversity Sport didn’t take action against Waterloo, although officials at Canada’s equivalent to the NCAA praised the decision. Besides imposing the sanction itself, the steps Waterloo took after it canceled the season also differ from how SMU officials reacted to its dark seasons.

Waterloo kept its coaching staff largely intact and financial support to the football program even grew slightly; SMU increased academic requirements for football players, moved the team to a smaller stadium and basically neglected the program in the years after its ban to a point where it is just now recovering.

“We didn’t base our decision on what happened to SMU, although we were aware of it,” said Waterloo athletic director Bob Copeland, who made the decision to test the entire football team after a player was arrested on suspicion of dealing drugs. “We wanted complete transparency from Day 1. When we found out that there was an issue with steroids, within a day we decided to test the entire team. Less than a week later, we had an unannounced test. But when you compare Waterloo to SMU, it’s like comparing apples to oranges.”

When your school’s stadium holds 5,000 fans — which should be at capacity for Waterloo’s first home game in 21 months on Saturday — the decision is a little more straight forward, at least as long as you weren’t one of the clean football players who were devastated by the news.

“At first, we were trying to get them to reconsider,” said quarterback Luke Baich, who chose to take fewer classes last school year so he could return for a fifth year at Waterloo. “We were shell shocked by the whole thing. We are all disappointed. The punishment came out of nowhere.”

Baich is one of “the old guys,” a group of nine players who stuck at Waterloo and retuned. (Many players took up an exemption that allowed them to transfer without penalty once the 2010 season was canceled.) The team played scrimmages last season against the schools they were scheduled to play on the varsity level before the ban.

“That just showed the loyalty they have to this school,” said Waterloo coach Dennis McPhee. “I know those kids had mixed emotions about what happened. I think the group of older players understood why things happened.”


Waterloo hasn’t been above .500 in a decade and last made the playoffs in 2002, so there isn’t exactly a tradition of winning. But as one of the top engineering schools in North America, students are lured to Waterloo mostly for academics.

Maybe that’s why McPhee said he didn’t have any roadblocks when it came to recruiting for this season.

“The good part of Waterloo is that we are kind of like the Stanford of Canada,” said McPhee, who has been in the position since 2007. “Getting parents interested in a Waterloo degree is not that difficult. We also give the recruits a chance to play right away. They don’t have to wait.”

McPhee said the wait to return to where the team was — which isn’t too lofty of an aspiration since the Warriors were 3-5 in 2009 — will be about two seasons. Whether that actually happens, Waterloo’s bigger impact will still likely be altering how performance-enhancing drugs are viewed in college sports.

A similar situation could very well be happening here in the U.S., something that wouldn’t surprise us in the post-BALCO era. The NCAA doesn’t have the authority to test an entire team, leaving that up to a school or conference. With so much money on the line that’s a lot of responsibly and just as much conflict of interest.

In the very unlikely event the NCAA would deliver the death penalty — which has become a talking point again ever since a booster's severe allegations against the University of Miami surfaced — to a major football program, whether for performance-enhancing drugs for the first time or for the usual reason of players receiving impermissible benefits. The economic ramifications would be significant both for a school and the conference. Television contracts may have to be reworked and season-ticket holder money may have to be refunded and booster money would slow to a trickle.

That hasn’t stopped the calls coming into Hamdullahpur’s office from college presidents in the U.S. — none of whom he would name — since the sanction was announced in June 2010.

“Some of my colleagues really wanted to understand why the players made the decision (to use performance-enhancing drugs),” Hamdullahpur said. “I hope what we did would mean they wouldn’t sweep this under the rug in the United States. Waterloo raised the bar.”

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