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(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah head football coach, Kyle Whittingham, talks with the media during the team's press conference at the school's new football facility in Salt Lake City, Utah, Monday Aug. 26, 2013.
U. compliance strives to improve self-audits, stay in NCAA’s good graces

School hopes improved self-audits will keep it penalty-free, just like it has been since 2003.

First Published May 27 2014 04:02 pm • Last Updated May 27 2014 10:10 pm

A review of recent Utah Athletics compliance self-audits shows that the U. — so far as it knows — has steered clear of significant violations.

It’s also evident that compliance staff wants to know more.

At a glance

Other U. of U. athletics audit findings

» Two audits were conducted during the 2012 football season to determine whether athletes were using their guest tickets to receive extra benefits or to entice recruits. The conclusion: “It was discovered there were individuals provided comp admission, both donors and general public, in a position to potentially provide extra benefits to student-athletes due to their ownership of or employment at local business (e.g. car dealership).” Another prospective student-athlete attended multiple games as the guest of a Utah athlete, but further investigation found that the fathers of both played together in the NFL and that they had an existing relationship (and that the so-called PSA did not wind up choosing Utah). The audit concluded that a better effort should be made to educate local businesses and donors about improper benefits.

» In an October 2013 audit, five football players were found to have participated in a football camp without having completed 1099s “and were paid in cash at the instruction of former employee Greg Lewinter.” This occurred because they earned less than $500, the report says. The compliance office recommends that no cash payments be made to any employees, regardless of earnings.

» An undated audit found that the correct information from some recruiting trips was not received, flagging this as a potential NCAA issue. After checking with coaches and the travel office, however, the U. determined that everything was in order.

» Compliance reviewed Facebook and Twitter posts from student-athletes and coaches and found “occasional inappropriate photo[s] or profane language,” but no NCAA issues. The report says that due to relief from NCAA mandates, the 2011-12 academic year is the last in which a social media audit would occur.

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Although the audits found no apparent problems, an auditor twice expressed concern about incomplete responses and a heavy reliance on the word of student-athletes and potential sources of extra benefits.

The U. has avoided NCAA penalties since 2003, when the school was found to have had "a lack of institutional control" and Rick Majerus’ Runnin’ Utes were dealt probation and scholarship reductions.

Utah’s clean record since has to be partly attributed to a compliance staff that tries to stay one step ahead of the NCAA, vetting athletics practices before problematic behavior can occur.

"We want to make sure we’re not only meeting the NCAA minimum, but that we’re going above and beyond," compliance coordinator Nathan Burk said by phone on Tuesday.

To do so, Burk and other U. auditors have been trying to eliminate blind spots.

A 2013 off-campus housing report was "highly susceptible to error and/or false information," Burk wrote, because the U. did not demand copies of payments or leases. Rather, they simply asked landlords if they had given special treatment. Further, of 129 student-athletes who received an email request for information, only 15 responded.

Another 2011 report on off-campus housing shared by three or more student-athletes saw both tenants and landlords failing to submit requested information.

Burk also sought changes to the school’s audits of vehicles in 2012. Despite his having sent "more than 250 emails" to student-athletes and people associated with them, "a small number" of athletes still did not respond. "The problem was most evident in the sport of football," he wrote.

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A vehicle audit in 2011 finds no issues relating to vehicles owned by 30 student-athletes, but noted that some athletes declined to submit the requested info and concludes by recommending consequences for noncompliance.

Burk understands that student-athletes are busy. The compliance office naturally finds itself in the role of bad cop, so "We try to do what we can without becoming an overbearing presence," he said.

Because the U. evaluates a wide range of potential benefits, Burk said, they haven’t yet had the opportunity to improve their housing and vehicle audit procedures.

But Burk said that the U. has since conducted spot checks of student-athlete vehicles to make sure that they’re driving what they say they’re driving.

He also said future audits will strive to better target student-athletes who are most likely to receive extra benefits — e.g. starters in revenue-producing sports may have their paperwork checked whether or not they drive new or luxury vehicles (the constraints of previous audits).

Housing audits, Burk wrote in 2013, might be improved by having student-athletes submit verifiable documents with their annual compliance paperwork.

Utah football head coach Kyle Whittingham said Tuesday that he values such thoroughness, because it helps keep him out of trouble.

"The rulebook that we adhere to and that everybody adheres to is pretty comprehensive, but I can tell you without a doubt that we have one of the best compliance offices in the country," he said. "They do a phenomenal job."

Burk said Utah reports to the NCAA a number of minor violations each year, and that it’s the sign of "a healthy program."

It can be a matter as innocent as a coach receiving a text message from an unknown number and texting back to a prospective student-athlete, "Who’s this?"

"Typically what happens at Utah is that the coaches are coming forward and saying, ‘I did this and I don’t know if it was right or not,’ or ‘I heard this from somebody else and I had a question about it,’ " he said.

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