UM main hall stockimage (MIS)

The University of Montana's main hall. 

A good night's sleep can do wonders before a big game.

That's what a Montana Grizzly athletics coach was thinking during a road trip when he shot off a series of text messages to his players at the team's hotel last year. It was a simple room check to make sure the players were turning in early, staying out of trouble and getting rested for the impending action.

But along with the group of UM student-athletes who received the innocuous texts, a stray phone buzzed. It belonged to a prospective recruit, a high schooler in the coach's string of recently texted contacts whom the coach accidentally messaged as well.

Though harmless enough, the slip-up constituted a secondary violation according to NCAA's rule book, one of 13 Level 3 violations that Montana self-reported during the 2015-16 academic year. It also embodies the hidden landmines in the mountain of rules -- some obvious and others far from it -- that college coaches must learn and obey.

The 13 infractions were reported last October to the University of Montana Faculty Senate and the Big Sky Conference. Mis-steps like the one above may seem relatively minor, but that doesn't mean it's unimportant. Compliance is a major part of collegiate athletics.

"You've got to have that construct of rules and regulations," said Montana's Senior Associate Athletic Director Jean Gee, the department's resident compliance guru. "... We know we're not all equal -- obviously financial resources make that not possible -- but at least we're all playing by the same set of rules and keeping each other honest."

That's where the NCAA Division I Manual comes into play. Gee's 2016-17 copy, already so well-worn the cover is tearing from its spiral binding, spans 296 densely crammed pages. But that's only part of the rule book.

Gee and other athletic department officials around the country have access to an online directory of bylaws and interpretations that can help schools and coaches wade through the world of NCAA compliance. Sometimes the vast resources only exacerbate the problem, though. Questions may have multiple answers, as many as 20 or 30 interpretations of a rule.

"Sometimes the frustrating thing is you could have interpretations that could even conflict," Gee said. "... But I like it. It's the reason I stay in compliance. It's like putting all these different puzzle pieces together."

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More often than not minor infractions aren't so difficult to spot. Among the 13 violations that Montana self-reported last year were other obvious gaffes.

A coach had impermissible off-campus contact with a prospect during an unofficial visit. A strength coach posted video to his personal Twitter account showing student-athletes in volunteer activities. A coach participated in a voluntary workout with a student-athlete during winter session assuming that constituted a regular academic term (it didn't). A sports program exceeded its maximum countable athletically related activity time by 30 minutes.

Punishment for such violations, those less severe than the scholarship reductions and postseason bans that can accompany egregious Level 1s or Level 2s, are usually minor as well and follow a two-for-one guideline. Practice runs over by a half hour? Next week the team must cut short its time by a full hour. Too much recruiting contact from a coach? No more contact for two weeks.

Violations tend to end up on Gee's desk through one of three ways: UM athletics monitors itself and digs them up; another school or conference alerts Montana of a breach; or the Griz coaches realize a mistake has been made and report themselves.

That last one is what Gee hopes to see most often. Violations happen -- especially with an ever-changing NCAA rule book and the evolving role that technology plays in recruiting -- and Gee wants her staffers to recognize them when they do.

Montana holds monthly in-person compliance workshops, circulates weekly compliance email tips around the department and to other offices on campus and helps prep coaches for a yearly NCAA-required recruiting exam.

"It's an open-book exam -- not so much to test what they remember, but to get them to learn how to use the rule book and find what you need," Gee said of the test, which coaches must pass with an 80 percent. "It really opens their eyes to a whole different section of recruiting bylaws that maybe they've never dealt with before."

All of which is designed to help Montana avoid tripping into more serious territory with major infractions. Like the systemic failures in monitoring that allowing boosters to provide extra benefits, including bail money and legal representation, to football players in 2011. The NCAA investigation that turned up the violations led to a three-year probationary period that is just now wearing off.

That's bad, but a dozen or so minor violations? Well, that's actually right where a school should be, said Gee, whose department self-reported 22 minor violations in 2014-15 and 19 the year before that.

"It's viewed as being healthy, from a compliance standpoint, that you're in the mid-to-upper range (in the conference)," she said. "I certainly don't want to be at the bottom. That just means they're probably not monitoring much and not having their staff report."

And it's up to Gee and the compliance staff to make sure the Griz don't get caught napping.

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