Coaches as Georgia Tech aren't very talkative when Mary McElroy comes around.
"They don't run the other way when they see me coming," McElroy said, "but they don't clap, either."
McElroy's position might be the athletics department's most unpopular. She spent the past two years as Georgia Tech's director of compliance, a job whose duties don't make for the best of relationships with the school's coaches.
"A lot of times, compliance people are seen as the enemy, because it's their job to uncover problems and to report them," said McElroy, who recently was promoted to senior women's administrator at Georgia Tech. "All of the people's jobs in the athletic association are dependent on obeying the NCAA rules. So any time someone is caught on the wrong side, it's an issue because they could lose their job."
Compliance has been a big issue lately at Clemson, which penalized its football program last week for three secondary NCAA violations. Internal memos obtained by The Associated Press painted a picture of a contentious environment during the investigation.
On March 19, Clemson athletics director Bobby Robinson sent a letter to an unnamed football coach that reprimanded the coach for having a verbal exchange with Becky Bowman that "exceeded the limits of normal professional conduct." Bowman is the school's compliance director.
According to McElroy, rifts between coaches and compliance departments are not uncommon. She said football and basketball coaches typically have the most difficult relationships with compliance officers "because they have the most to lose."
"No matter how good your rapport is with the coaches, they always see you as the hammer," McElroy said.
Until about 10 years ago, compliance wasn't a major issue on college campuses. Universities seldom devoted full-time employees to the area, and it was common for coaches to oversee the position during their spare time.
That changed in the early 1990s, when the NCAA manual was expanded. With a significant increase in rules and regulations, schools began allocating more manpower to enforce and interpret them.
Nowadays, it's common for compliance departments to have five full-time positions.
"Whether you're directing the position or not, you have to know what the rules are," said Craig Curry, entering his second year as director of compliance at the University of South Carolina.
McElroy said compliance directors are best defined as "watchdogs." But given that they are paid by the university and work within the university community - some are even graduates of the school for which they investigate - it might make some wonder just how much of a watchdog compliance directors really can be.
"It's a tight rope to walk," Curry said. "But as soon as you hear something, you have to investigate it. All rumors are open for investigation, and as soon as you find something out, you are obligated by the NCAA to report any violation.
"If you put mackerel in the closet, it's going to stink eventually."
What constitutes a violation? Curry said he gets calls from people all the time asking that very question.
"People call every day, whether they're boosters, alumni, friends of the athletic department or whatever," Curry said. "One person wanted to know whether buying the football team a meal was wrong."
Curry's answer: The meal is legal only if it takes place at the provider's home.
"People call here before they act," Curry said, "and that tells me some of them are learning."
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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