NCAA penalty strips UH of volleyball title
By Stephen Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
"This is a sad day," UH men's volleyball coach Mike Wilton said.
UH and NCAA officials refused to publicly name the player, but Costas Theocharidis, a four-time All-America outside hitter who finished his UH career in April, told The Advertiser last month he was the target of the NCAA investigation. Theocharidis did not return messages left on his cellular telephone yesterday.
The NCAA ruled that Theocharidis, who was raised in Greece, played in 22 matches for a professional team in Europe before enrolling at UH in August 1999. Although UH officials said the accused player did not receive a salary or sign a contract, a player forfeits his amateur status by being a member of a professional team, according to NCAA rules.
The NCAA ruled that UH committed a "secondary violation" of NCAA rules by playing Theocharidis. The Warriors were ordered to relinquish their 2002 national championship the school's first NCAA title by a men's team and pay a $5,000 fine.
Theocharidis, the only player named to the NCAA All-America volleyball team four times, will be erased from the record books. He must return all of his NCAA awards.
UH officials said the penalty was harsh for the infraction and planned to appeal.
"It was a secondary violation and we got almost the maximum penalty and that's what's making this very hard to swallow," said Jan Gouveia, UH associate general counsel.
Theocharidis denied several times during UH investigations of player eligibility that he had played on a professional team, said Paul Costello, vice president for external affairs.
"It was after we got confirmation from the professional team in Greece, then he admitted it," Costello said.
Costello said that if Theocharidis had been forthcoming earlier with the information about the team in Greece, the university would have been penalized but may not have faced such severe sanctions as loss of the national title.
Although athletic director Herman Frazier said UH did not know of any complaints against Theocharidis until May, rumors of his professional ties had circulated in volleyball circles for the past three years. The UH volleyball guide mentioned Theocharidis as a "member of A.C. Orestiada, which finished second in the Greek championships in 1997-'98." There are no amateur leagues in Greece.
Gouveia said the rule against playing alongside professionals has been in place for several years, although it has been broadly interpreted.
Before August 2002, the relevant part of the NCAA rule on amatuerism read:
"An individual shall not be eligible for intercollegiate athletics in a sport if the individual ever participated on a team and knew (or had reason to know) that the team was a professional team in that sport."
The rule was amended in August 2002 to read:
"An individual shall not be eligible for intercollegiate athletics in a sport if the individual ever competed on a professional team in that sport."
Gouveia said amateurism has been a gray area.
Because of the rule revision, UH investigated the eligibility of all 70 of its international athletes between February or March and October of 2002, Gouveia said.
During that first UH investigation, the player in question was judged by the university to be an amateur.
Then in May of 2003 the university was contacted by the NCAA with questions specifically regarding the professional status of this player, she said.
"Somebody told them to look into it and we don't know who that was," she said.
A university employee who is familiar with the case said a copy of an unsigned professional contract was included in that complaint. The contract explains why the team that Theocharidis played on was professional.
The university launched a second investigation that resulted in the penalties announced yesterday.
Because this was not a major violation, it cannot be coupled with future infractions as an argument for the "death penalty," UH athletic director Herman Frazier said. The death penalty would suspend a program after two major infractions within five years.
Theocharidis is enrolled at UH this semester, although he will not be allowed to receive any financial aid from the athletic department. He was the only player to receive a full men's volleyball scholarship last season.
Gouveia said Theocharidis will not be asked to repay the scholarship money. She said she does not believe his student visa will be affected.
With the exception of Theocharidis, the Warriors will be allowed to keep their championship rings, if the appeal fails. Frazier has not decided what will happen to the championship banner in the Stan Sheriff Center.
"I'm keeping my ring," said former UH outside hitter Tony Ching, who was Theocharidis' teammate the past four seasons. "I won it. According to the NCAA, they said I didn't win it. According to me, my family, my teammates and, hopefully, the state, we won. Everybody saw it. We won fair and square. We didn't use anything supernatural."
Because the title will be vacated, the 2002 runner-up, Pepperdine, will not replace UH as national champions, an NCAA spokeswoman said.
Theocharidis had several opportunities to alert school officials to concerns about his amateur status. Before enrolling at UH in 1999, he filled out the International Student-Athlete Questionnaire Form, an eligibility check list for foreign players. He also filled out a standard NCAA questionnaire for incoming student-athletes.
Soon after, with UH compliance officer Daniel Arakaki in attendance, the UH coaches asked Theocharidis if he had ever been paid to play volleyball or if he had ever signed with an agent.
Arakaki said he was not sure if the accused player was asked specifically if he played alongside professionals. Back then, Arakaki said, "the rule was there, but it was not strictly enforced. ... (Since then) they have quantified it so there's no ambiguity."
Theocharidis was questioned in the summer of 2001, after the amateur statuses of international players on the UH men's basketball team were questioned, and last year, after the NCAA revised the rule on playing alongside professionals. Each time, according to UH officials, Theocharidis did not indicate there was a problem with his amateur status.
Asked if the accused player had lied in his responses, Gouveia said, "I wouldn't use the term 'lie.' ... It was a situation where the player was not totally forthcoming. He made a mistake. There may have been some misunderstanding on the bylaws."
Wilton said: "Right now, I feel compassion for a young man who's contrite. He owned up to it. ... I forgive him, and I would hope all true Warrior fans and his teammates and his coaching staff will feel the same way."
Gouveia said she has started work on an appeal to the NCAA Division I Committee on Infractions. The appeal must be filed within 30 days. The committee is scheduled to meet Oct. 10 to12 and Dec. 12 to 14.
Advertiser Staff Writer Beverly Creamer contributed to this report. Reach Stephen Tsai at email@example.com or 525-8051.