MORAGA -- The punishment meted out to the Saint Mary's College men's basketball program Friday could have been worse, though not by much.
Saint Mary's can still play in the NCAA tournament, if invited, but its future success was cast into doubt by scholarship reductions, recruiting restrictions and numerous other sanctions in what amounts to the greatest breach of NCAA rules by a Bay Area team since Cal was rocked by scandal in the mid-1990s.
An NCAA investigation found Saint Mary's guilty of attempting to lure recruits with extra benefits, allowing players to partake in unsanctioned practice sessions and failing to respond to red flags raised by others about potential violations.
"We've had some great
Bennett, the architect of Saint Mary's rise to prominence, was singled out by the NCAA's Committee on Infractions for failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance and to properly monitor a former assistant coach. Both are among the most serious charges the NCAA can levy against a head coach.
As a result, Bennett has been suspended for the first five West Coast Conference games of next season.
"I'm not proud of it," said Bennett, 50, who is completing his 12th season in Moraga. "We're not perfect. I'm not perfect."
Bennett's afternoon news conference carried a markedly different tone than a statement
The Gaels have 15 days to appeal.
"I personally believe some of the penalties were harsh," Saint Mary's athletic director Mark Orr said. "We've got to take some time and evaluate that."
The NCAA's investigation, which began in the summer of 2010, determined that Saint Mary's:
"We are certainly disappointed at the final outcome. But as an alum, as president and someone who supports our athletic program, I'm also proud of what we've been able to accomplish," said Brother Ronald Gallagher, Saint Mary's president, in a statement. "We've
The recruiting violations involved Keith Moss, who was employed by Saint Mary's as an assistant coach and director of basketball operations in 2008-09.
Moss, who lives in Roseville, was charged with unethical conduct. He plans to appeal the ruling.
"I look forward to my appeal and showing the majority of the reported violations occurred after I left Saint Mary's," he said.
Saint Mary's rise to prominence under Bennett has been fueled by elite Australian players like Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova.
But Orr said the three recruits involved in the most serious transgressions were from France and that none of them officially visited, applied to or attended Saint Mary's.
"All the major infractions that are in the report, none involve Australian athletes, current or former," Orr said. "Secondary violations do include Australian student-athletes as well as other student-athletes."
Orr added that the school has already taken corrective actions, including the addition of a second full-time staff member devoted to NCAA compliance.
"I am confident that we are a stronger institution," he said. "Coach Bennett understands Saint Mary's strong commitment to NCAA rules compliance, and we will continue to work with him to ensure that compliance remains paramount."
Bennett and school officials appeared before the NCAA on Dec. 14 to address the allegations of infractions. NCAA official Greg Sankey said Friday that Bennett "was candid and fully responsive."
Bennett agreed with all but one of the NCAA's findings. He disputes the conclusion that he failed to adequately monitor Moss.
In 1996, Cal coach Todd Bozeman was forced to resign after he admitted to paying $30,000 to the parents of a player so they could travel to watch him play.
In a statement posted on its website, the West Coast Conference agreed with the NCAA's findings.
"Clearly mistakes were made and those violations are in direct conflict with our conference's values and beliefs, including our commitment to NCAA compliance," said Jamie Zaninovich, commissioner of the WCC.
The penalties will affect Saint Mary's on multiple fronts.
The loss of two scholarships in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons will undermine its depth.
Bennett's ban from recruiting off campus in 2013-14 will hamper the team's ability to sign top players.
A multiyear ban on participating in in-season tournaments could hurt Saint Mary's strength of schedule and, consequently, its chances to earn NCAA tournament at-large bids.
"I feel confident we'll work through it," Bennett said. "It's not going to be easy. It's a hole we put ourselves in, and we're going to have to work our way out."
Staff writers Jeff Faraudo and Elliott Almond contributed to this report.