ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Neil McCarthy's era of triumph and turmoil at New Mexico State returned to haunt the school one more time Wednesday.
The NCAA, citing what the chairman of its Committee on Infractions termed "a rather serious case," placed the men's basketball program on four years' probation and imposed other sanctions for violations dating to 1996, when McCarthy — who led the Aggies to five consecutive NCAA tournament appearances — was the head coach.
The ruling also affects the record of current head coach Lou Henson, a member of the elite list of 13 Division I coaches with more than 700 career wins. Henson took over the program at his alma mater after McCarthy was removed just before the start of the 1997-98 season.
One of the sanctions requires New Mexico State to vacate the team's records for the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons, when the Aggies finished 19-9 and 18-12, respectively. The 18-12 record came under Henson and those wins and losses will be removed from his career record, the school said.
The change drops Henson from No. 10 to No. 12 in career coaching wins in Division I — his record revised to 722-365 from the 740-377 it was at the end of last season.
"There are so many things more important than that," the 69-year-old Henson said Wednesday. "The status of the university for one. If that's the way it is, it's OK."
The NCAA found McCarthy, former assistant coach Fletcher Cockrell and another assistant whom the school and NCAA would not identify, were involved in a series of violations that included academic fraud and unethical conduct during the recruitment of junior college players Louis Richardson and Antoine Hubbard prior to the 1996-97 season.
The NCAA said McCarthy agreed to hire Cockrell, then at Jones County Community College in Mississippi, if one or both players signed with New Mexico State. Both players did sign with the Aggies.
McCarthy, reached Wednesday at his home in suburban Salt Lake City, denied promising a job to Cockrell if Richardson and Hubbard signed with the Aggies.
"I never made a prearrangement," McCarthy said. "For example, 'If you deliver your two players, I'll give you the job.' That was never said."
McCarthy said his coaching days are over.
"When I left New Mexico State I was ready to get out," he said. "I won 400 games at different schools faster than anybody. That was my claim to fame. I won 200 at Weber (State) and over 200 there (NMSU) in nine years."
The NCAA also found Cockrell helped obtain academic credits for Hubbard and Richardson in two courses by providing them answers to tests and helping them with their coursework.
The violations surfaced during a deposition tied to a lawsuit that McCarthy filed against the school after his ouster. The school last year self-imposed sanctions that included two years' probation; a ban on postseason tournament play after the 2000-01 season; the loss of four scholarships during each of the next three seasons; a reduction in official contacts during the next two seasons; and no recruitment of junior college players for the 2002-03 season.
The NCAA accepted the school's sanctions, but increased the probation period to four years.
"We felt a longer period of time would help the institution make sure it was getting its act together," said Jack C. Friedenthal, chairman of the NCAA's Committee of Infractions.
The NCAA did not ban the Aggies from future postseason play and Friedenthal said that was due to the school's aggressive approach in reporting the violations and because of the changes that have taken place.
"The committee was impressed that the institution had taken full charge of its shortcomings. It had cleaned house, from the (school) president to the athletic director and the entire basketball staff," Friedenthal said.
Former school president J. Michael Orenduff resigned at the request of the board of regents in May 1997 and former athletic director Al Gonzales was removed two months later. Cockrell was fired in October 1997, the same month Hubbard was suspended from the team.
The NCAA said that in June 1996, the school's compliance officer reported to Gonzales that Cockrell had previously been involved in major violations while employed at another institution and discussed the circumstances involving the transfer of the two junior college players.
"The director of athletics and subsequently the university president (Orenduff), who was informed of the compliance officer's concern, took no action," the NCAA said in a news release.
The committee noted neither Gonzales nor Orenduff took action even though the accusations were similar to charges leveled against McCarthy's program several years earlier that led to three years' probation and similar sanctions.
Brian Faison, the current athletic director, said the latest sanctions were "fair and what we expected under the circumstances.
"From the standpoint of the players, there's an incentive again," Faison said. "They know if they have a good season, they can go to postseason. That was a real positive."
Henson, who has three years remaining on his contract, said he has no plans to leave early. When he took over the program in 1997, he agreed to a contract that paid him $1 a month.