An administrative misinterpretation of a transfer student's eligibility status within the Bemidji State University compliance office resulted in the NCAA penalty levied on the Bemidji State football team Saturday.
The penalty negatively affected Bemidji State's chances to qualify for postseason play and may have factored in the Beavers' exclusion from the Division II national tournament.
"It was heartbreaking to have this happen," Bemidji State Athletic Director Rick Goeb said Monday. "We have to learn and be a stronger, better athletic department because of this."
Anthony Ragsdale, a junior transfer student, was ruled an ineligible player by the NCAA after BSU discovered the error and reported it to the NCAA. He played in nine games this season for Bemidji State.
"We want to reiterate that we are not placing any blame on Anthony and he is not at fault at all, nor is the Bemidji State football coaching staff," Goeb said.
A phone message left for Ragsdale was not immediately returned Monday.
As a two-time junior college transfer student prior to attending Bemidji State last spring, Ragsdale was not eligible to participate in team activities under the coaches' initial eligibility review according to Bemidji State head football coach Jeff Tesch.
Prior to the start of the 2009 football season, the BSU compliance office verified Ragsdale's eligibility and notified the coaching staff.
"At a certain point in time, it was brought to our attention that he was found eligible," Tesch said. "We as coaches trusted in what we were told by our compliance office and played him."
Prior to Bemidji State's Oct. 31 game against the University of Mary, a representative from U-Mary contacted Bemidji State challenging Ragsdale's eligibility.
"When we became aware of that, we went to our compliance office and asked for the paperwork and information to show that he was eligible," Tesch said. "And honestly that's the missing link right now and I don't know why he was declared eligible. We were told that there was documentation and there was not."
Ragsdale was held out of the game against Mary and the final game of the regular season last Saturday at Concordia-St. Paul.
Prior to becoming aware of Ragsdale's eligibility verification from the compliance office, Tesch said he planned to have Ragsdale sit out the 2009 season to complete the NCAA transfer residency requirement.
The NCAA requires transfer students to complete one year of residency to gain eligibility. There are some exceptions.
"Looking back I wish I had asked for proof and asked for the documents on why we deemed him eligible," Tesch said. "Why did we deem him eligible? I still have no answer on that. I just trusted in the people who declared him eligible."
Goeb said the misinterpretation concerned Ragsdale's academic progress.
"We misinterpreted his A.A. (Associate in Arts) degree," Goeb said. "Did he have his A.A. degree prior to participation? He did. We made note of that when we filed our report with the NCAA."
NCAA operating bylaw 22.214.171.124.4 states that a student-athlete who receives an associate or equivalent degree from a two-year college and transfers to an NCAA member institution is eligible immediately on transfer.
Bemidji State appealed the NCAA's ruling, but was notified Saturday the appeal was denied. Tesch said the appeal was likely denied because the administration did not have documents immediately available to verify Ragsdale's eligibility.
Goeb gave "no details" on possible disciplinary action for the employee or employees involved in the misinterpretation of Ragsdale's eligibility.
When asked if the administration plans to issue an apology to the Bemidji State football players, parents, coaches and fans, Goeb said, "We're working on that."
Tesch received several e-mails Monday from upset parents of the football players.
"First of all, I think an apology is owed to all of the kids from the administration," Tesch said. "I've already done mine and told all of the kids. I take a lot of the blame on this one and I just apologized to the kids because they all did absolutely nothing wrong."
Tesch notified his players of the NCAA's ruling in a team meeting after Saturday's 35-20 victory over Concordia-St. Paul at Sea Foam Stadium.
"We were in total disbelief and total shock," Bemidji State senior captain Kyle McMartin said Sunday. "The overall effect was absolute shock. I just put my hands on my head and looked down and said 'you can't be telling this to us right now' and that was the feeling of every other senior. There's just no better word to use than shock."
McMartin said the team is in full support of Ragsdale.
"He did nothing wrong and it was made very, very clear that Anthony had nothing to do with what happened," McMartin said. "We stand behind him 100 percent and we would love to have him back on the team next year. We hope this does not deter him from coming back next season."
Bemidji State finished the season with an 8-3 overall record and 7-3 in Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference play.
Bemidji State was a bubble team in the NCAA playoff race before the NCAA's nullification penalty dropped Bemidji State's winning percentage and negatively affected other crucial tiebreaking selection criteria needed to make the case for a playoff berth.
When the field was announced Sunday afternoon, Minnesota-Duluth and Minnesota State-Mankato were selected as the NSIC teams to participate in the 24-team tournament.
Despite not making the national tournament, Bemidji State was considered a favorite to be the NSIC's representative in the Mineral Water Bowl.
The Mineral Water Bowl is a game between the top two teams from the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference and the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association not to make the national field. It will be played in Excelsior Springs, Mo., on Dec. 5.
On Monday, Augustana College was selected as the NSIC's representative to the Mineral Water Bowl, ending the 2009 Bemidji State football season.
"I think we can classify this as a winning season but obviously it doesn't work that way," Bemidji State captain Jake Anderson said Sunday. "But we're 8-3 in my eyes regardless of what the NCAA thinks and I was really happy with our season up until this point."
Tesch has coached at the collegiate level since 1979 and has been the Bemidji State University's head coach since 1996.
He said this is the first time he has dealt with an eligibility infraction in his coaching career.
"What I wish is that the NCAA could see the human side of this and understand that we were not trying to cheat," Tesch said. "I realize they have to enforce rules or there would be more programs cheating out there. But we had a misunderstanding with paperwork and we never hid anything and never covered anything up ... I wish they (NCAA) could act with a human feeling but I understand they deal with everything in black and white. They have to look at the hard facts and that is their job. But they sure did rip the heart out of our kids."
Tesch did not single out any person in the administration for the error.
"I think the review process should take care of everything and I do not want to get in the business of pointing fingers," Tesch said. "If the process finds out that one person was involved, and if disciplinary action is part of the process, then that should happen."
Tesch hopes that Bemidji State University can learn from the experience to prevent this type of error from happening again.
"We just really, really need to make sure that this never happens again to any other teams or any of our other student athletes at Bemidji State University ever again," Tesch said. "We have to do something so this never happens to another team again and that's all we can hope for right now."
Goeb said the athletic department is developing a new system to improve the administrative process in determining eligibility of transfer students and incoming first-year students.
"We are setting up a committee to review all of the transfer and incoming transcripts so there is just not one person looking at them," Goeb said. "There's going to be more eyes all over the transcripts and that's what we are going to implement."