A father's gift stolen from the UNO hockey locker room 14 months ago led to a series of mistakes that will cost the Mavericks' coach and top defenseman three games.
Dean Blais and Jaycob Megna violated NCAA rules when the coach reimbursed the player $400 after Megna's wristwatch was taken from the CenturyLink Center locker room in October 2012. They won't be with UNO when it faces New Hampshire (Jan. 3-4) and Minnesota-Duluth (Jan. 10). The Mavs' program won't be subject to sanctions.
“I don't believe that it was malicious on Dean's part,” UNO Athletic Director Trev Alberts said in an interview. “I honestly believe Dean's an old-school coach and felt bad for the kid and was trying to help him. But it's a violation.”
Said Blais, reached by phone Monday: “I totally support the university's and the NCAA's decision on my suspension.”
Blais can conduct practices and will travel with the team to New Hampshire, but he must cease all coaching activities one hour before games. He is permitted to watch the action from the arena, but can't be on the bench — UNO assistants Troy Jutting and Alex Todd will take over head-coaching duties. Megna, by NCAA rule, won't be allowed to travel.
“My frustration is for the player,” Alberts said. “Here's a kid that has done everything right. He's an amazing student. He's from a great family. ... Now he's paying a price frankly for some university mistakes.”
Megna, whose older brother, Jayson, is a former Mav and current member of the Pittsburgh Penguins, received the watch from his dad after earning a UNO scholarship.
During a game against Bemidji State in Megna's sophomore season, an unidentified person broke into the Mavs' dressing room through an unlocked equipment room door. Megna filed a report with the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority. Teammate Aaron Pearce also reported $100 missing.
Megna never saw the watch again. The next week, compliance intern Sam Spomer asked his director, who has since left the department, if UNO could reimburse Megna. The NCAA has waivers for incidents like the watch theft. But UNO, which is going through a rigorous campus-wide transition to Division I, interpreted the rules incorrectly. The compliance director said no.
“That was the wrong answer,” Alberts said. “We could've reimbursed him through the NCAA if we had just filled out a few forms.”
Over the next few months, the hockey coaches and the compliance officers miscommunicated. Megna believed UNO couldn't reimburse him because the budget was too tight.
In April, he purchased a new watch for $400.
Blais learned of the purchase and paid Megna $400 cash from his pocket. Blais didn't do it secretly, Alberts said. It happened in the weight room during a team workout. Regardless, “that's an impermissible benefit,” Alberts said. “Dean's been a head coach a long time and should've known.”
Fast forward to Dec. 4 and a monthly compliance education seminar. Coaches received a three-page “bylaw bulletin.”
On page two, a recent violation report detailed how Alabama football player Ha Ha Clinton-Dix accepted $500 from a strength and conditioning coach after his car had been robbed. Clinton-Dix was suspended two games.
Blais, en route to Colorado College a few days later, studied the newsletter and realized he'd broken an NCAA rule. When the team returned to Omaha, Blais reported his mistake. UNO called the NCAA on Dec. 11.
Because the impermissible benefit was $400 or less, NCAA rules dictate that Megna sit out 10 percent of the schedule — three games. As part of UNO's reinstatement request, Megna donated $400 to charity.
Ironically, Megna was reimbursed by UNO after the department went through the proper waiver channels. UNO will also seek reimbursement for Pearce's $100.
Blais would've been suspended for one game by the NCAA. But Alberts determined his punishment should match Megna's.
“I told Dean, I can't look myself in the mirror watching a kid sit three games and the coach — who's the adult and who gave it to him — sits one. He didn't disagree.”
Alberts says there's much to learn from the incident. First, UNO has made changes to improve locker-room security; during Mike Kemp's coaching career, his teams were occasionally victimized by theft, too.
Bigger picture, Alberts said, it underscores the importance of rules compliance as the Mavs continue their Division I transition.
“It's a great lesson for us,” Alberts said. “We've got more work to do.”