College football has lost its conscience

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 5, 2011 - 10:24 PM

When the stakes are high, and there is a feeling of entitlement, big-time programs -- Ohio State is today's headline -- push the rules out of the picture.

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Jim Tressel stonewalled the NCAA — and paid for it with his job coaching Ohio State.

Photo: Amy Sancetta, Associated Press

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Everyone does it, that's what you hear. Jim Tressel pours gasoline all over his college football coaching career and lights a match, all because he tried to cover up some petty rule-breaking by his Ohio State players, and the consensus is the same around the country: See? Everyone does it.

But it's just not true, Gerry DiNardo insists.

"Everybody wishes they were doing it," the former LSU and Indiana coach said with a laugh. "It means they're signing the best recruits."

DiNardo, now an analyst for the Big Ten Network, is only half-joking. Cheating in college football, from $100 handshakes by boosters to no-show summer jobs to blatant selling of recruits, sometimes seems endemic to the sport, and see-no-evil coaches are the inevitable corollary. And if anyone doubted that ethical dishonesty is as widespread as the West Coast offense, the past eight months should suffice as Corruption 101.

Tressel's Watergate-style stonewalling and Nixon-esque fall -- it was the coverup, not the crime, that cost him his job -- is the zenith of a year of scandal that already ranked as the worst in recent history. Each revelation of greed and crookedness seemed to be trumped by another a few days later, from player payoffs to a bowl scandal to recruiting irregularities, an avalanche of atrocities that prompted Penn State coach Joe Paterno to fret after 45 years on the sidelines, "I'm worried about the game."

Lots of people are.

"It certainly shakes one's confidence in the sport. I can't remember this many so-called scandals in such a short period," said Rick Bay, a longtime sports executive who served as athletic director at both Ohio State (1984-87) and Minnesota (1989-91). "There's more pressure, I believe, each year in terms of being successful, of winning. Nobody's immune to it, but it's still disquieting to see it infect the top programs in the sport."

Doesn't get more "top of the sport" than No. 1 vs. No. 2. The BCS championship game essentially symbolized the season it capped, pitting Auburn -- whose Heisman-winning quarterback, Cam Newton, claimed not to know that his father, Cecil, asked Mississippi State for $180,000 for his signature on a letter of intent -- against Oregon --which paid $25,000 to a recruiting "consultant" who allegedly had been shopping high-profile recruits among top programs.

"It was the perfect matchup," said Dan Wetzel, co-author of "Death to the BCS," a point-by-point indictment of the sport's championship structure. "Money vs. money."

One headline after another

But it was hardly the only indicator of an integrity-challenged sport:

• Reggie Bush returned the Heisman Trophy he won in 2005 after evidence was corroborated that USC boosters were providing his family with cash and even a house.

• A North Carolina assistant resigned and seven Tar Heels players were suspended after admitting illegal contact with an agent. Players at Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina were also suspended for similar violations, usually involving selling tickets or memorabilia or accepting gifts.

• Four former Auburn players revealed during an investigation by cable network HBO that they were provided with several thousand dollars in cash while playing for the Tigers.

• A Sports Illustrated investigation found 56 players with criminal records for violent crimes on the rosters of preseason Top 25 teams, and few schools interested in doing background checks.

• Fiesta Bowl executive director John Junker resigned after directing bowl employees to donate to political candidates and reimbursing them for the donations, a violation of federal campaign law. Junker is now under federal investigation.

• And then there's Ohio State, where, last December, five players were suspended for five games of the 2011 season -- yet were somehow declared eligible for the Sugar Bowl -- after federal agents investigating a drug ring discovered they had been selling Buckeyes memorabilia in exchange for tattoos, a breach of NCAA rules. Tressel was warned about the violation via e-mail, but rather than reporting it as he was required to, he denied any knowledge to the school and NCAA investigators. His resignation Monday was the result.

"Jim Tressel is a good guy -- he was our quarterbacks coach when I was athletic director -- but it's clear he made some poor judgments," Bay said. "I don't blame people for being disillusioned."

Disillusioned perhaps, but determined, too? Will the season of shame prompt real reform?

"There are two great myths in American sports," author and sportswriter Frank DeFord scoffed on National Public Radio earlier this year. "No. 1: Next year soccer will finally catch on in America. And No. 2: Next year, college presidents will finally clean up college sports."

Good line, but the reason for the skepticism is simple: College football is a billion-dollar business. And money talks.

"You need major changes, but the people that would do the reforming are the ones making the most money. So why would they reform it?" asked Wetzel, national columnist for Yahoo! sports. "Ohio State had one of the highest-paid coaches in the country, the highest-paid athletic director and the highest-paid university president. Where's the incentive to change? Everyone involved is getting really, really wealthy. We may say the system is corrupt, but I guarantee most of the people in it like things just the way they are."

That includes the fans, in most cases. "The public has always engaged in a willing suspension of disbelief about college athletics," said Murray Sperber, visiting professor at the University of California's graduate school of education and author of several books on athletic departments. "So the school tries to maintain an image of purity, and meanwhile there's a whole Kabuki theater going on behind the scenes."

NCAA is overwhelmed

Violations of the NCAA rule book, which is more than 1,000 pages long, with impossible-to-understand contortions and complications, happen every day. Boosters pick up tabs in restaurants, coaches make a recruiting call during a dead period, and the NCAA's 38-member enforcement staff, with fewer than a dozen assigned to cover the 120 schools that play football at the highest level, is outmanned. And that's before you factor in academic requirements and the fraud they can generate.

"The NCAA can find some cheating, but they're not going to get everybody," said Bay, whose programs were never investigated while he was AD. "It's so widespread that when schools get caught, one of their first lines of defense is that everybody does it."

And not everybody does, DiNardo said. He coached Vanderbilt and Indiana, and had few rule-breaking worries. He coached at LSU, with higher expectations and more competitive recruiting, and realized how difficult it is to keep players from temptation. "Elite programs have always had tough rosters to manage, because the players feel entitled. It's just reality, though I do think it's gotten worse," he said. "I think we're at a crossroads now in college football."

A crossroads brings opportunity, and several proposals have been floated lately, from rewriting (and simplifying) the NCAA rule book to allowing the biggest conferences to break away and simply impose their own, presumably less strict, rules.

DiNardo has a few suggestions of his own: Convince high schools to ban seven-on-seven football "camps" that recently have begun morphing into meat markets for football talent, similar to the way AAU basketball has fueled recruiting shadiness. Convince the NFL to help fund a developmental league for players who have no interest in college. Make punishments for violators more severe -- reduce conference revenue-sharing checks, ban teams from TV, make deep cuts in scholarship numbers -- and have them follow coaches, "so if you cheat, nobody else will hire you."

One idea that could gain traction, mostly because Jim Delany, the powerful Big Ten commissioner, suggested studying it: Adding stipends to the room-board-books-and-tuition that scholarship players currently receive. Small payments to players -- South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier this week advocated a $300 payment per game, an expense of less than $300,000 per school -- could discourage illegal payments, the idea goes, and provide a more normal collegiate lifestyle.

It's too early to tell whether those proposals will lead to any changes, or even whether such a program could pass muster with Title IX, which mandates equal opportunity for athletes of both genders.

Bay believes renewed watchfulness, perhaps by an expanded staff of investigators, is the most realistic response. "We just have to be vigilant," the retired athletic director said. "It's too easy to rationalize and turn a blind eye. When you start telling yourself nothing is happening, that's when you've got problems."

With so much money at stake, though, the possibility of true, meaningful reform still seems remote, even amid all the scandals.

"You know how banks were too big to fail during the mortgage crisis? College football is too big to fail," said Sperber, the college professor. "People say they want reform. But they want football more. A lot more."

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