As mentioned in the first segment of my two-part look at the compliance kerfuffle that is major college football, it has been a couple of years since Urban Meyer told the college football world how disgusted he was that the sport has been overrun with “garbage.” Or as the rest of us call it: “cheating.” Considering all that has transpired in the Gator program since then, it seems like longer than a couple of years. For some of you, the last two days have seemed like a couple of years, eagerly waiting for me to expound on this phenomenon of foul. For many of you, it seems like it takes a couple of years just to find the end of one of my loquacious columns. But I digress…
Well we know what Meyer was dealing with close to home. As noted in this space before, between the tenures of the past two great Gator coaches Meyer and Spurrier, every single other SEC team – as well as FSU and Miami – have gone on probation for cheating, with the lone exceptions of UGA and Vanderbilt. Some of them multiple times. Many of them will be going on probation again in the next four to five years. And perhaps even more irksome to Gator fans than this giant den of iniquity is the NCAA Committee on Infractions: a giant den of inequity. Just compare the infractions and resulting penalties levied against the Florida programs in the 1980s to any of the major infractions and associated sanctions lodged against the major programs since then. But again I digress…
Since Meyer released his remarks public consumption, it seems like every week a new major program across the country is being outed or busted for cheating. Oregon has been famously called on the carpet this week by the NCAA, citing major violations, and they will have to work hard to convince anyone that they didn’t pay at least one man in excess of a quarter million dollars to scout and steer star players to Eugene. The other team in the 2010 national title game, Auburn, has to hope their little $200k “Newtonian issue” – as well as the many accusations levied against the Tigers’ program in this month’s Selena Roberts article – are never verified or they will land themselves on major probation; again. Then of course there is the recent saga on a far larger media scale of Jim Tressell, who committed a violation and then lied about it to the NCAA, and then lied a little more about it to spin the first lie, then lied a little more.
And speaking of adding insult to injury, cheating is alive and well in college basketball too. Close to home in the SEC, Bruce Pearl pulled a sweater vest himself a couple years ago, compounding a number of violations with dishonest statements to the NCAA. As we know, Pearl lost his job over it. But the worst part of his pink slip ordeal cast light on perhaps where the blame begins: in the A.D.’s office. Former Vols Athletics Director Mike Hamilton was the one in charge of Tennessee men’s athletics, and he was the man who hired Pearl and cultivated the culture of permissiveness (at best) that allowed Pearl to operate as he did – and then he punished the players by announcing Pearl’s likely firing less than 48 hours before they tipped off in the NCAA tourney. Hamilton was also the man who hired Lane Kiffin, who went on to set conference records both for the most minor infractions and the most verbal reprimands from the SEC office in a single year. And of course Kiffin and his one-and-done staff were also prominently named in the NCAA Notice of Allegations given to Tennessee shortly after his departure that led to the Vols’ current two-year probation rip.
I mention the case of Mike Hamilton in particular because it is one of the relatively infrequent times when the Athletics Director feels the sting of the transgressions either directed or allowed to foment under his watch. It closely coincided with the firing of then-Southern Cal Athletics Director Mike Garrett, after he oversaw a department that landed on probation for major violations in both football and basketball. Note the common threads: if you want to stay off probation, never hire Lane Kiffin or an A.D. named Mike. The Athletics Director is usually the one doing his best Claude Rains impersonation claiming he is “shocked – SHOCKED – to find that cheating is going on in here!” But there is usually some degree of incredulity in the face of these claims of innocent surprise by the top dog in the athletics, particularly in the successful programs, because it simply is not credible to believe a boss can be so successful directing his department while at the same time not having any idea what is going on in it. These two firings – though done by the schools and not directly triggered by any NCAA sanctions mandate – may signal the beginning of a new trend where lack of institutional control is seen for what it is: very strong and focused institutional control in the effort to break NCAA rules. And the real coordinators, the real decision makers at the top of the food chain may finally start to feel the consequences of their actions. Whether they are crooked or not, they may ultimately be forced to implement compliance programs that force their coaches to remain above boards.
That lack of institutional control at the top was just as clear at Ohio State, and the point driven home is the same as at places like FSU in the past, where coaches and A.D.s wash their hands of the affairs and say, “Bowehs will be bowehs.” Pearl was sacked and Tressell did not survive, both at the core because of the element of lying to the NCAA. Ask Dez Bryant how the NCAA feels about giving false statements. At least the Buckeye basketball team is clean. Never mind that just a few years ago head coach Jim O’Brien was fired, but only after the NCAA found violations of illegal benefits and academic fraud that led to three years’ probation and financial reparations. They are clean now because Thad Motta is the epitome of integrity.
As was as Jim Tressell.
What this really underscores for Gator fans is not just how bad it is out there for the Honest Abes of the major college sports world (or how rare law-abiding coaches really are), but just how good the coaches at Florida have been since 1990. In coming weeks, I will break down the national Teams of the Decade in basketball and football for the last 10 and 20 years, respectively, and the early returns indicate that Florida will figure prominently in both analyses. And as I will highlight, this was done despite playing far more of the top-10 winningest teams each decade than any other team in the top 10. But that doesn’t even compare to the handicap they face when you consider who is cheating.
In the 2000s decade, the Florida football team finished fifth in winning percentage (thanks Ron!). Of the four teams ahead of them, three of them were found guilty of cheating and sanctioned by the NCAA for violations during the decade: secondary violations by Oklahoma, and of course the rather massive cheating by Southern Cal and Ohio State. Only Texas remains clean among that group. In the previous decade of the 1990s, only FSU and Nebraska had better winning percentages than Florida, and we know both programs were hit relatively hard by the NCAA for again, rather massive cheating during the decade. When you combine the two decades of football, of the top 12 teams in winning percentage, only three teams played it clean: Florida, Texas and Penn State. And Penn State is of course now on massive probation for the lack of institutional control that had nothing to do with directly gaining an advantage on the field, but did unquestionably avoid incurring a huge institutional black eye that would have resulted in a decided disadvantage on the field in terms of being able to attract as many top athletes to a program tainted in such an unimaginable manner. So it did indirectly give them a competitive advantage by preventing a certain competitive disadvantage. The rest of them were all cited by the NCAA at least once, with nine of them cited multiple times: Ohio State, FSU, Nebraska, Miami, Tennessee, Michigan, Marshall, Oklahoma and Alabama.
The media certainly takes a jaded and hypocritical approach to the whole ordeal, mildly condemning the practice of cheating in vague and indirect terms while never whispering a negative word on air about the rouge programs’ illegal practices as they praise their on-field success. And when anyone in the media does address the issue directly, it is in the vein of Barry Switzer’s remarks on the Tressell misdeeds: “That’s jaywalking to me. This stuff has gone on forever.” Says the man whose lawlessness is so second nature that he forgets he is carrying illegal handguns when he goes through airport security. But this is the perspective of the only college sports talking heads who dare even speak on the topic: everyone’s doing it, it’s no big deal, and the fans don’t really care as long as their teams win. Which may be true.
And why not? In college athletics, cheating pays. Nine of the twelve winningest programs of the last 20 years can attest. Since the Bowl Coalition/Bowl Alliance/BCS began holding definitive national championship games in 1992, through 2010 (I cut it there because we won’t know about the potential cheating of Alabama, LSU or Notre Dame until a few years have passed, the window during which these things usually surface), there have been 19 title games with 38 teams playing for the ultimate bauble. Of those teams, 27 – that’s a full 71% – have been sanctioned by the NCAA over that span of games for violation of the rules. Many of them multiple times. When and if Oregon and Auburn officially receive their sanctions, as most expect, that total will increase to 29 (76%). What’s more, in the 19 seasons played since 1992, not a single title game has been played without at least one team that was cheating and sanctioned during that timeframe – not one single solitary game. And ten of the games – over half of them – pitted two sanctioned programs against each other (counting the foregone conclusion of the 2010 game).
Frankly, those are simply staggering statistics.
And yet, even with eight of the other top twelve national teams over the last two decades – and nine of the other eleven SEC teams- cheating (and half of the two new expansion SEC programs; the most recent of Texas A&M’s four NCAA probations concluding in 1998), there was Florida under the guidance of Spurrier and Meyer sitting atop the list with 11 more wins than anyone else. And there is Muschamp hanging 11 wins on the scoreboard in only his second year of taking over a dumpster fire of a program. And in basketball, even with two of the biggest documented cheaters in college sports – Bruce Pearl and John Calipari – coaching in his own division a combined 11 seasons between them, there is Billy Donovan winning the SEC title yet again this year, and advancing to the Elite Eight for the third-straight season (while neither Calipari’s program nor Pearl’s former program even made the NCAA tournament). And in those nine national title football games that pitted cheaters against non-cheaters, the clean programs went a collective 6-3.
So perhaps there is hope for the chaste after all (that would certainly be good news for Tim Tebow’s NFL career). For Gator Nation, that is certainly the great hope, because with probably the most drum-tight compliance department in all of college sports – boasting an official citation from the NCAA for being the model compliance program – Florida athletics will be braving the elements while continuing to fight the good fight. History shows it can be done. You can win the biggest of trophies on the biggest of stages – and do it frequently – by running an honest athletics program. The Gators have been doing it now shin-deep into its third-straight decade. It is comforting to know that the Florida programs continue to prove that you don’t have to cheat to be the very best. Even when everyone else is doing it.