There’s a perception that college football, fueled by the deep pockets of TV money in the chase for the prestige and the major paychecks provided by BCS bowls, has spun off its moral axis for good.
Just last year, 14 North Carolina players were suspended for parts of the season for contact with sports agents. Auburn quarterback Cam Newton’s father was accused of trying to sell his son’s commitment to Mississippi State for $180,000 while the player was being recruited out of junior college. And five Ohio State players sold signed memorabilia to a tattoo parlor owner; the cover-up led to Monday’s resignation of head coach Jim Tressel.
“You hate all the scandals and that coaches are perceived as cheaters and liars,” Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said at the annual Southeastern Conference spring business meetings here. “For the most part, I don’t believe we represent that.”
So is what’s happening these days in college football any worse than, say, what took place 20 to 30 years ago?
In the 1980s, there was a college football coach (Florida’s Charlie Pell) creating a slush fund to send his assistants on trips to spy on opponents; an Oklahoma quarterback (Charles Thompson) sold drugs to an undercover FBI agent; TCU was found guilty of using prostitutes in recruiting; and SMU got the death penalty from the NCAA after players received hundreds in cash as well as free housing.
Those stories came and went, preserved in yellowed newspaper clippings, 16-mm film and reel-to-reel tape recordings.
These days, scandals have staying power thanks to social media and 24-hour-a-day news cycles that never quit spinning.
“It’s hard to blame the media for reporting things that happen, because you make your own bed,” Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. “What’s changed is stories aren’t going away like they used to. Because there are so many media outlets now, it just keeps coming. So what used to be a one-day story or a three-day story now is a four-month story.
“What that does is it incites constant discussion on the issue, so it’s important that we as coaches, we have to adjust and dot our I’s and cross out T’s even more so. It reminds you, number one, of the responsibility that you have. It’s something that I try to remind our players, of the responsibility that they have to represent this place, because it doesn’t take much for something bad to happen. I go to bed every night worrying about a headline against our program because I know how damaging it can be.”
The biggest thing football coaches fight is finding a balance for their players to get a taste of being normal college students while insulating them from wannabe friends.
“Every year, there’s more and more outside influences on young people,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “As coaches, we’re getting more and more limited contact with our players. We don’t get to know them as well, we don’t get to be around them in the summer, and all of those things make it tricky to protect them.”
Alabama coach Nick Saban understands he can’t know everything that’s going on with each player in his program. He stresses management, responsibility and leadership.
“There’s a fine line between personal responsibility that you have to manage things correctly, and being responsible for things that are entirely out of your control,” Saban said. “I’m never going to accept that fact that we can’t manage our situation and provide leadership to get people to do the right things.
“You have to have the personal integrity to handle all these circumstances and situations in the right way. The most important thing is you have procedures in place institutionally, and the trust and people you have to work with in your institution, from compliance right up to the president, that every time these circumstances come up, you’re going to trust that those people can handle it. The NCAA has to trust that.”
But because of scandal-filled seasons like 2010, that trust is hard to maintain. The average fan may believe a team can’t win a national championship or build a top 10 program without cheating.
“I don’t agree with that,” said South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who won the 1996 national championship and six SEC titles at Florida without a hint of an NCAA investigation. “The good schools that do it right and recruit well will always be competitive. Certainly, we did it at Florida and we’re trying to get in the top 10 at South Carolina.”
Dooley is a believer that the good still far outweighs the bad in college football.
“We all still make mistakes in our programs and we’re not perfect,” Dooley said. “But I think the bulk of the profession and the industry is trying like heck to do it right. I still have a lot of confidence in that. I don’t think there’s ever going to be a time where everybody’s always doing it right, but I think that there’s enough oversight that it’s never going to get to a point where it’s out of control.”