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Cocking the Books

During the Great ACC Expansion War of 03 much was made of the necessity of expansion candidates fitting into the ‘culture’ of the ACC. At various times this was construed to mean various things. To some it meant that any prospective new member must have the proper ‘balance’ between athletics and the reported academic mission of the school, such as student-athletes at Duke displaying their strong commitment to the rigorous demands of the basketball-friendly Sociology Department and football players at Florida State keeping up their studies in FSU’s famed Credit Management program. Others maintained that it should be a requirement that alumni of any new member must have the discerning palates of those at Carolina and Hooville and be able to tell at first sip the age of a merlot. Then there was the whole ‘basketball’ thing, which finally was overcome. The ‘ACC Culture’ meant different things to different people.

In the end, the ACC Culture came to encompass South Beach bikinis, certainly not a bad addition to one’s culture, the local boys of Virginia Tech and the duplicitous nature of Fredo. One takes his culture where one can find it. While it may not be exactly one big happy family, any residual tension will be eased when the checks from the new football television contract start rolling in. Large amounts of cash tend to create odd bedfellows.

There was very little culture in Tech’s former conference, that mish-mash of schools and missions known as the Big East, now even more large and mish-mashier since Tech and the others escapees made a break for it. The BE’s tribe ranges from the family values of WVU to St. John’s interpretation of Catholic dogma to include running a crooked basketball program. There’s not a lot of commonality, the chief reason why the gang was broken up in the first place. To succeed, a league needs a sense of unity.

That is certainly present in the ACC’s southern neighbor, the Southeastern Conference. The glue that holds together the SEC is football, much like basketball held together an ACC of a long time ago. The SEC lives for Saturdays; giant stadiums throughout the region become alive and kicking as the league’s football titans do battle. They do a pretty good job of playing football, too. Most league members operate with massive budgets fueled by the paying customers packing those huge stadiums and the huge amounts of long green shelled out by CBS and ESPN for the right to let the rest of the nation in on the action. The SEC’s devotion to football, however, has occasionally created some problems. Actually, a little more than occasionally.

The strong desire by the SEC’s rabid fans to win often carries the add-on, ‘at all costs.’ The league’s coaches and administrations take it quite literally. Nothing stands in the way of their commitment to football excellence, including those NCAA rules allegedly designed to control the sport. At any given time 3-4 member institutions are in the NCAA slammer known as probation [Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky and Georgia at the moment] and a couple more are being investigated [currently Mississippi State, LSU and the permanent investigation[s] at Tennessee]. While every single ACC member except Wake Forest has been on NCAA probation at least once, including all three of the newcomers [thanks again, Dooley], SEC schools have turned it into an art form. The SEC culture is one of football and cheating.

South Carolina was added to the SEC in 1990 and began conference play in 1992. The single biggest asset brought by the Cocks to the league was the number 12, the quantity former commissioner Roy Kramer had discovered allowed his league to stage an immensely profitable football championship game. Much as Fredo is likely to find in the ACC over the next decade or so, South Carolina was in the league, but not really. The Cocks never really fit into the SEC culture. Certainly they had a fan support on a par with other league members; Williams-Bryce Stadium is always packed with 80k Cocks no matter how bad the team. The emphasis is on ‘how bad the team.’ South Carolina has never really had a solid program, at least by SEC standards. They have spent the bulk of their thirteen SEC seasons getting pummeled by the league powers and jousting with other SEC football lightweights Kentucky and Vanderbilt for the bottom of the SEC East. It wasn’t a completely barren existence, however, as the equal SEC revenue-sharing share kept rolling in.

South Carolina a few years ago decided they were finally going to do something about all of the losing. They brought in Lou Holtz, a coaching vagabond most noted for his previous tenure as coach of Notre Dame. Lou had generally won at Notre Dame, delivering an MNC back in the Eighties, but had worn out his welcome when he committed the one mortal sin at ND, not winning every game every year. That would not be a problem at South Carolina; the 8-9 wins per year that got Lou run off by the Irish would be considered wild success at South Carolina.

Lou responded to the challenge of winning at South Carolina by promptly turning in an 0-11 record, perhaps not what the big Cocks had in mind. He did get things semi-turned around, however, leading them to back-to-back Outback bowls in 2000-01. For the success-starved Cocks, it was a pretty big deal. Lou never followed up on the early promise, however. Soon South Carolina was back to sub-.500 seasons and poundings by the SEC East royalty of Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. Grumbling about Lou began to be heard in some Cocks quarters and Lou, also getting a bit long in the tooth, finally pulled the plug last year and retired. Lou, however, did leave a lovely parting gift, one that has firmly entrenched South Carolina into SEC culture.

It is said that a school is not truly a member of the SEC until their first probation. South Carolina has finally arrived. The school’s administration recently announced that South Carolina was guilty of ten, count them, ten, NCAA infractions. Five of them were considered ‘major,’ including the NCAA’s version of capital murder, the dreaded ‘lack of institutional control.’ Welcome to the SEC, South Carolina. When they decide to finally join the SEC probationary party, they don’t screw around.

Despite the ‘institutional control’ big boy the nature of the violations indicates South Carolina still has a way to go in matching the standards of their conference fellows in the cheating department, just as they do in football. There were no SUVs involved or cash payments made by boosters. The best the Cocks could come up with was something called ‘impermissible tutoring’ and improper off-season conditioning. You call that cheating? It’s pretty weak by SEC standards. Still, it’s a start.

It does pop into the mind exactly what constitutes ‘impermissible tutoring?’ I must confess ignorance as to what sort of tutoring the NCAA allows unless it does not. Considering the intellectual capabilities of some of the euphemistically called ‘student-athletes’ roaming around college campuses, it could cover most anything. Since so many of today’s athletic wunderkinds have difficulty with the SAT and bearing in mind how a chunk of an applicant’s score is determined, perhaps somebody at South Carolina was giving illegal instruction in the Palmer penmanship method. In any event, it involved academics, something the NCAA claims to take seriously, almost as much as it does the CBS basketball contract.

Each and every school this side of the Ivy League has some sort of sham curriculum to which it herds its academically-challenged athletes. They are called different things at different schools- Residential Property Management, Anthropology, Sociology, African Studies, what have you. Their prime purpose is not the education of anybody but the maintaining of eligibility for athletes. All schools have them and anyone who claims his alma mater does not is a liar, stupid, or an alumnus of one of those programs. I have no idea what that program is at South Carolina, but you can bet next month’s gasoline bill they have one. The best method of determining it is to check which major is most popular among a school’s football and basketball players, but I am too lazy to look it up.

It would seem that despite the existence of an athletics-friendly curricula at South Carolina Lou had managed to dig up some scholars that could not hack it. That’s what trying to keep up with the Jones, Fulmers and Sabans will get you. School officials were quick to point the finger and assign blame to somebody named Tom Perry, who used to be Senior Associate Athletic Director for Academic Support Services, a high-minded title for some flunky whose chief duty is to ensure that athletes show up for class enough to keep up at least a measure of appearances. All schools have them, too; at Tennessee he carries the title of Senior Associate Athletic Director for Term Paper Logistics. Perry took the fall, as it was announced that he was ‘no longer with the school.’ Well, he was about the only left to blame.

Lou retired at the end of last season and beat feet for Florida. When allegations of impropriety first surfaced in Columbia last October, Lou reacted with the righteous indignation of the unjustly-accused, claiming the claims were totally baseless. Now that the allegations have turned incriminating, Lou responded by unplugging his telephone. Athletic Director Mike McGee is no longer around either, managing to retire and blow campus just before the hammer fell. Of course, he denied any knowledge or responsibility whatsoever, issuing a statement proclaiming ‘I regret that five violations not previously discovered by the athletic department were discovered.’ That certainly does sound a lot like, “I figured they would never find the other five” or, “Damn! We got caught.” One does wonder exactly where McGee was attempting to discover violations? Perhaps he was sitting in his office, looked under his desk and announced, “No violations here.” Naturally, all in a position to have known or should have known what was going on are either pleading ignorance or incommunicado. That is generally the case, as all involved always claim not to know what was going on in their spheres of responsibility, appearing to be as stupid as the Cocks who needed impermissible tutoring.

Those ostensibly running the University of South Carolina also issued the appropriate reaction. “Any success that we have in athletics should be earned honorably and never be tainted by any violation of the rules and regulations that govern intercollegiate athletics,” University of South Carolina board Chairman Herbert Adams said. The operative phrases there are ‘any success’ and ‘earned honorably.’ Achieving either seemed to be the problem in the first place.

And so South Carolina admits to multiple NCAA infractions. Welcome to Columbia, Visor Boy. Faced with a tough job that will now be made trickier as he operates under NCAA sanctions, Visor Boy can be forgiven if he calls for further review of whether McClendon’s knee was actually down. Otherwise he might be coaching the northernmost Carolina. Certainly Big John Bunting would at least left behind an honest program, unlike Lou, who managed to maintain his perfect record of getting every place he coached on probation. Quite the career, Lou.

This second summer of conference realignment found more schools switching conferences, from the ACC and Big East to the Big West, whatever that is. It is also the summer in which South Carolina finally really joined the SEC.

Jim Alderson

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