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First in a series.
The climate of cheating can't get worse than a particular recollection of a young Dan Beebe, hotshot NCAA investigator in the 1980s. Beebe, the man who helped put away SMU with the death penalty, couldn't believe what he was hearing as evidence piled up in another case during the wild and wooly '80s.
"I did investigate a case where people were afraid to talk, not because they were ostracized," said Beebe, now the Big 12 commissioner, "It was because they would be killed."
Beebe wouldn't name the school but you don't need to be an academic All-American to narrow the list given the breadth and scope of cheating a quarter-century ago.
Penn State president Graham Spanier says cheating in college football is 'about as bad as it's been in the modern era.' (Getty Images)
That was the golden age of cheating when "15 [SMU] players got ZXs from the same dealership," Beebe says. You think things are bad now with coaches lying, players with their hands out and the creeping influence of third parties into college football? Based on that experience alone, history should tell us that the aroma in the air these days has to be sweeter than those wild, wild West days.
"It's much, much better," Beebe said. "You don't have institutions doing what was going on 25-30 years ago. Schools were outright buying players. Now there seems to be some issues that we've seen recently, but it's not as widespread."
Across the country, a powerful academic and NCAA leader couldn't disagree more.
"Right now," said Penn State president Graham Spanier, "is about as bad as it's been in the modern era."
So who do you side with? Ask a random college athlete, administrator or fan during these days of Tressel, Pearl, Oregon and North Carolina and you are sure to get dichotomous answers to a big-picture question:
Is it possible these days to win a national championship at the highest level in major college football without cheating?
In the 75-year history of the wire service era, CBSSports.com research showed that it is nearly impossible. Among the schools that have won titles since 1936, when human polls became the accepted form of determining the sport's champion, only Penn State and BYU have never had a major violation in football.
Those schools aren't necessarily crowing over that fact, more like crossing their fingers.
"That's kind of amazing to me that's the case," said BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe, "because it doesn't bode well."
In a series of stories over the next several days, CBSSports.com will attempt to answer that question and more. Are we merely in a cheating "bubble" where violations have spiked? Have schools, players and coaches lost their moral compass? Or is this a simple battle of semantics? For example, it's sometimes hard to call it "cheating" when a school turns itself in.
But what does it say about the entire sport when a BCS title game presided over by now-disgraced John Junker featured teams now being investigated by the NCAA? What's the over/under on the number of total violations by the programs being more than the number of points scored in Auburn's 22-19 win? That's assuming the win stands.
We're at a crossroads with no stop signs, and no one seems to want to yield the right of way. Upward of 15 sources were interviewed for this story. They all said it's possible to win big the right way. But no one can seem to agree how to move forward in making that a sure thing.
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Using SMU's death penalty as a jumping-off point, big-time football in 2011 looks as dirty as ever. Almost half of the current Football Bowl Subdivision schools (56) have committed a major violation in football since 1987. There have been 72 cases involving major violations, averaging three major cases per year. The "leaders" in that category are Texas Tech and Alabama, each suffering major penalties on three separate occasions.
In the previous 24 years (1963-1987), there were 89 major cases. Narrow the focus to the decade of the 1980s, when there were 54 such cases in only 10 years. That's 55 percent more per year than the 1987-2011 sampling. While many years can separate a violation and a championship, the numbers are connected by a common pursuit – the pressure to win at the top level. Not surprisingly, 44 of those 56 schools since 1987 are from BCS conferences (based on 2010 alignment).
Sort of like a scarlet letter – with benefits. Or, to borrow a NASCAR term, if you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin.'
Adding to the mystery: Both of the "innocents" (BYU, Penn State) won their titles from 1982-86, during a time considered some of the most lawless in NCAA history.
"In terms of 2011 … I'm deeply worried about football," Spanier said. "I believe if we don't fix some of the problems in football, in five years it will be as bad as basketball."
That's about as bad a thing you can say about college football. Wrongdoing, at least in recruiting, is so prominent in hoops that this year's best and brightest at the Final Four in Houston featured coaches (Kentucky's John Calipari and UConn's Jim Calhoun) who had vacated tournament appearances the same year (1996).
The NCAA won't say it, but that sport long ago ceded the recruiting trail to sleazy third parties who control top prospects. The association is scrambling to stamp out the creeping influence of "non-scholastic third parties" in football before it becomes … basketball.
"I have full confidence we are absolutely doing it the right way," said Oregon AD Rob Mullens.
That statement was made to CBSSports.com 10 days before a Yahoo! Sports story quoted one of those alleged third parties, Will Lyles, as saying coach Chip Kelly and the Ducks "paid for access and influence with recruits." If Lyles is ruled to have been funneling players to Oregon in exchange, that could categorize him as a booster.
If, as reported, Lyles was told to slap together a "national recruiting package" to justify a $25,000 payment, we could be talking about Kelly in the same breath as Jim Tressel and Bruce Pearl.
"Booster" would add another title to what has become a mysterious, new presence in football recruiting – the mentor/talent scout/street agent. LSU coach Les Miles sat in his office this spring recounting an increasingly common living-room recruiting visit these days.
"There's mama and dad and this guy sitting over here in the corner," Miles said. "Who's he?"
"The social acceptance of cheating has gotten ridiculous," said Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp, a Chicago-based sports business consulting firm. "It's only a problem if you get caught. There does not seem to be the moral shame that there once was."
Certainly not on the part of certain coaches and the fans who worship them. To some, no matter how many Heismans or glass footballs or wins must be returned, they still look to what happened on the field and proudly claim championships.
"The reward outweighs the risk," said Dave Ridpath, an NCAA compliance expert and assistant professor of Sports Administration at Ohio University. "Most people will tell you that USC lost their BCS championship. At the end I wonder if people really care."
• • •
NCAA president Mark Emmert has made the "risk/reward" analogy his personal ad campaign. The enforcement staff has been increased and restructured. Members of the media were invited in May to participate in a mock enforcement process.
"We need to make sure our penalty structure and enforcement process imposes thoughtful level of concern and even fear," Emmert said.
There wasn't much fear in Columbus when the Buckeye Five dealt with a tattoo parlor owner who has pleaded guilty to drug trafficking. CBSSports.com spoke to several current players during the spring and summer about that particular situation, asking: Do you understand on some level why players would trade their jerseys/memorabilia for money? Their reaction can be best summed up by Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez.
Nebraska's Taylor Martinez says players often don't grasp the implications of their actions 'in the heat of the moment.' (US Presswire)
"You're not really going to think twice about it, just because you're in the heat of the moment," he said. "Say someone gave you a watch, are you going to say, 'No, I'm not going to take it?'"
At best, there seems to be a modern disconnect between the players and the rules that govern them. It's hard to criticize the players' sense of entitlement when the coach makes $4 million and the NCAA is able to profit off their likeness (in video games and beyond) in perpetuity.
The near-death penalty handed to USC might have been a good place for the NCAA to start cleaning up – though not to USC. But the college world is waiting to see if the NCAA infractions committee is going to keep the momentum going when Tressel and Pearl are sentenced.
"Oh gee, USC got hammered, so Ohio State better get hammered too," said veteran infractions committee member Josephine Potuto, summing up a common perception.
That's really all the public wants – cases that are processed quickly and similar penalties for similar violations. More "court-type decisions," Beebe suggested, where precedent is considered.
The current reality: "What I'm saying is, it's not clear it's apples and apples …," Potuto said of comparing USC to Ohio State and Tennessee. "It's all about what can be proven at the hearing."
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It's clear the cheating gene has mutated in the 21st century. The blatant wrongdoers of the '80s at least have been replaced by more savvy violators. ATM passwords have taken the place of cash. Trips to lavish agent parties have taken the place of free meals.
The focus remains preserving the health of "the franchise" – the football program that produces a lot of revenue and pride. Potuto mentioned a "willful avoidance" by those who choose to protect that franchise at the expense of full NCAA disclosure.
"You don't look so you don't find it out," Potuto said. "I do think there may be some level of head coaches with willful avoidance. A good head coach has his finger in every little hole."
That renews a modern argument. How can a coach possibly be responsible for his players 24/7? He can't, but he can put in safeguards. When the USC penalties were handed down, Paul Dee, then infractions committee chairman, said schools must pay special attention to their top players. Reggie Bush was no third-team slug.
Former Ohio State great Chris Spielman would have a staffer who did nothing but track lifestyles: Check cars in the parking lot. Ask for a receipt if a new piece of jewelry shows up in the locker room. If he was hearing stuff on the streets about Ohio State players, how could the school administration not hear and act on that same information?
Spanier, 16 years as Penn State president, says athletics takes up 2 percent of his budget and 10 percent of his time. For 16 consecutive years he has met in August with every member of the athletic department. There are frequent meetings with the compliance coordinator. He meets each year with every new incoming athlete.
How common is that among his peers?
"I don't believe it's common at all," Spanier said.
Arizona president Greg Byrne was surprised at the national stir recently when he posted his phone number and email and those of the compliance department on the athletic department website.
"If you ever know of a situation where a student-athlete is receiving an extra benefit please contact me."
Those seem like simple, obvious measures of reducing risk. There is a growing faction who are taking another road to reform. They want to reclassify violations so they aren't major. Emmert is among those who believe violations should be further categorized beyond secondary and major. Sort of a delineation between drunk driving and mere jaywalking.
Consider Army's place on the list of major violators. The NCAA's enforcement division debuted in the early 1950s, but for purposes of this research, Army is included. The program that was a national power for parts of three decades beginning in the 1930s was cited for improper recruiting contacts, inducements and conducting tryouts in the 1980. It received a public reprimand.
Is it fair that seemingly isolated and minor misstep should stain a school? The small stuff seems silly. The SEC recently proposed deregulation legislation regarding phone calls and texts.
"If you lump all violations of the law into one category, then all of us are guilty," Beebe said.
The NCAA Manual is stuffed with rules but, as Spanier reminded, only because violators have created a need for them.
"I would make it so easy in college football," Spielman said. "It's like the tax code. Here's the rules. Here's the major infractions. If you commit a major infraction, and you're found guilty, you're done for a year. The coach is done for a year and the assistants are fined 20 percent of their salary.
"Watch how vigilant they become."
That's from a loyal Buckeye and one of Jim Tressel's friends.
Five-Part Series: Cheating
Part I – Dodd: Hard to win without cheating
Part II – Friday: Schools that cheat the most
Part III – July 11: Is cheating worth it?
Part IV – July 13: The NCAA's role
Part V – July 15: What we have learned
"I hate seeing Terrelle Pryor's career destroyed or Coach Tressel. I hate it," Spielman added. "Twenty-five years and he's got a little shady dealings but overall a pretty damn good track record, but it's destroyed. My humble opinion is you make the consequences so severe for major infractions."
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Potuto suggested it might be time to break out the heavy artillery. The constitutional law expert at Nebraska has sat in judgment of schools and coaches for nine years (the NCAA maximum) on the infractions committee.
"Penalties need to be more severe," she said, "including a TV ban."
A TV ban hasn't been handed out for years but remains on the books. Theoretically, it hasn't been applied because of the potential financial damage to the opponents and conferences (who also would lose TV appearances).
Tressel and Pearl seemingly are in line for "show-cause" orders that would essentially make them unemployable for a period of years.
"Believe me, until the SMU death penalty in 1985, I saw quite a bit of [improper] activity that included cars and clothes and cash," said Nebraska AD Tom Osborne who left coaching in 1997. "I thought after SMU, an awful lot of that stuff got tamped down. … Maybe at some point you need another death penalty …"
Not surprisingly at the heart of the issue is money and winning percentage. If you win big enough, that tends to smooth over everything. Tressel won, so the school initially suspended him for only two games. It's the reason Lane Kiffin is considered a renegade for being charged with six secondary violations in one year at Tennessee. Meanwhile, Nick Saban's Alabama program has reported 16 secondaries in two years.
One has 15 wins in two years as a head coach. The other has two national championships and a statue.
"The soft underbelly of this business has always been the kids get room, board, tuition, books and fees and an education, which isn't insignificant, and the coach is making $4 million a year," said Stanford AD Bob Bowlsby. "Therein lies the problem. You want to fix the problem of where you get the money [for players]? Take it away from the head football coach and head basketball coach. But I'm afraid that ship has sailed."
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier threw out that idea last month at the SEC meetings. At least the Head Ball Coach put his money where his wallet is, proposing paying players $300 a game – out of coaches' pockets.
"I guess I'm not someone who subscribes to that theory," said attorney Mike Glazier who is currently representing Oregon in the Lyles' case. "If the players were coached by someone who was making $60,000 a year … they're going to be tempted."
• • •
The BCS has defined the era largely because its existence widened the financial gap between the haves and have-nots. Conferences have reshaped themselves and schools have gladly jumped leagues to grab the BCS gold. That gold currently stands between $17 million-$20 million, the payout per team for a BCS bowl.
Not surprisingly, five of the 11 schools that have won championships in the BCS era have been penalized for major violations since the BCS was formed in 1998. Fourteen schools that have played in BCS bowls have faced major penalties in that span. That number could grow, obviously, with the addition of Auburn and/or Oregon.
"If you aspire to play in the BCS championship game, you've got to look at how many of those schools have ended up in the crosshairs of the NCAA," said Glazier who specializes in helping schools through NCAA investigations. "That's a pretty high percentage. Once you're on top, people are going to do a lot of stuff to knock you off."
That begs a version of the old tree-falling-in-the-forest-question. Are those schools cheating to get to the top, or is it there at every level? We just don't hear about the losers.
It's difficult to buy into the old saw that the media is "out to get" programs. The schools are making it too easy. Tressel was the one who hid emails. Pearl turned a secondary violation into a firing by lying. If Reggie Bush had paid Lloyd Lake the $300,000 he owed him, we might have never known about his situation. Any reporter with a laptop can request documents through the Freedom of Information Act.
But if the game's stewards can't agree on the level of problem or whether progress is being made, how do we go forward?
"I've heard a lot of people say, 'Oh, the '80s were horrible,' Ridpath said. "I don't think things are fantastic right now. I still think we're living in a pretty dark age."