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THE COMMISSIONER'S REPORT: Trouble in the 'loveliest little village on the plains'

There is something seriously wrong at the heart of Auburn football.

Twenty years ago, the program was hammered with punishing sanctions for having engaged in a widespread, pay-for-play system where coaches used boosters to funnel money to players. The cast of characters who starred in this shabby drama included booster "Corky" Frost, player Eric Ramsey, and head coach, Pat Dye.

You remember Dye, don't you? After he was fired for his involvement in this squalid business, the football field was named in his honor; it bears his name to this day.

The school came within a hair's breadth of losing its academic accreditation due to interference by members of the board of trustees into academic affairs. Many of those same trustees were involved in trying to hire coach Bobby Petrino away from Louisville as a replacement for AU's then coach, Tommy Tuberville. Some of those trustees still remain on the institution's board.

All of that, and so much more, is prologue to the controversy that swirls around Auburn's star quarterback, Cameron Newton.

This much is established fact

In November of 2009 Newton's father Cecil solicited more than $100,000 from Mississippi State as a precondition to his son playing for the Bulldogs. Cecil Newton has admitted to soliciting the money. Whether any similar solicitation was made to Auburn, and whether Auburn paid any money to Newton or his family are unanswered questions. But these are questions entirely irrelevant to Newton's eligibility to play football in the Southeastern Conference.

Bylaw of the Southeastern Conference states as follows: If at any time before or after matriculation in a member institution, a student-athlete or any member of his/her family receives or agrees to receive, directly or indirectly, any aid or assistance beyond or in addition to that permitted by the Bylaws of this Conference … such student-athlete shall be ineligible for competition in any intercollegiate sport within the Conference for the remainder of his/her college career.

Cecil Newton-a member of Cam's family-has admitted to soliciting money and agreeing to accept aid or assistance in addition to permissible grant in aid. Therefore, Cam Newton is ineligible to play anywhere in the Conference. Only a Pharisee, or a tax lawyer, could construe this bylaw to be inapplicable to the Newton situation.

It doesn't matter whether Cam Newton knew about his father's conduct. It doesn't matter whether any money actually made its way into the Newtons’ pockets. It doesn't matter whether Mississippi State is the only school from which Cecil Newton solicited money. Cam Newton is not eligible to play football "within the Conference."

The Auburn apologists have raised a number of defenses. Cecil did not ask Auburn for money. Cam did not know what his father was doing. No money changed hands. Even if one willingly suspends disbelief and accepts these assertions at face value, it does not change the fact that what Cecil Newton has publicly admitted renders his son ineligible to play football in the SEC. Cam might be eligible to play in some other conference, but not the SEC and not at Auburn.

Georgia, Alabama, NC all handled it correctly

Now, bear in mind, it isn't the role of the league, or the NCAA, to tell a member school who is or isn't eligible to play. The individual schools have to make that decision. It's part of what the rules refer to as "institutional control.” If there is a question about a player's status, the school is expected to declare the player ineligible, investigate the situation, take corrective action, and apply to the league for the player's reinstatement.

The way Georgia handled the issue of star receiver A. J. Green selling a jersey on eBay is a perfect example of how an institution is supposed to act. Green sat out the first four games of the season. Marcel Dareus, the defensive MVP of the BCS Championship Game, was declared ineligible by Alabama while his attendance at a south Florida party hosted by a sports agent was investigated. North Carolina suspended half of its starters at the beginning of the season over the same party. That's what institutional control is all about.

This is how Auburn handled the situation

So, how did Auburn handle this situation? Newton has started every game for the Tigers this season. Without him Auburn would not be the undefeated champions of the SEC West, the Tigers would not be No. 2 in the BCS standings, and they would not be poised to play for the second national championship in school history and the first in more than 50 years. Give Auburn credit for one thing. It's public pronouncements on the scandal have evolved from a mulish insistence that the Newtons and Auburn did nothing wrong, to a lawyer-advised "no comment."

What explains this behavior? Why would an institution push all its chips into the center of the table knowing that there are more cards to be played? I think the answer is both self-evidently simple and complex. The simple answer is: Since Newton is a one-year-wonder, and this is that year, it's play him now or never. Without Newton, the Tigers headed to Atlanta would be traveling from Baton Rouge.    

The complex answer harkens back to the history recited at the top of this column. An influential booster, with ties to the football program, is the owner of a recently shuttered dog track and casino. The event that precipitated the closing of these gaming establishments is a federal indictment containing multiple charges of bribery and public corruption. An indictment is proof of nothing; it is a mere accusation. The booster is not the only person charged – several members of the state legislature join him – and his lawyer has proclaimed his client's innocence. Nevertheless, federal prosecutors have said, the indictment is based, in part, on information gleaned through FBI wiretaps.

According to published reports, the FBI has interviewed some witnesses in the Newton investigation. For those of you trying to keep track of this story without a game-program, the FBI does not investigate the recruiting of college football players as a contractor for the NCAA.

There is smoke pouring out of the barn. If the barn is on fire, it will burn up more than just the hay. Because of Auburn's history, and the way it has handled the Newton issue, the crops in the field are also at risk.

College football is big business, to be sure, but it is a business centered on a game. And this weekend there are some splendid games to be played. Rivalry games that are as spicy as any in America. These are not merely contests of athletic skill. For the alumni and fans, these are epic struggles between competing world views. These are clashes of light and dark, truth and heresy, culture and agriculture. The winners have an entire year to bask in the reflected glory of their football heroes. The losers must endure 12 months of bitterness, regret and recrimination-not to mention the bragging of the obnoxious in-law who graduated from "you-know-where."

The Commissioner’s picks

So, here we go with the Commissioner's picks in the SEC rivalry games:

Alabama vs. Auburn When it comes to rivalries, they don't come any bigger than the one between the Tide and Tigers. These two programs refused to play each other for more than 40 years after a dispute over money following the 1907 game.

Despite winning the BCS Championship in 2009, Alabama comes into the 2010 Iron Bowl as the younger and less experienced team. Auburn has proven to be an excellent fourth-quarter team, having overcome LSU, Mississippi State, Georgia and South Carolina in the final stanza. Eligibility issues aside Auburn has the best player in the game starting at quarterback.

Over the years, there have been very few upsets in this rivalry, although there are some notable exceptions to that rule. In 1972 Auburn upset an undefeated Alabama 17-16. The Tide returned the favor in 1984 when undefeated Auburn lost to a 4-6 Alabama 17-15; a game that saw Rory Turner, an undersized Alabama defensive back, stop Auburn's massive running back Brent Fullwood on a 4th and goal play from the 1-yard line to preserve the win.

Alabama's defense has been a head-scratcher this year. In both of the Tide's two losses, South Carolina's Stephen Garcia, and LSU's Jordan Jefferson, quarterbacks who have struggled with consistency, played their best games of the year. But, the Tide defense throttled Florida, Ole Miss and Mississippi State.

Auburn's offense, though not very complex, is highly effective, averaging over 500 yards of total offense per game.  Newton is as much a threat passing the ball as running it. He has completed 68.2 percent of his pass attempts for 2038 yards and 21 TDs, and has scored 17 rushing touchdowns while averaging 117 yards rushing per game.

Most of the games in this series have been played in Birmingham's Legion Field nevertheless; Auburn has found no difficulty playing in Tuscaloosa. The first time that Alabama scored a touchdown against Auburn in Bryant Denny Stadium was 2008, when the Tide dominated the Tigers 36-0. Although Alabama enjoys an advantage in the series, and has won the last two Iron Bowls, the Pachyderms come into this year's finale as the underdog.

The team with the better record usually wins this game. That's why I'm picking Auburn, but the Million Dollar Band knows how to play "The Rammer Jammer" without sheet music. Don't be surprised if that's the tune serenading the Tigers off the field at the end of the game.

LSU vs. Arkansas In 1996 these two schools began playing for the "Golden Boot," a gargantuan trophy representing the states of Arkansas and Louisiana, one atop the other. This may not be the longest or hottest rivalry in college football, but it is certainly one of the most competitive. Each of the last five games between these two schools have been decided by five points or less, and two of the last three have gone to overtime.

Both teams are highly ranked. Arkansas (9-2) is a consensus No. 12, and LSU (10-1) is No. 6 in the nation and with a win, would have the inside track to play in the Sugar Bowl, if Auburn plays for the BCS Championship.

Last week Arkansas needed double overtime in order to overcome Mississippi State, while LSU came from behind in the fourth quarter to dispatch Ole Miss 43-36. Jordan Jefferson, LSU's quarterback, had his best day since beating Alabama, completing 13 of 17 pass attempts for 254 yards and a touchdown. Ryan Mallett, the Hogs' signal-caller, completed 17 of 26 attempts for 305 yards and 3 TDs against the Bulldogs.

These two teams are very well matched, and if LSU's offense does not revert to its customary dysfunctional norm, it could be a high-scoring contest. Because the Tiger offense has been inconsistent, and the game is in LIttle Rock, where the Hogs are tough to beat, I'm picking Arkansas to claim the Golden Boot.

Ole Miss vs. Mississippi State This year's Egg Bowl features two teams headed in opposite directions. Ole Miss has been spiraling to the bottom of the SEC West, while State has been doggedly clinging to a spot in the top 25.

Dan Mullen has done more with less, coaching his less talented team into playing above their abilities. Houston Nutt tried to replicate with Jeremiah Masoli, what Auburn did with Cam Newton. Unfortunately for Nutt the only similarity between Masoli and Newton is their rap-sheets.

Ole Miss actually played a better game last week against LSU than many expected. But the Rebels still found a way to lose late in the fourth quarter.

In Starkville last Saturday, State matched a more talented Arkansas team play for play, yard for yard, and score for score in regulation, falling 38-31 in double overtime.

Mississippi State is enjoying its best season in a decade. The Pups are headed for a rare bowl game and, if Dan Mullen doesn't get hired away somewhere else, I have no doubt that he will make the most of the practice and recruiting benefits that come with post-season play. But there is unfinished business on the Bulldogs' "to do" list; beating their cross state rivals. If any college football rivalry breaks down along lines of class, status and privilege, this one is it. The inhabitants of The Grove look with disdain upon those cowbell ringing hooligans. The salt-of-the-earth yeomen from State simply cannot abide the Rebs' hauteur, even if they have to look it up in a dictionary to know what it is.

This season, State has the better coach and the better team. That's why I'm picking Mississippi State.

South Carolina vs. Clemson The Fighting Chickens are in uncharted territory. They could find themselves in the Sugar Bowl with a win over Auburn in the SEC Championship Game, even if they lose the season finale against their cross-state rival, Clemson. The prospect of a 9-4 South Carolina playing in the Sugar Bowl while LSU, Alabama, Auburn and Arkansas each have three or fewer losses is, hopefully, something to give the poobahs who run the BCS a serious case of indigestion.

The Birds had a good tune-up game last Saturday, beating the Trojans of Div. I-AA Troy like a narc at a biker rally. Stephen Garcia completed nine of 12 passes for 196 yards and Marcus Lattimore carried the ball 7 times for 102 yards. For those readers obsessed with statistics, that's 298 yards on 16 plays. No wonder the final score was 69-24.

Will South Carolina be looking past Clemson towards the SEC Championship Game? I don't think that's very likely The Chickens have never made the Atlanta trip before, but Steve Spurrier knows the way to the Georgia Dome without a map. He will keep his team focused on the job at hand. South Carolina is my pick in this game.

Tennessee vs. Kentucky As expected, Tennessee dispatched Vanderbilt last Saturday, albeit in a game that lacked the new-found firepower the UT offense demonstrated in its two previous outings. Nevertheless the Vols return to Knoxville one-game shy of achieving bowl eligibility; an accomplishment that appeared beyond their reach until they stunned Ole Miss two weeks ago.

Kentucky is a good football team, but the Cats have had good football teams from time to time over the last three decades and still have not been able to beat Tennessee. This year looks to be different. UK can run the ball and it can play defense.

Tyler Bray has been the difference maker for Tennessee down the stretch, but there is only so much that a freshman quarterback can do. A UT victory is certainly possible, but this year I'm picking Kentucky to break the losing streak.

Georgia vs. Georgia Tech The Dogs are 5-6. The Bugs are 6-5. Does anyone really care about the outcome of this game? You bet your kibble and bits they do. At least they care about it in the Peach State.

How different would Georgia's season be if Mark Richt had taken the Gene Chizik approach to the question of A. J. Green's eligibility? Let's see, during the four games that Green was suspended the Dogs record was 1-3. In the seven games that Green has played, the record is 4-3. In those same seven games, Green has averaged 96 yards per game receiving. Of the three losses in which Green played, two were decided by the margin of a field goal or less. The other was the Auburn game where the score was close deep into the fourth quarter.

There is no question in my mind, that Richt put both the season and his job in the balance when he made the decision to suspend his most potent offensive threat. But that's what doing the right thing requires. That is institutional control.

Because Georgia deserves a little good karma from making the correct choice back in August, I'm picking the Dawgs to beat the Bugs. I hope I'm right. I know Georgia was.


The Commissioner

The Commissioner is Joseph "Woody" Woodruff, who lives in Franklin. His book, "Historic Photos of University of Alabama Football," was recognized as the Best New Book of 2010 in sports writing by the USA Book News.



Posted on: 11/25/2010


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