When a program is caught cheating in recruiting, its fans will often claim that they are just trying to match their rivals' efforts. "They must be cheating, too," they argue, "How else could they get all of the recruits they sign?" There is a kernel of truth in that statement. The governing rules limit every school to offering the same package- tuition, books, room, and board. However, it's a mistake to think that all of these packages are of the same value, and that unpleasant fact is at the root of cheating in recruiting.
Let's start with the scholarship. Obviously, (the value of the education aside) some degrees are worth more than others. That's why Stanford gets to charge more for tuition than Chico State, right? This value could also be measured by the difference in expected earnings by graduates of different schools. That creates an obvious inequity right there. What if a player has dreams of a pro career? Higher profile programs provide better launching pads.
Then there are the differences in campus life offerings, locations (beaches vs. cornfields), degree offerings, and any other of the myriad differentiators that all prospective students are aware of. The NCAA's attempt to level the playing field had unintentionally institutionalized inequities. If the rules were perfectly enforced, some schools would always have more talent available than others. Paying recruits is actually a way of increasing the value of a school's offer, to make it competitive with others.
Coaches are by nature competitive spirits. To a lesser extent, boosters are as well. They will be aggressive about addressing competitive deficits. That's what the college football world discovered in the 1950's, after the rules regulating recruiting were established.
As noted before, the initial intent of the Pacific Coast Conference (PAC-10 precursor) was to forgo athletic scholarships (tuition to the state universities was low already and Stanford had generous financial aid for all) and only allow summer jobs for extra income. Almost immediately, a scandal broke. It was discovered that four of the eight schools (Cal, UCLA, Washington, and USC) had slush funds administered by boosters (with the coaches' knowledge) or the coaches. These funds would pay players upwards of $40 per month, in cash. The scandal ended the slush funds, but influenced the conference to drop its "holier than thou" attitude and mimic the scholarship programs of the rest of the country. Note- the Washington slush fund scandal happened the season before Royal took over in 1956.
The Big 10 adopted the athletic scholarships policy grudgingly, but paired it with higher academic standards for recruits. Their idea was that if they were going to have to give scholarships, they would by golly give them to scholars. This led to a period in the late 1950's where the Big 10 went from the country's toughest conference (the SEC of its day) to being no better than any other. Presumably, before the Big 10 adopted the higher standards, the schools had been enrolling the less intellectually gifted athlete. The league decided to adopt academic standards more in line with its peer conferences, and hasn't looked back since.
It doesn't take a huge amount of cynicism to surmise that the PCC was not the only conference with easy cash for players, or the Big 10 the only conference dependent upon the less gifted student. However, there are two necessary components to a recruiting scandal. You need a violator, and you need somebody to turn them in. We're going to look at both components.
Where do you find violators? You find violators at programs that are trying to get the top talent, and lack the means or skill to do so without cheating. This includes programs in talent-poor states (the geographic distribution of D-1A talent is, like so many other aspect of life, unfair), smaller-profile programs in talent-rich states, programs that have unattractive "images" with talented players, or some combination of the above. The scholarship offers from these programs are perceived to be less valuable than their rivals, so they have to add some economic value to compete in recruiting.
Where do you find somebody to turn them in? That's a more complex question than it first appears. A rival school that turns in a cheater had better be clean itself, or it runs the risk of being punished too.
That's why the heavily rumored recruiting bidding wars rarely result in NCAA penalties. If school A and B are both bidding for a star player, and school A wins, school B is too dirty themselves (and probably has too much evidence against it near the surface) to report them.
You also don't find violations reported in areas where the competitive balance between schools involves a standard set of extra benefits for a player- cars, a certain nominal amount of cash. These "gentlemens' agreements" would typically be between the member schools of a conference, allowing them to defend the local talent from outside marauders.
You will see violators turned in when a newcomer tries to use illegal inducements to open up a new recruiting territory. And that's exactly what we saw in one of the more noteworthy local scandals- the 1955 Texas A&M football recruiting scandal. You had both elements- a coach trying to upgrade the talent on his team, and rivals willing to turn on him.
Let's dig a little deeper.
Bryant is widely recognized as college football's greatest (or most successful) coach. Unfortunately, he was admittedly no stranger to buying players. In his 1966 SI series, he admits that boosters probably paid some boys. Obviously, the boosters have to be told by the coaches which boys to pay. Remember, at this time, boosters were allowed to participate in recruiting, and often funded the scholarships given (coaches were weaning them from the latter practices, because boosters kept trying to promote "their" players, annoying coaches to no end).
He needed to buy players because, with no female students admitted by rule, and compulsory ROTC participation, the Aggies were not an attractive option to schoolboy athletes. Also, the state had only one state-wide recruiter at the time- UT. The rest of the state had been carved up locally, with Rice (and the Owls had some good teams) getting Houston, TCU getting FW, SMU getting Dallas, and the rural small towns shared by Baylor and Texas A&M. Texas, as noted in a prior post, recruited the whole state. Bryant had been promised by the Ag boosters that the Ags were a state-wide presence in recruiting, and they were- the school was considered an undesirable option in every corner of the state.
A few years later, the Ags were the single most talented team in the SWC, led by future NFL stars Jack Pardee, John David Crow, Bobby Joe Conrad, and Charlie Krueger. Although it's unfair to say these players were paid, it is obvious that Bryant brought a significant upgrade in talent to College Station. The other schools took notice, and turned him in for illegal recruiting and benefits for players. Presumably, the other SWC were upset that the Ags were encroaching on their recruiting areas, and paying players to win their commitments in recruiting.
Now, here's the odd part. They didn't turn him into the NCAA, although the NCAA had set up a Compliance Committee to deal with such issues.
They turned him into the Southwest Conference, where the other ADs voted to penalize the Ags and not allow them to play in the Cotton Bowl, should they win the SWC in 1956 (they did). Perhaps the conference forum was chosen because it would have more respect for "gentlemen's agreements" about recruiting territories than the NCAA would.
Obviously, there were some hard feelings on the Aggies' part (especially after Bryant quit), and from that point on any recruiting violations were reported to the NCAA to deal with.
So, there you have it. A school found itself at a competitive disadvantage in recruiting, and responded by sweetening the offers to the recruits, and expanding its recruiting territory. The aggrieved rivals responded by complaining through a forum that would not investigate them in return (in later years, schools would learn to use the media as a surrogate for making claims). The final act is the punishment of the offending program.