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The History of College Football Recruiting Cheating- Part 5

I have a feeling this one won't satisfy many. The Longhorns will feel that it takes it too easy on the Sooners, and the Sooners will feel it is unfair to them. Well, I'm just going to let the data speak for itself and not make any claims that can't be supported.

One guiding principle I have had in this endeavor is that the NCAA compliance reports are authoritative. If a school is found guilty of violations, I feel it's fair to call it a cheater. If there is no record of violations, I feel it is unfair to call it a cheater. There are other sources, of course. If a player writes a book and claims he was paid, then I'll quote him and take his word for it.

Two things to keep in mind as we look at the Sooner program, and its history in recruiting violations-

1. Cheating is usually motivated by a desire to overcome inherent inequities in the value of different programs' scholarship offers (some diplomas are worth more than others, some locations are more desirable than others).

2. To have a violation, two things are required- a cheater, and somebody willing to turn them in.

That being said, let's review how the Sooner machine was built. After WWII, the Sooners hired Jim Tatum to be the head coach. Tatum and Bear Bryant were the two coaches most aware of the talent coming out of the services, and had the best plan for acquiring it. They offered scholarship money to go along with the GI Bill benefits the veterans had already earned. This combined package made an irresistible offer for the vets. Let's not discuss any other benefits; as covered in part 2, they were all legal (or at least not illegal). Just as importantly, Tatum brought along Bud Wilkinson, a former star with pre-war powerhouse Minnesota. By the way, the Longhorns loaded up similarly, and had very powerful teams in the immediate post-war period, with national stars Bobby Layne, Tommy Landry (yes, that Tom Landry), Hub Bechtol, and others.

After one season, Tatum was hired away by Maryland, and Wilkinson was promoted to the top position. Wilkinson, not yet 30, initiated a new period in D-1A where a higher level of professionalism in coaching was required at every program that wanted to compete. His scouting was more organized, and his practices were more focused. The "T" formation was relatively new, and the Sooners run-based "T" soon dominated college football.

In their quest for dominance, Oklahoma had one major obstacle- the relatively small population to draw talent from. When you look at the traditional, long-term powerhouse programs, you see a lot of schools in talent-rich areas: the southeast, California, Texas, and the Ohio valley. In 1950, the state of Oklahoma had a population of 2.2 million, and three major programs- OU, OSU, and Tulsa. That worked out to about 700K per school, if proportioned equally. Texas had a population of 7.7 million, and seven major programs- Texas, TAMU, SMU, TCU, Rice, Texas Tech, and Baylor (Houston was just initiating their program). This worked out to about 1.1 million per program (currently, Oklahoma has a population of 3.5 million and Texas has 20.9 million). Obviously, the Texas schools had approximately a 50% larger talent pool to draw from. Oklahoma wanted some of that, and per a Nov. 18, 1957 article in Sports Illustrated, developed a strategy for recruiting Texas.

Nowadays, we don't think of west Texas as a particularly fertile recruiting ground. It was in the '50s, when the oilfield jobs drew so many out there, and oil company sponsors helped fund the high school programs. Remember, also, that this was pre-integration. The SI article mentions that a big selling point for Oklahoma was the promise of oil industry jobs. These promises (which were legal) came from boosters (who were allowed to help recruit). Of course, Texas schools could (and did) make similar promises.

My conclusion is that the Sooner teams of Wilkinson, through 1954 or so, were built legally, or at least not illegally. They may have been very aggressive about what was offered players, but there is no evidence that they were breaking rules (of course, there weren't any rules).

Then, a scandal broke. In 1955, OU was accused by the NCAA of paying tuition beyond eligibility, paying bills for players' families, and providing cash here and there. Remember, a new standardized package of benefits had been established by the NCAA, and these extra benefits were no longer allowed. You can see how a program could "sweeten" the deal offered if allowed to, and how it would be difficult to reduce it if required by new regulations. OU was put on probation for two years, and the machine kept rolling. Hey, it could happens to anyone. The NCAA even noted in its report how much it appreciated OU's cooperation.

Oops. A few years later, the NCAA discovered that OU had withheld info about a slush fund operated by the OU coaching staff. The 1960 NCAA report notes that an AD official (director? Head coach? The report doesn't say) did not report the slush fund, refused to provide details when its existence was revealed, and continued to stonewall. This sounds like "institutional control" problems, although that phrase had not yet been created. OU was put on "indefinite suspension" until the NCAA was given evidence that the slush fund was gone.

In this same period, to its credit, OU dropped the color barrier and integrated the team. Prentice Gauntt was OU's first African-American player, joining the Sooners in the late '50s. This was after the northern schools in the Big 8 integrated and before the SWC schools did.

OU and Wilkinson deserve all the accolades for this that they have received. A funny thing, though- when you look at the Sooner website, you don't see other African-American players after Gauntt for a few years. The November 7, 1960 Time magazine tells why. The Texas schoolboys OU was recruiting were not yet enlightened enough to overcome their racism, and had stopped coming to OU (the curtailment of payments probably hurt, too). This reflects poorly on the Texas schoolboys, but OU did cave in on this.

In the early '60s, OU had a good program, but not a great one. They were well-coached, but their quality was limited to the talent available. The population in Texas was growing much faster than in Oklahoma, and UT had the region's dominant team. Wilkinson retired at the still young age of 46, and was replaced by his assistant Gomer Jones, who was over-matched. Jones was fired, and Frank Broyles' chief assistant, Jim MacKenzie, was hired for the 1966 season. MacKenzie made two key hires- fellow Arkansas assistant Barry Switzer, and Bill Yeoman's top assistant Chuck Fairbanks. Fairbanks had played for Duffy Daugherty (the famous recruiter of African American players from Texas' Golden Triangle), and then coached for him with Yeoman. MacKenzie died after one season, and Fairbanks took over. Both Fairbanks and Yeoman had been keen to integrate the Houston team, and Fairbanks was able to get Oklahoma enthusiastic about it again.

This was a terrific recruiting strategy (it was also the right thing to do). By being willing to recruit anybody, anywhere, OU was able to expand their recruiting base throughout the state. Thanks to Gauntt, the first recruits did not have to worry about issues surrounding being "the first". OU quickly rebuilt the monster.

Fairbanks left for the NFL, and Switzer inherited the helm. To this point, OU could be characterized as a program that pushed boundaries, was aggressive, but wasn't out of control. Switzer was a poor choice to maintain control, considering he struggled so much to control himself.

In his time, he would find himself in civil courts, SEC courts, and criminal courts.

Now, in fairness, Switzer was only an accomplice in the 1973 violations, not the ringleader (Fairbanks was coach at the time). Those violations involved boosters providing transportation to recruits, and a Sooner assistant falsifying a player's (QB Kerry Jackson) transcript so he would be eligible. By the way, the assistant stayed employed, so read into that what you will. The NCAA hit OU with the only weapons it employed at the time- a TV ban, and a post-season (bowl game) ban.

The next violations were dispositioned in 1980, and despite all of the accusations, the crimes reported were more misdemeanors than felonies. This was a crazy time for any school recruiting Texas, and a little walking money and transportation provided was kind of the cost of doing business. To the Sooners' discredit, business was very good.

Barry keeps it real.

In his book, "Bootlegger's Boy", Switzer pooh-poohs the penny ante violations, and mocks the NCAA for prosecuting them. The issue, whether he understands it or not (and he may not), is that any violations in a recruitment send a signal to a recruit. One of the things OU was penalized for was giving recruits a t-shirt. If a recruit visits Kansas, and is refused a t-shirt, and then goes to OU and receives one, what message does he get about how he will be treated as a player?

The reported violations really weren't much fire for all of the smoke. Was that all there was? Certainly, notable Sooner players like Charles Thompson and Brian Bosworth reported getting paid well in their respective books. Also, OU always seemed to be involved in the recruiting of players that had purported bidding wars around them (not winning all of them, to OU's "credit"). A must read is "The Courtship of Marcus Dupree", by (disclosure) noted Texas-Ex and literati Willie Morris. Dupree committed to Texas in the summer before his senior year, but continued discussions with OU, UCLA, Mississippi State, and Southern Miss (TAMU got in late, when Sherrill was hired). Morris writes about the dismay of Texas' recruiter as he realized the significance of being unable to meet with Dupree in a town of 10,000, while he received reports of Dupree driving around with several rival recruiters. With two days before signing day, he left town to focus on Anthony Byerly, because he realized Texas was merely a "stalking horse".

So, was OU under Switzer "aggressive" in recruiting, or "dirty"? The answer was found in the next NCAA violation report, covering events in '85 and '86. OU was dirty. Its assistant coaches offered envelopes with $1k cash to recruits, cars were provided, bills were taken care of, and game tickets were sold by assistants. The NCAA report is telling. OU responded to the initial request from the NCAA and said that its internal investigation revealed nothing more. Meanwhile, more ex-players and recruits talked, so the NCAA went back to OU with the new reported violations. Again, OU found nothing more. The NCAA came back again with more reports, judged OU, and noted that if the Sooners tried to fight it that they had more reported violations they could investigate.

Conclusion: OU was very dirty under Switzer. This was also the period of "The Sooner Cellblock" with shootings and worse (this post is already too long without getting into all of that) happening regularly. Switzer was fired, and his assistant, Gary Gibbs took over. Since then, we hear plenty of allegations about the Sooners, but until the "Big Red Imports" scandal, they have been (compared to before) fairly clean. Their 2000 MNC team was probably the poorest paid one they have ever had. Let's give credit where credit is due.

So, there you have it. OU has been a well-managed program for over 60 years, from a football standpoint. When it has combined great coaching with elite talent, it has won MNCs. The program has addressed its fundamental weakness (lack of talent produced by the state) by smartly, aggressively, and sometimes dirtily recruiting the better-stocked regions in its neighbor to the south.

This post is not the first time something like this has been on the web. I know what most of the Sooner responses will be. I'll categorize them, to help our friends out, and also provide an initial response.

1. "Texas was dirty, too." Yes, Texas was also found guilty, on three different occasions, of NCAA violations. I will discuss them later, and promise not to gloss over their significance. By the way, this is called a "strawman" argument.

2. "Texas was a racist program". Ah, the ad hominem attack. Let me note that DKR coached integrated teams in the CFL and at Washington years before Wilkinson did (perhaps they even discussed it). Royal started recruiting African-Americans to UT about the same time Switzer did (as an assistant) to OU.

3. "UT had the NCAA Compliance Committee under its thumb". The committee was chaired by Dr. Charles Alan Wright of the UT Law School for a number of years. If there is any evidence that he ever used his position to protect Texas or hurt one of Texas' rivals, I would like to see it.

4. "OU doesn't need Texans. They have played a very small role in the MNCs". Please. Jack Mildren. Brian Bosworth. Joe Washington. Greg Pruitt. Billy Sims. Tommy Harris. Mark Clayton. Rhett Bomar...(couldn't resist).

That's all I've got. Thoughts (I write as I duck)?