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The History of College Football Recruiting Cheating- Part 9

In this series, I have made very few claims that couldn't be supported by readily accessible independent info. One of the primary sources is the NCAA database of major violations. Here's the link:

Note- this only works if you use the "pulldown menu" for a school's name (it is very sensitive to formatting).

I have read a lot of infraction reports. They follow a pattern. They describe the allegations that instigated the investigation. They describe the institution's response to the allegations. They list the findings, and the violations they believe were confirmed. They often salute the school for cooperating, and comment on institutional controls. They outline the punishment, and usually note that a school may appeal to the NCAA if it wants, but that the committee has more evidence it has been holding back that would come forward then. Think that's a threat? I do too.

The NCAA Death Penalty may be applied when a school has two major violations in one sport within a five year span. How rare would such an event be? I queried the database, and found that the following programs had two major football violations within a five year span from 1981 to 1990: Alabama State, Austin Peay, SMU (twice), Georgia, Illinois, Memphis, USC, Southern Mississippi, Texas, Wisconsin, and Virginia Tech.

The Death Penalty was not in force until the second half of the '80s, and was applied to SMU on February 25, 1987. This event scared the heck out of every program. In the past, a coach could consider cheating to improve his team, and if the NCAA penalized the school...well, maybe he would be in a new job then. The school might not like the penalties and black eye, but they could blame it on the coach (if he was gone) or their rivals. The Death Penalty changed everything. Now, a repeat cheater might see their program shut down for a couple of years. This meant that the biggest moneymaker in the whole department would be gone, forcing athletics to draw on the school and boosters to stay afloat. It meant that the talent would drop to zero, and the team would be a patsy for years after restarting. The coaches would almost certainly be released, and they might not be employable afterwards. The Death Penalty was a figurative nuclear strike- sure, you may live, but is it really living?

The SMU punishment served notice to everybody in D-1A that the stakes at risk in this game just went up. Now, schools weren't just risking black eyes; now jobs were at stake- for coaches, Ads, and even university presidents.

Of course, all of this was contingent upon there being two major violations. If a school only had one violation for a five year span, they were home free. If a coach had a major violation, and left for another job, his personal counter was clear. This reality was a factor in all organizational decisions once investigations began. With that in mind, let's take a look at the craziest infractions report I've seen- Houston's December 16, 1988 report. Check this out-

On March 21, 1986, the NCAA enforcement staff sent a preliminary letter of inquiry to the university, but the university apparently never received the letter. The enforcement staff submitted a subsequent letter to the university on October 30, 1986, that informed the university that the preliminary inquiry would continue. At a later date, because of the university's assertion that it had not received the first letter, the NCAA Committee on Infractions voted that the October 30, 1986, letter should be treated as the initial preliminary inquiry notice from the NCAA. Accordingly, this letter was used to determine the application of NCAA legislation that limits the consideration of rules infractions that occur more than four years prior to receipt of a letter of preliminary inquiry.

Huh. A cynic might wonder just what happened in the spring of 1982 that Houston didn't want to answer for. I wonder if the NCAA uses registered mail now.

It gets better.

In the spring of 1986, the university informed the NCAA that it would investigate possible improprieties in its football program. The university employed a Houston, Texas, law firm to conduct its investigation. More than a year after the university began its own investigation, it was learned that the investigation had been impeded by the former head football coach and several assistant football coaches who provided false or misleading statements to the university's investigator. This conduct by the former head football coach and members of his staff caused significant to delay in the investigation and processing of this case. Eventually, following the Committee on Infractions hearing in this case, certain individuals whom the committee determined had impeded the investigation were found in violation of the ethical conduct principles contained in the NCAA constitution. These unethical conduct findings are set forth in Part II of this report.

Take my word for it- you don't see this in every report. That head football coach was Bill Yeoman. Personally, I admire Yeoman for his work with the Veer offense, and his pathfinding in integration. He has a great history in football, spanning back to his playing days as a freshman at TAMU who was then recruited to transfer to West Point during WWII. That being said, this was not his finest hour.

throughout the period, student-athletes were given cash on an individualized basis by the former head football coach and several former and two current assistant football coaches. Some student-athletes received cash when they told members of the coaching staff that they had a special need for money; some student-athletes were given money by coaches who were pleased with the student-athletes' performances in practice or competition, and some student-athletes were proven to have received money for reasons that were never disclosed to the committee.

This is great! Some players were paid because they were poor, others were paid because they earned it through exceptional play, and still others were paid for reasons that nobody can remember! By the way, it was really rare for coaches to be the distributors of significant cash instead of boosters. There is more sordidness:

The former head coach refused to furnish information to the NCAA that was relevant to the investigation of the alleged violation of NCAA legislation described in Part II-A of this report. Specifically, on April 27 and May 27, 1988, during an interview by an NCAA enforcement representative, the former head coach refused to identify the individual who provided funds for cash that was given to players at the beginning of the season, and the former head coach declined to identify the assistant coaches who distributed this cash.

Yeoman resigned, and the NCAA removed scholarships, banned Houston from post-season eligibility, and banned the Cougars from TV. Take my word for it, not every infractions report is this exciting.

Now we'll look at another crazy case from the late '80s, involving a program at an ethical crossroads. Jackie Sherrill joined the Ags before the '82 season, and immediately started upgrading the talent (although the results wouldn't reflect that for a few seasons). He wanted a fast team, and did some smart things like recruiting big HS QBs to play linebacker for him. He ran a pro-style offense at first, run by the era's best SWC passer- Kevin Murray.

Allegations were made to the NCAA that Murray, and others were being paid, and an investigation was opened. Sherrill was the coach and AD, which was common in that era. The September 9, 1988 report shows that the investigation took a very long time, in large part due to a superficial TAMU internal investigation. When the official NCAA investigation began, TAMU's new president, Dr. Mobley, stepped in and assured the NCAA that he would nsure institutional control. The infractions report shows a program that was promising cars and cash to recruits, with those promises made by a couple of (unnamed) assistant coaches. The assistants weren't fired, but they weren't allowed to participate in recruiting (this is actually a pretty good punishment- take the schmoozers who specialize in recruiting, and make them stay on campus and game-plan; meanwhile you also force your best strategists to get on the road and recruit), and they weren't given raises. The TAMU staff at the time included Bob Davie, R.C. Slocum, Kirk Doll, Joe Avezzano, George Pugh, Lynn Amedee, and Curly Hallman.

So, what happened next? I'm not going to describe it. Instead, why don't you see for yourself? I am linking New York Times articles because their archives are free. You can find other accounts at other papers. Note- you need to read these in order. was a crazy time while this was breaking. With no talk radio or internet, the newspapers were the key source for developments. Every work office in the state was buzzing, wondering if this would bring Sherrill and the Ags down. The answer, as you saw, was "yes" to the former, and "no" to the latter.

So, there are two narratives proposed here. The first is that Smith threatened to expose TAMU to the Death Penalty if he wasn't paid off, showed the DMN the money, recanted at TAMU when interviewed by the TAMU AD internal investigation, and admitted later that he was paid to do so. Per this narrative, TAMU cut Sherrill loose because his presence had grown too distasteful to tolerate.

The other narrative is that he was a hard luck former player who needed help, but unfortunately was a fantasist, making up stories as a whim. Under this scenario, TAMU cut Sherrill loose because they lacked the fortitude to "stand by their man". Even under this scenario you have to wonder about Sherrill loaning money to a player, while on probation, without telling his boss up front.

Which do you believe? My opinion is that Occam's Razor supports the former. This whole sordid event is summed up a couple of years later as a portion of this "Sports Illustrated" article about the Mississippi State hire- have to love a search that has Bobby Collins and Jackie Sherrill as the finalists.

Back to TAMU. With Sherrill gone and the NCAA giving up (the investigator said he could not separate fact from fiction), the Ags could continue on. The staff stayed intact, with Slocum promoted to the top position. The Death Penalty averted, the Ags could now really install institutional controls.

But wait. There was one more development- an off-season job program that paid players even when they weren't working. infractions report shows that the university cooperated with the investigation, and the booster paying the players didn't (he may have been concerned about potential criminal charges, since the federal government funded many of his projects). This fell in the five year window from the 1988 infractions, but TAMU convinced the NCAA they were sincere in wanting a clean program. The NCAA did penalize them heavily, perhaps because they were still cognizant of the George Smith fiasco.

Wow. There you have it. A period in the SWC where cheating directly led to the end of three of its most successful coaching careers (Yeoman, Sherrill, and Collins), and the eventual downfall of the conference.

There is no telling how many careers ended because coaches refused to cheat, and so suffered more losses than they would on a level playing field.

I think I've got one more chapter in me, summing up what we've learned.