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The SEC's new cheating paradigm, Pay For Stay

Hidden is the Mississippi State probation reprimand is an inspired, new cheating strategy inspired by the SEC's bidding wars. What does it mean for the future of cheating? When does Nash equilibrium take over?


The NCAA recently concluded its investigation of Mississippi State's recruiting practices. The Bulldogs lost four scholarships over two years, got two years probation, lost four official visits, and had a (now former) Bulldog coach officially cited (MSU WR coach Angelo Mirando) for unethical practices, banning him from college football for a year.

Standard SEC fare, worthy of a stuff-we-all-knew shrug, and the Dawgs will find a way to work through the temporary discomfort of their mild hand slap.

What did catch my eye, however, was an innovative development in the SEC/college cheating game:

According to the NCAA, a since-disassociated booster assisted a player in securing a car, provided cash to a recruit on multiple locations and told the recruit if he did not take a visit to another school, he would be paid $6,000

Pay for Stay (Away)

The "other school" referenced above is Georgia. On the scale of SEC cheating, thought to be on the cleaner end of the spectrum, grouped near Florida, but not exactly Vandy. Or maybe that's just Richt halo effect?

If you're a long-time BC reader, you know that $4,000 to $6,000 is the standard payout to a street agent to get a player to campus on an official or summer camp visit. The stuff we were writing about back in 2009 when Will Lyles wasn't yet on the traditional media radar, but actively working USC camps, loading Houston kids into vans to drive them to rural Alabama, and providing Oregon with dubious "recruiting services." (And unsuccessfully trying to flirt with Applewhite through Lyles' useful idiot UT alum interlocutor).

So the $6,000 offered by the MSU alum was not an arbitrary figure. But why offer $6,000 for the kid not to visit Georgia? Is it because he was being offered a comparable number to visit? Was this a match and raise?

No evidence of that. But it's curious. One doesn't simply conjure that number.

Maybe the player and his advisor knew the cost of a visit and extracted its value from a nervous MSU alum and coach, and Georgia is blameless. Very possible. But it also speaks to the league environment that this is a plausible blackmail.

Or maybe the Bulldogs were just that aggressive. MSU's Pay For Stay proactivity likely stems from MSU's prior experience in the SEC recruiting wars, including losing a very famous one - for a stud JUCO QB named Cam Newton.

Much of the controversy over the Cam Newton recruitment (he was considered a likely Bulldog until Auburn's financial push) came to light essentially from Mississippi State crying foul at being rudely outbid out-recruited for his services with a brazen offer that made their offer scholarship look cheap. When it came to light, the NCAA ruled that Newton's father had sold him without his knowledge and that somehow this (im)plausible deniability allowed him to retain his eligibility in Auburn's national championship run.

Mississippi State watched the perfect Dan Mullen dual threat QB elevate 2010 Auburn to a national championship over Oregon (at the time, I dubbed it 'The Street Agent Bowl'). That 2010 MSU team went 9-4 and finished 15th in the AP Poll. What would Cam have meant?

So how does MSU stop from getting outbid in the future? Particularly with modest coffers vs. many of their SEC brethren?

Be proactive in preventing access to other bidders. Pay recruits not to take visits. Deny them access to exploring their full market value with the chance at an immediate buck. Convince them that a booster in in hand is worth two in the bush.

Mississippi State escaped more serious sanctions because they fired Mirando immediately, thus inoculating Mullen and the program from institutional jeopardy. I have no insight as to whether Mirando was a rogue position coach hooking up with a moneyed alum or that the Bulldogs were just smart enough to build up the walls of deniability sufficient to prevent one domino from toppling the rest. I'm more interested in what it says about the current landscape.

Learning From The Chizik Era

Auburn's Gene Chizik didn't cheat at Texas. He didn't cheat at Iowa State. He cheated at Auburn. Because most coaches cheat at Auburn. When you're the 5th or 6th best job in the SEC, you need a little push to the top. And when Bama is your main rival, which had not so long ago chanced the real possibility of a death penalty, there are no innocents. Chizik consented because he got to experience what not cheating and relying solely on his coaching acumen yielded at Iowa State. Auburn was an unbelievable gift. He couldn't blow it. And he didn't have to create the environment. He just had to not actively oppose it.

Individual coaching ethics are less set in stone than most imagine, and tend to have more to do with your neighborhood than your individual beliefs. Most coaches, left to their own devices, won't cheat. Cheating generally doesn't happen because rogue coaches create an environment from scratch (UNC a famous exception), it happens because they coach at places that usually cheat and they don't actively oppose it. Cheating is largely about consent, not creation.

North Carolina & Self Definition

As for why Texas (or schools like Notre Dame, UCLA, Stanford, Boston College etc) have never really gotten into the game in any meaningful way, at least in recent history, while much of the SEC views it as the simple cost of doing business - NCAA probation as a rite of passage to be endured, an awkward program puberty - I'll offer this cautionary piece from 2009.

...if you have a clean reputation and choose to cheat, you have a hell of a lot to lose. When you have a dirty reputation and cheat, you're simply fulfilling public and constituent expectation. An extortionist's leverage is always directly proportionate to the victim's fear of public revelation or physical/financial harm.

Street agents, athletes, even your own staff, are all potential extortionists. And their power stems from your fear of exposure.

Texas cheating would be a big deal. Big program. Likes to tweak main rivals who have a long history of cheating. And it's dissonant to our cultural self-definition. That's leverage.

People like when the holier-than-thou get an egg in the face. Think of the unrestrained glee exhibited when Notre Dame or Duke gets caught up in various scandals. Think of the shock of Penn State and its juxtaposition next to Paterno's cultivated image (the offenses in State College dwarf the minor offenses of recruit bidding - I draw no equivalence).

A school like North Carolina, with similar cultural self-regard, chose to play dumb about John Blake and Butch Davis. Maybe because they were a basketball school, and could plead ignorance. But bringing Blake on your staff signals one thing and one thing only to anyone familiar with college football. And proud UNC grads had to confront their own cultural belief about their school when the scale of their cheating was exposed.

If you want to observe UNC grads in confused denial, read my piece predicting UNC's imminent downfall, explaining why Blake would be at the center of it, before the scandal even really broke.

Two months later, they fell. Hard. And UNC fans got their comeuppance. And began self-flagellating immediately.

Meanwhile, Mississippi State gets a shrug and a golf clap from its conference peers and fans.

The Future For Super-Conferences

Remember this evolution as the leagues continue to drive television revenues higher, the lines between journalism and entertainment further blur, and entire conferences agree on broad cheating or non-cheating cultures with all-for-one, one-for-all pooled resources and conference networks. Will cheating conferences continue to turn each other in? Because the NCAA doesn't take down SEC programs - other SEC rivals do. Or will we see them learn about Nash equilibrium and adapt to cooperative game theory?

And, bigger picture, we're to believe that these leagues will bow down to the NCAA if their cash cow is sufficiently threatened?

And a cautious NCAA, which draws its real revenue from NCAA basketball, is going to eagerly investigate the football super-conferences that could engineer the NCAA's extinction event?