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Why the Auburn Tigers Still Deserve the Death Penalty

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After Wednesday night’s HBO special reporting that the Auburn Tigers were paying players at least as recently as 2007, I’m sure some of you expected me to excoriate the Plainsmen. After all, I hate Auburn, and I have called for Georgia’s oldest rival to receive the death penalty, so this would seem like a good time to rip into the Orange and Blue, now wouldn’t it?

Well, I’m not going to do that.

Instead, I’m going to write about the SMU Mustangs.

As painstakingly detailed last December in the excellent documentary "Pony Excess," Southern Methodist operated an ongoing pay-for-play scheme over a period of several years, repeatedly running afoul of the NCAA in the process and eventually forcing the body governing intercollegiate athletics to levy the ultimate sanction by shutting down the Mustangs’ football program altogether.

SMU was hit with NCAA probation five times from 1974 to 1985. The last set of sanctions prior to the death penalty included a two-year bowl ban and a one-year banishment from appearing on live television. The Pony Express eventually was barred from competing on the gridiron because Southern Methodist earned "repeat offender" status by committing two major violations within five years, with the second infraction coming while the school still was on probation from the first.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the revelation that, in 1985 and 1986, thirteen players received a total of $61,000 in payments from boosters. Those funds were paid in increments ranging from $50 to $725 per month, taking place over a period during which Southern Methodist already was on NCAA probation. The death penalty was the only punishment left for the infractions committee to hand down, as the 1987 sanctions made SMU the most-penalized program in Division I history. Counting the imposition of the death penalty, the Mustangs had been punished by the NCAA eight times.

Say . . . something just occurred to me. Maybe this is relevant to Auburn, after all!

The Tigers were put on probation for illegal recruiting inducements in 1957 and again in 1958, suffering a four-year ban on television and postseason appearances. In 1979, Auburn’s football and men’s basketball programs were placed on probation for extra benefits and inducements including automobile use, cash payments, clothing, entertainment, lodging, and travel. The football team was banned from appearing on television or in bowl games in 1979 and 1980. The infractions committee specifically stated that the Alabama Polytechnic Institute’s apparent commitment to avoiding future improprieties was a factor that reduced the punishment the Plainsmen otherwise would have received.

Eighteen months later, the existing probation (including the TV and bowl bans) was extended through the 1981 football season when it was determined that an Auburn booster had paid cash to a recruit in order to obtain his signature on a letter of intent. A recruit’s complementary football tickets were purchased at more than face value, and not only recruits, but also their families and one of their girlfriends, were provided with food, lodging, and transportation.

On November 18, 1991, the Tiger basketball and tennis programs were sanctioned for providing extra benefits and improper recruiting inducements. Cash loans, lodging, meals, transportation, and the use of automobiles all were provided, resulting in a public reprimand, increased reporting requirements, and forfeiture of victories. The NCAA determined that Auburn had committed unethical conduct by certifying that the school was in compliance when the athletic department knew it was not.

52 days earlier, on September 27, the Montgomery Advertiser had given front page coverage of Eric Ramsey’s allegation that he had received cash from Auburn athletics representatives, in violation of NCAA rules. Specifically, he reported that he had been paid $300 per month and had received an unsecured $9,200 loan from Pat Dye, the Plainsmen’s pantsless head coach and athletic director. Ramsey’s assertions were bolstered by the similar claims of fellow former Tiger players Vincent Harris and Alex Strong, the latter of whom said an Orange and Blue assistant coach had paid him "a couple of thousand a year." Oh, also, Ramsey had tapes that proved his allegations, and, in October 1992, Coach Dye finally admitted that he knew about the improper payments to Ramsey.

The NCAA sent a formal letter of inquiry in November 1992, the same month that Coach Dye resigned. The resulting investigation determined that the athletic director and head coach knew Ramsey had received extra benefits but failed to report them. Specific allegations concerning identifiable cash payments were substantiated in the investigation, and, in August 1993, the Tigers were hit with a one-year television ban, a two-year bowl ban, and a delay of the start date for the probationary period until the previous probation levied upon the basketball and tennis teams was completed. Unethical conduct and a lack of institutional control were found, resulting in a public reprimand and a requirement of annual reports.

That latest probation ran through November 1995, during the coaching tenure of Terry Bowden. Although he certified to the NCAA throughout his time in the so-called Loveliest Village that he was unaware of any unreported violations occurring at Auburn, Coach Bowden stated on tape that Tiger boosters were giving players cash payments in the thousands of dollars while the program was on probation. In 2004, although the institution avoided being convicted of major rules violations, the Plainsmen saw their basketball program given two years of probation because an AAU coach acting as a representative of the school wired over $3,000 to one recruit and arranged to get an automobile for another. The infractions committee stated at that time:

As required by NCAA legislation for any institution involved in a major infractions case, Auburn University is subject to the provisions of NCAA Bylaw, concerning repeat violators for a five-year period beginning on the effective date of the penalties in this case, April 27, 2004.

In pertinent part, the cited rule reads as follows: Repeat-Violator Penalties In addition to the penalties identified for a major violation, the minimum penalty for a repeat violator, subject to exceptions authorized by the Committee on Infractions on the basis of specifically stated reasons, may include any or all of the following:

(a) The prohibition of some or all outside competition in the sport involved in the latest major violation for one or two sports seasons and the prohibition of all coaching staff members in that sport from involvement directly or indirectly in any coaching activities at the institution during that period. . . .

As a repeat offender, the Tigers were at risk for increased sanctions if another major infractions case arose during the probationary period, which ran through April 27, 2009. While the NCAA already was investigating allegations regarding the recruitment of Cameron Newton, Trovon Reed, and Greg Robinson, these latest allegations concern events purported to have occurred through and including 2007.

Some of the claims made by the four former football players whose allegations were reported by HBO involve a time period outside the NCAA’s statute of limitations, although there is an exception to that statute for "blatant" violations, and a book bag full of cash would seem to qualify. If even one of these players is telling the truth, the payments alleged to have been made were made during the five years following the Plainsmen’s last probation, so NCAA Bylaw ostensibly would apply.

Auburn has been subjected to NCAA sanctions seven times. The next punishment meted out to the Tigers by the association---assuming such penalties are forthcoming, of course---will tie Auburn with SMU as the most oft-pushed Division I program.

I don’t know if Raven Gray, Stanley McClover, Chaz Ramsey, and Troy Reddick are telling the truth, just as I don’t know whether the other alleged recruiting improprieties being investigated by the NCAA will bear fruit. The presumption of innocence attaches even to programs with long histories of improper recruiting inducements who currently are the subject of much speculation on several fronts regarding claims of improper conduct that sounds suspiciously like the sort of stuff Auburn has been doing literally for longer than I have been alive. All this could still be one hellacious coincidence.

If it isn’t, though, the NCAA simply has no other choice than to drop the hammer on the Plainsmen the way it dropped the hammer on the Mustangs nearly a quarter of a century ago. Since the second series meeting in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry in 1894, the Georgia Bulldogs have met the Auburn Tigers on the gridiron in every autumn except four, and those interruptions resulted from the death of a player from injuries sustained in a game (1897), World War I (1917 and 1918), and World War II (1943). The next such break may occur because the NCAA orders the Orange and Blue to suspend their football program for at least a season.

If---and, admittedly, this remains a big "if"---any of the player-paying allegations leveled during the HBO special are proven to be true, especially if any of the allegations raised by the Cecil Newton investigation are established as factually accurate, Auburn deserves the death penalty. Should it turn out that there is fire underlying all this smoke, the SMU precedent will be directly on point in the Plainsmen’s case.

Go ‘Dawgs!