SEC policy to make cheaters accountable
DESTIN, Fla. -- Dave Odom knew the Southeastern Conference had an image problem when he talked recently with a colleague from another major league about scheduling a game.
"He told me there were only four teams in the SEC he would play," said Odom, the men's basketball coach at South Carolina.
The message was clear: Two-thirds of the SEC's 12 schools should be avoided because they played loose with the rules.
Acknowledging its reputation as a renegade conference, the SEC approved a policy Wednesday that is designed to reduce the sort of cheating that has put a constant stream of schools at odds with the NCAA.
The policy is designed to streamline the process for reporting violations and make schools more accountable for keeping their people in line.
"Obviously, we needed do something," Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville said. "I think this is the right road to take. We'll see."
Four SEC schools -- Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn and Kentucky -- are currently on probation. Georgia and Mississippi State recently admitted to rules violations but have yet to be sanctioned by the NCAA.
Over the past decade, nearly every league school has been accused of malfeasance, some more than once. The SEC's reputation for athletic excellence has been tarnished by recruiting scandals and academic fraud.
"This is the first time in the history of the league that we've all come together in the process, looked each other in the eye and acknowledged the issues we've had," SEC commissioner Mike Slive said. "We don't want them to happen anymore."
At its annual spring meeting on Florida's gulf coast, the SEC unanimously approved the recommendations of the "Task Force on Compliance & Enforcement." Slive has set a goal of having all SEC schools off probation by the summer of 2007.
A centerpiece of the new policy: If one school suspects another of violating NCAA rules, they must follow a strict protocol for reporting the allegations.
For instance, if a coach at School A believes someone at School B has broken a rule, he must report those concerns to his own athletic director. The AD would determine if the information should be reported to the SEC office, which would make a similar decision before passing along the allegations to School B. That school must conduct its own investigation and report back to Slive within 30 days.
The new policy, which might become known as the "Phillip Fulmer Rule," is supposed to give coaches a clear-cut policy for dealing with suspicious behavior by a rival school.
Fulmer, the Tennessee football coach, told an NCAA investigator in 2000 that he suspected improper dealings between Alabama boosters and recruits. While assured of confidentiality, Fulmer's claims were revealed during a federal lawsuit that claims he was part of a conspiracy to bring down the Crimson Tide football program.
The NCAA wound up placing Alabama on probation for five years, including major scholarship reductions and a two-year ban on playing in a bowl.
"I think everybody has gotten the message that this is the way things need to be," Fulmer said. "We want to have the reputation around the country that the SEC is not only a great conference academically and athletically, but we do things the right way."
Asked if he felt the new policy grew out of his embarrassing allegations against Alabama, Fulmer replied, "I hope not."
Gene Marsh, an Alabama law professor and member of the task force, said it was important that anyone who suspected wrongdoing will know how their concerns are being addressed.
"People have complained that they would raise an issue, then never hear how it was resolved," he said. "Now, there are absolute lines of authority about who's reporting and who's got the responsibility for investigating."
Still, the new policy provides no penalties for a school that doesn't comply with the reporting guidelines. Slive is counting on "peer pressure" to keep members in line, which could be difficult given the SEC's track record.
When Odom was coaching in the Atlantic Coast Conference, he was amazed at all the rule-breaking that seemed to prevail in the SEC. Coaches talked openly about paying for players and bragged that they had their own system of checks, balances and avoiding the NCAA.
"I'd say, 'How in the heck do you get by with that stuff," Odom recalled. "They'd say, 'Hey, local rules prevail. We take care of our own. If something happens, we deal with it on our own.' "
The SEC is now urging schools to shy away from hiring coaches who have run afoul of NCAA rules at other institutions.
In addition, the SEC plans to spend more time educating everyone involved in its athletic programs -- from presidents to secretaries -- on the importance of complying with NCAA guidelines.
"The commissioner is very committed to helping clean things up," Georgia football coach Mark Richt said. "No conference is perfect. But certainly we want to do a better job."
The SEC's task force recommendations:
-- If coaches suspect wrongdoing at another member school, they must report to their own athletic director, who will decide whether to forward the allegations to the SEC. The commissioner will judge whether to send the allegations to the accused school, which must investigate the charges and report back within 30 days. The NCAA also will be notified if necessary.
-- Allegations from outside the conference will be handled in a similar manner, going first to the commissioner and then to the accused school if necessary.
-- Schools will conduct their own investigations, with oversight by the SEC office. The conference may recommend that an outside firm work with the school during the inquiry.
-- Schools are urged to "exercise great care" before hiring coaches who have violated NCAA rules, especially if they were involved in unethical conduct or major violations at another school.
-- The SEC and its schools will develop new programs to educate athletic directors, coaches, trustees and other university personnel on rules compliance.
-- An outside firm will study compliance programs at all SEC schools over the next four years. The first round of reviews will look at recruiting, eligibility, financial aid and administration issues, the second round will address the needs at each school.
-- The SEC commissioner and other league officials will visit every school this year to discuss the importance of rules compliance. The meetings will be scheduled to ensure the best possible attendance from administrators, coaches and athletic department personnel. Student athletes may sit in, as well.
-- An annual report on violations during the preceding year will be conducted by school presidents, chancellors, athletic directors and faculty representatives. This is designed to ensure accountability and put "peer pressure" on schools to obey NCAA rules.
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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