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Bragging Rights: A Season Inside the SEC

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Bragging Rights:
A Season Inside the SEC,
College Football's Toughest Conference.

by Richard Ernsberger

A Pressure Caldron

SEC coaches are smalltown guys. They come from Winchester, Tennessee; Opp, Alabama; and Camden, Arkansas. They come from working-class backgrounds»and bring a working-class ethic to their jobs. It's a good thing, because coaching in the SEC is a pressure caldron. The head man must recruit talented young players out of high school, raise money, entertain alumni, perform charitable work, graduate his players. And win football games. You think your job is tough? Try managing eighty-five scholarship athletes between the ages of egihteen and twenty-two. Many come from single-family homes and tough urban neighborhoods; some are indifferent students, accustomed to being lauded not for their classwork but for their athletic skills. For coping with all this pressure, SEC coaches are very well paid. The average pay package for an SEC head coach is getting close to $1 million annually. Steve Spurrier, at Florida, has a $2-million package; Phillip Fulmer of Tennessee makes more than $1 million a year. For that kind of money, favorable results are expected. "At Tennessee," says Fulmer, "the fans expect us to win all our games, all the time. That's not realistic, but just the way it is."

Amid all the hullabaloo, keeping the players focused on their schoolwork is tough. To do it, each SEC athletic department employs a small army of support personnel-tutors, counselors, academic advisers-whose job is to keep kids on the straight-and-narrow by promoting "life skills"-the new buzzword in college athletics. Their first goal, though not explicitly stated, is to make sure the players retain their athletic eligibility-and if possible, stay on track to receive a degree. Players are given personality, career, and IQ tests to gauge their proficiencies. Poor learners are tutored extensively»both individually and in groups. Players with drug, alcohol, anger-management, or family problems receive counseling. As the football programs have grown, so have these "student-life" centers for scholarship athletes. Kentucky, Florida, and Tennessee have all recently built, or are building, new multimillion-dollar facilities.

The power of the athletic departments has created some tensions. In fact, Tennessee last year was rocked by accusations, by one of the school's English professors, that the UT athletic department had manipulated grades to keep some student-athletes eligible to play football. The professor, Linda Bensel-Meyers, also charged that the athletic tutoring program was subject to corruption because it was run by the athletic department-a sure conflict of interest. Tennessee investigated itself and declared itself clean»the school said there were no NCAA violations. But let's be candid. The notion that tutors, at all major colleges, haven't occasionally crossed the line between helping students do work and doing a bit of work for them is laughable. It's gone on for years. Every major university in America employs scores of people, spends millions of dollars»specifically to help tug academically weak student-athletes through the system. That is the system. Nobody should feign surprise if it comes to light that some kids get a little more help than appropriate.

College football has long had a reputation for being "dirty." The charge: that players are exploited for their athletic ability and then tossed aside after three or four years, without much of an education or a degree. Recently, former Auburn star James Brooks was arrested for failure to make child support payments. When Brooks appeared before a judge to defend himself, he explained that he had no money for child-support payments because he couldn't hold a job. And the reason he couldn't hold a job? His explanation was a shocker: he was illiterate. Brooks had graduated from high school, spent four years at Auburn-during which time he became the school's third leading all-time rusher»and yet he could not read or write. He'd essentially been granted a free pass through Auburn because he could tote the football. Auburn, embarrassed by the incident, has offered to re-educate Brooks. Stories like that have given major-college football a black eye.

For all the excitement and drama it offers, college football will never be confused with mother's milk. It's got a lot of baggage, let's say, and there's no question that the big programs care about it a little too much. But neither is it the devil's handmaiden in a helmet and shoulder pads. Over the years, there have been plenty of ethical lapses and NCAA rules violations by coaches, boosters, and players. And, of course, a small percentage of kids get into trouble: they don't go to class, they smoke pot, they pilfer phone cards, they burglarize apartments, they accept money from agents.

And yet, there is no doubt that college programs today, including SEC schools, are striving to eradicate the notion that they are "football factories." Under pressure to win, SEC schools still recruit too many weak students to play football. But the number of so-called problem players has been slowly declining. The NCAA has helped by toughening entrance and eligibility requirements in recent years. It has also mandated that all schools reduce their practice time and ensure that athletes are making "satisfactory progress" toward graduation. Those changes, combined with ever-growing academic support structures, are starting to add credibility to the "student" side of the term "student-athlete." "There is no question that academic success has become more and more a priority, and it should be," says Jeremy Foley, the Florida athletic director. "Our [football] graduation rates are as high as or a little bit higher than the entire student body. So in that sense, we feel good."

What is interesting about college athletics is how conflicted the NCAA itself is about academics and enrollment. The organization wants to improve academic performance, but at the same time it is reluctant to impose standards that are too stringent. And, indeed, the NCAA has now decided to close down its Clearinghouse program, which reviewed the high school transcripts of all incoming freshman football players. The Clearinghouse was controversial, and slow, but its review process did help bolster eligibility standards. Now its review function will be taken over by high schools themselves, which might be an invitation to trouble. Will high school counselors and principals be courageous enough to tell their star athletes, and their parents, that they don't meet eligibility requirements?

On the Road

Bragging Rights
by Richard Ernsberger

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Excerpt Sections

Roughnecks and Romance: An Introduction to the SEC

Energy and Passion

A Secret Weapon

Downgrade Football?

Pressure Cauldron

On the Road

Fathers and Sons




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