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?