The story has been amended to reflect two corrections
Shortly after Les Miles took over as Oklahoma State's football coach in December 2000, he introduced an exhortation that he would use often at the end of team meetings during his four years in Stillwater. "Academics first," Miles would say. "Football second."
Miles's words encapsulated one of the central pillars in the mythos of major-college football: that nothing, not even wins and losses, takes precedence over educating young athletes. The reality is that when jobs and money are at stake, priorities quickly skew.
As Miles said, "Academics first," he would hold up two fingers. And as he said, "Football second," he would hold up one.
"You heard his words but you saw what he was doing," says Doug Bond, a Cowboys offensive lineman from 2002 to '04. "So the thought process was that you're going to school just so you can play football."
Given the coach's message to his players, it is not surprising that 13 Cowboys who played between 2000 and '11 told SI that they participated in some form of academic misconduct, and 16 others were named by teammates as also having had schoolwork done for them. Players said that they routinely had their coursework completed by tutors or university staff members, that they were provided with answers to exams before taking them, and that they received passing grades despite doing little or no work. Players also allege that the academic counselor for football scheduled them in classes with exceptionally lax professors and pigeonholed them into majors without consulting them. "The philosophy, the main focus [of the program], was to keep [the best players] eligible through any means necessary," says Fath' Carter, a safety from 2000 to '03. "The goal was not to educate but to get them the passing grades they needed to keep playing. That's the only thing it was about."
Full coverage of SI's special report on the Oklahoma State football program
That philosophy took root after Miles was named Cowboys coach before the 2001 season and continued under Mike Gundy, who was the offensive coordinator under Miles and replaced him after the '04 season, players and former staff members say; less and less emphasis was placed on academics, and the school began admitting more recruits who weren't as qualified academically. "Were the players who came in after Miles [arrived] lesser students? Yes," says Carter. "So things had to be put in place to help them."
Terry Henley, an academic adviser for football since 2000, denies the players' allegations that he scheduled them in easy classes and steered them to majors, but concedes that academics weren't a priority for Miles. "There was never pressure [to cheat], but Miles was like most coaches who want to be somewhere else," said Henley. "They're going to do what they need to do for two or three years, and they're not going to have to deal with whatever the fallout is. So, no, he didn't promote academics."
VIDEO: SI's special report on Oklahoma State
Miles, the coach at LSU since 2005, denies that he deemphasized academics while at Oklahoma State: "I always said, and I always meant, that academics was the most important thing." Of the one-finger, two-finger gesture, Miles says it happened just once in "a moment of humor."
Four players and two former assistants told SI that they had teammates who they believed were functionally illiterate even after attending the school for multiple years. That is an especially disheartening revelation given Oklahoma State's history. In 1989, Dexter Manley, then an NFL defensive end, disclosed that he had not been able to read above a second-grade level for most of his life, although he had played four seasons for the Cowboys. His confession stirred a national discussion about how schools keep athletes eligible. It also dishonored the university, even if John Campbell, the school's president at the time of the revelation, wasn't chastened. "There would be those who would argue that Dexter Manley got exactly what he wanted out of OSU," Campbell said. "He was able to develop his athletic skills and ability, he was noticed by the pros, he got a pro contract. So maybe we did him a favor by letting him go through the program."
Says William Cole, a wide receiver in 2007 and '08, "If you wanted to do the work, then you could do it on your own. But if you were one of those people that they know is not going to do the work, [the school] will find a way."
VIDEO: Behind the investigation
In 2008, Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant was named second-team academic All-Big 12, a salute to players who best combine athletic and scholastic achievement. There is no disputing Bryant's on-field accomplishments as a sophomore -- he was second in the nation with 19 receiving touchdowns -- but several teammates and two former assistant coaches scoffed at the notion that he would be honored for his academics. "You didn't have no choice but to laugh at it," says Victor Johnson, a Cowboys safety from 2008 to '10.
According to Johnson and one of the former assistant coaches, it was well known that Bryant would not go to class unless shepherded, often by a football staff member, and that tutors did a majority of his coursework. "He just wasn't supposed to be there. There's no way he could do the college work," said the former assistant coach. "Once he got there, he was connected with the people that would help him." Calvin Mickens, a cornerback from 2005 to '07, says he also saw tutors do coursework for Bryant.
Bryant, now with the Dallas Cowboys, denies that he had work done for him and declined further comment.
His alleged academic struggles reveal the scholastic facade created for many Oklahoma State football players. Inside the program it was known that a player's grade point average and the classes he completed often testified only to the duplicity employed to keep him on the field.
Carter, Cole, Mickens, defensive tackle Larry Brown (2005 and '06), offensive lineman Jonathan Cruz (2002), linebacker LeRon Furr (2009 to '10), defensive tackle Brad Girtman (2003 and '04), safety Chris Massey (1999 to 2002) defensive end T.J. Minor (2005 and '06), linebacker Marcus Richardson (2007), running back Herschel Sims (2011), wide receiver Artrell Woods (2006 to '08) and defensive back Thomas Wright (2002 to '04) told SI that they had work done for them and/or that they received other improper academic assistance. They and a dozen other players say they witnessed teammates participating in academic misconduct. Among those they named: running back Tatum Bell (2000 to '03), wide receiver Prentiss Elliott (2004), quarterback Josh Fields (2001 to '03), safety Vernon Grant (2002 to '04), cornerback Darrent Williams (2001 to '04) and defensive end Kevin Williams (1998 to 2002).
Darrent Williams and Grant are deceased. Bell, Elliott, Fields and Kevin Williams deny ever having work done for them while at OSU.
Some players had almost all of their assignments completed for them. "Are you kidding me? I didn't go there to go to school," says Girtman. "I went there to play football." Woods says he didn't write "a single paper" during his three years in Stillwater; he just typed what tutors dictated to him. Other players did most of their own work but used tutors and others to get improper help in a single discipline in which they struggled. Richardson says he enjoyed writing papers but that he had difficulty with math, so tutors completed those assignments for him.
VIDEO: The fallout
There is a fine line between a tutor's assisting a player in the composition of a paper and writing the paper for him, but the players who spoke to SI say what took place was clearly the latter. "If your teacher told you to write a paper about your favorite Chinese place, all [the tutor] would ask is, 'What's your favorite Chinese place?'?" says Andre McGill, a quarterback in 2000 and '01 who denies receiving improper assistance. "That's it. They'd do the rest."
Says Cruz, "I would write them, and they would take them and just completely change everything about it because it was just so awful. I never really learned how to write a paper, but I had to pull a B in Comp I, and I pulled my B in Comp I."
Tutors weren't the only people providing improper academic assistance. During his freshman year, Carter says a teammate introduced him to Ronald Keys, an assistant professor assigned to the library. Keys began working in the library in 1996; he was an academic coordinator for athletes from April 1998 until February 2001, when he returned to the library. Carter says that he and several other players would visit Keys in the library, drop off their assignments and return a few days later to pick up the finished work. Carter says that this went on through his senior season, and that during his four years in Stillwater he estimated that 15 players had at least some work done for them by Keys. Massey says Keys also did work for him and others.
"I have no idea why he did it," Carter says. "All we knew was that if you wanted a paper done, you called Keys.?... His name was infamous."
Keys, who left OSU in September 2005 and is now the interim assistant director of the library at Texas Southern, told SI that he never did work for athletes but sometimes helped them with reference questions.
Henley, 43, is the person most responsible for managing the Cowboys' academics for football. Currently the football team's senior academic counselor, he was hired as an academic adviser in July 2000, about six months before Miles took over -- and a year before he received a master's degree in human relations from Oklahoma. Despite never having worked in academia, he was immediately assigned to the football program.
Academic officials at three other Division I universities told SI that their schools would never hire someone for a counseling position without previous academic advising experience. Henley's résumé raises another question: He was a defensive back at OSU from 1988 to '93, when he was a teammate of Gundy's. Among the 65 football programs in BCS conferences in 2012, only six have a former player from that school acting as the team's primary academic counselor.
SI NOW: Did OSU coaches turn a blind eye
Many former players who spoke to SI lauded Henley's concern for their well-being. His bio on the university's website says that he also handles "life skills" and "personal issues," and players talked of receiving support from Henley when they were at their lowest, after injures or even when they were kicked off the team. "I almost lost my mind [at Oklahoma State]," says McGill, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after he left Stillwater. "If it wasn't for Terry, I'd probably be in a mental hospital right now."
Their evaluation of Henley's academic counseling, however, is less favorable. "I remember Terry being very frustrated, trying to track students down, trying to connect them with tutors. It was high stress for him," Carter says. "[Academics] was something that wasn't promoted by the coaching staff."
Henley was further challenged by having to advise players who were unprepared to do college work, including some extreme cases. Carter, wide receiver Eric Allen, and defensive backs Ricky Coxeff and Daniel McLemore say there were players on the team between 2001 and '05 who were functionally illiterate. "There was a couple that I would be like, Damn, I don't know how you made it through high school," says Allen. Coxeff recalls a 2003 team meeting in which Miles asked one of the Cowboys to write house on a chalkboard. "He spelled it H-A-S," says Coxeff. "I was like, Oh, my God, how is he even in this room? ... How can someone who can't spell come to a major college?"
As a result, Henley sometimes advised players as if they were incapable of doing any work. "I had an open conversation with [Terry] about Ron Keys," says Carter. "Terry didn't promote it, but he was aware of it."
Henley says he heard players talk about Keys but denies knowing that Keys did work for them. He also questions how a player would know if one of his teammates was illiterate. He does sometimes determine which players are unlikely to survive at OSU, saying those Cowboys will "take easier electives initially. I'll go to the coaches and say, 'Look, we have a potential issue here. ... ' There's only going to be a finite amount of time where we're going to be able to keep that kid here. Now, why would I then go throw that individual into college algebra, biology?"
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That relates to another criticism players had about Henley's counseling. Those who remained beyond their sophomore year found themselves boxed into a major because of the courses Henley steered them toward -- a charge to which Henley denies. "[Oklahoma State] does that to a lot of guys," says Furr. "They start taking classes ... I [ask guys], 'What's your major?' [They say], 'I don't know. I'm just taking the classes they give me.'?"
Kevin White, a running back in 2005 and '06, says that he wanted to declare as a business major as a freshman but that Henley discouraged it. "They just want to make sure you keep passing," says White. Carter arrived in Stillwater shortly after Henley was hired, and he says they never had a discussion about his major. He just took the courses Henley advised him to take and ended up majoring in sociology. "Almost everyone I knew was a sociology major. What are you going to do with a sociology degree?" says Carter, who returned to Stillwater years later without a scholarship and got a degree in education. [Editor's note: The Oklahoma State registrar's office says Carter did not earn a degree.]
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Says Henley, "What I do with degrees and scheduling, I base it on aptitude, attitude. Now a guy may have wanted to be a business major, but he can't get through a math class. That's a big reason why we don't initially declare a major for a player.?... I'd love to tell every single one of them who walks in that door, You go be what you said you wanted to be, but at the same time I've got to look at aptitude, attitude and work ethic."
In recent years Henley has clustered players in online courses. Running back Dexter Pratt says that in his first semester, in 2009, every course he took was online. "Online classes are the easiest way for [players] to keep their grades up," Cole says. "If you didn't do the work, you can email [the instructor] and can almost talk them into giving you a passing grade anyway."
Henley disputes that online classes are easier and says he has never heard of a player talking his way into a better grade. He concedes that he schedules more online courses for the program's weakest students because "logistically, for your at-risk guys, you have to have class-checking in place. Well that stuff is never accurate, so a guy could be missing class. So what the online classes have allowed us to do is to keep better monitoring of those at-risk players."
Further aiding the program's efforts to keep players eligible was a host of instructors who gave passing grades for little or no work, players say. There were enough of them that a player could schedule a semester's worth of classes that required him to do next to nothing. "You just show up, you'll get a C," says Cruz. "You don't have to pass the test. You don't have to do a homework assignment. You don't have to do anything. If you go to class, they'll give you a C because they care about Oklahoma State football."
Carter says that he and Bell took two courses together taught by the same instructor. Carter says they received A's in both despite never attending class or doing any work. In the spring of 2004, after their eligibility expired, the two players again enrolled in a course taught by that instructor, but Carter says that this time they both received failing marks. "I'd guess that there was pressure [on the instructor] to give us those A's when we were playing, but not when we weren't," he says. (Bell denies this, telling SI he only got C's and D's.) [Editor's note: An Oklahoma State spokesman confirmed a report that Carter and Bell withdrew from that class before receiving that grade.]
McGill and Bell shared a different class and, according to McGill, a tutor accompanied Bell on test days. The tutor and Bell received copies of the test, and then Bell turned in the one that the tutor completed. McGill says that he saw the instructor watch the tutor take Bell's test for him, but "he wouldn't say anything." (Bell says that no tutors ever did his work.)
Woods says that after he suffered a serious back injury while weightlifting in 2007, he stopped attending classes. At the end of one semester, a professor asked to meet with him in the academic center. Woods says the professor asked him, "What do you think you deserve in this class?"
"An F," Woods says he replied. "I'm not going to lie."
Woods says the professor responded, "I'm going to give you a B."
"He felt bad [for me]," Woods says.
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After Furr had knee surgery in October 2010, he skipped one of his classes for a few months. "There was no way I was supposed to pass that class because I missed a lot," Furr says, "but [the professor] just said take good notes [in the remaining classes] and show them to me every day, and he would guarantee that I passed."
Cole says he commonly failed to attend a class for the first three months of a semester, then would go throughout the last month and negotiate with the instructor to receive a passing grade. In one instance, in 2008, he emailed a professor, explained that he had injured his knee and needed credits from the course to transfer to a new school. He says that despite the fact that he had done no work the entire semester he was awarded an A.
"They really gave us our credits," says Cole, who transferred to North Texas in 2009. "They spoiled us."
To the charge of players being handed unearned grades by professors, Henley says, "That was never brought to my attention, but they wouldn't necessarily do that and, number two, I don't have control over what a professor does."
In February 2003, Henley and others from the academic services department claimed a major victory. An article in the Tulsa World reported that all 18 seniors on the football team were on course to graduate that spring. "It proves what I've always felt from day one -- you can graduate student-athletes while putting out a winning product," Henley told the newspaper.
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But it wasn't quite that simple. The players in the 1998 recruiting class were brought in under Bob Simmons. The truer test of Henley's belief that Oklahoma State could win and still graduate its athletes would be the graduation rates of the classes brought in by Miles and Gundy, filled with the highly ranked recruits who helped push the football program to elite status.
Since the 2003-04 academic year, the NCAA has used the Academic Progress Rate (APR) to determine a program's success in educating its athletes. It is a more forgiving metric than a straightforward graduation rate, in part because the APR takes into account transfers and players who left early for the pros. Oklahoma State's average APR from '03-04 to '11-12 is 933, which equates to a graduation rate of a little more than 50%. From '08-09 to '11-12, the period of the program's greatest success -- including its 2012 Fiesta Bowl victory -- the Cowboys' average APR was 926, third worst out of the 65 BCS schools in 2012.
So despite all the ghost-written papers and complicit professors and absentee students who wound up with high grades, the solicitude only went so far. "It was all set up to make sure the players got on the field Saturday -- period," says one former OSU assistant. "They get on the field? We're good. The rest of that stuff [we'll] worry about later."
Not only has Henley's assertion that the Cowboys could win and graduate players been invalidated, the program under Miles and Gundy was one of the least effective at meeting that challenge. "I don't know if I didn't learn anything in college because it is college, and you don't learn what you need to know for the real world, or because [at Oklahoma State] it was a big joke," says Woods. "I don't know. I'll never know."