Thursday March 3rd, 2011

Two different stories, two different quotes, the same cringe-inducing effect.

In this week's special report from Sports Illustrated and CBS News about college football players' criminal records, an anonymous assistant coach explained why his former team did not ask recruits for consent to search their juvenile records. "If we started doing it, [other schools] would use it against us in recruiting."

In a Wall Street Journal article earlier this week about the polarizing topic of oversigning, Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said his program usually signs three to four players per year who have "absolutely no chance" of qualifying academically so that "they feel a commitment to us" in the event that they become eligible after being stashed at a junior college for two years.

Welcome to the cutthroat, spare-no-soul underworld of college football recruiting in 2011. In the competition to secure the best possible high school talent, college coaches often treat occurrences the common person would view as impediments to earning an athletic scholarship as mere manageable nuisances. They go after the five-star defensive end with seemingly no aptitude for college studies because their rivals are doing it, too. They look the other way when a running back is hit with a misdemeanor assault charge because his ability to break tackles is too enticing.

They do it because the risk of passing on a potentially elite player with character or academic issues is far greater than the risk of taking him. They do it because, despite whatever lip service their bosses give to indicate otherwise, their jobs depend almost entirely on wins and losses. They do it because they feel they have to.

A coach who does otherwise might suffer the same fate as former Miami coach Randy Shannon, who in 2006 took over a program that had become mediocre on the field and an embarrassment to the university off it. He cleaned it up. He was far more selective than his predecessors when it came to finding players with character. His program boasted one of the top APR scores in the country. But his cast of choirboys went 7-5 in his fourth season, and so he was fired.

Or, a coach could strike gold like Urban Meyer, who during his last several years as Florida coach had, to give just three examples, a player commit fraud by using the credit card of a deceased woman; a player send a threatening "time to die" text message to an ex-girlfriend; and a player get stopped for a DUI the week of the SEC Championship Game. But Meyer won two BCS championships, was treated like a king by his employer and left on his own accord after last season.

As for Petrino turning junior colleges into his own personal farm teams: Who could blame him? Never mind that the recruitment of players who won't qualify makes a mockery of schools' academic missions -- Auburn just won a national championship thanks largely to one such player, Lombardi winner Nick Fairley.

The only way the seedy culture of college football will change is if university presidents across the country decide they've had enough of it. For the most part, they're idly enabling it currently. They know the football program is the public face of their institutions, and that for many of them gridiron success plays an enormous role in campus morale, fundraising initiatives and national perception. It's why they pay their head coaches as much as 10 times their own salaries and take active roles in issues like conference alignment and television contracts.

But considering that reality, one would think they'd be horrified by the quotes at the top of this column and by some of the findings of the SI/CBS News investigation. Sure, they want winning football programs, but are they not bothered that some of the most public faces of their universities are in some cases the most liable to tarnish the reputations of those institutions, make a mockery of their academic standards or, in the most extreme cases, cause danger for other students?

The NCAA can only regulate so much. It can set minimum academic requirements for signees, but it can't stop a coach from defying the spirit of those rules by intentionally pursuing players for whom schoolwork is clearly not a priority. It can set a scholarship limit, but it can't dictate how a coach goes about reaching that limit. And when it comes to the dicey issue of criminal behavior, it holds almost no oversight. If a player is qualified academically to attend a university, it's up to the university to decide what type of behavior merits exclusion.

That's where the presidents come in. They and only they can dictate what sort of culture is acceptable on their campuses. Only presidents and athletic directors have the authority to require coaches to conduct background checks on players and to decree that a player's conduct has crossed the line of what should be considered acceptable for an individual receiving a scholarship to a university.

The publication of the SI/CBS story Wednesday elicited some interesting debate across the Internet. Some pointed to studies like this one that suggest the rate of crime among college students in general is not all that different from the rate among the 25 football teams SI and CBS News studied. It's a perfectly valid point, but at the same time it's important to remember that the general college student is not usually on scholarship and is not a public face of his or her university. If an anonymous frat boy at Pittsburgh throws a man through the glass door of an art gallery, it's not national news. When Panthers defensive end allegedly Jabaal Sheard did just that last July, it was. And when it's revealed that 22 members (nearly 25 percent) of Pittsburgh's 2010 team have been arrested, it's not exactly a stellar reflection on the university.

Asked about the SI/CBS News findings, former Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that he gave second chances to players he felt deserved it. "The next step for a lot of these kids [if they were to lose their scholarship] is disaster," Wannstedt said. "I went into the homes of these families, and I made a promise to these parents that I would take care of their kids. I treated every one of them like I would my very own son, and kids that do and stand for all the right things, sometimes they make mistakes and when they do it is our job as educators to help get them back on the right path."

A lot of coaches will echo that sentiment, stating it's their moral obligation to help keep troubled kids off the street and give them opportunities they wouldn't otherwise have. As Ole Miss' Houston Nutt said last year upon taking in dismissed Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, "We're in the people-helping business."

The fact is, college football coaches are in the "winning games" business. That a player from a poor background or a player who struggled academically in high school might come to college and turn his life around is a pleasant and welcome possibility, but it's certainly not the reason coaches pursue such players. There are a lot of well-behaved, underprivileged students out there who would give their right arm for a full scholarship to a major university, but they don't run a 4.4 40.

Only university presidents can serve as watchdogs and decide whether they agree with this reigning philosophy. So far they've been conspicuous in their silence.

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