Why secondary violations have become a key recruiting tool

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Shortly after 9 p.m. central time on May 30, patrons at Auburn, Ala., bar Bodega watched as rolls of toilet paper sailed toward a tree across the street. In Auburn, airborne Charmin has a special meaning, so naturally, a few people asked the obvious question: Did we win something?

The more Internet-savvy in the crowd probably knew why so many people had gathered to watch Auburn football recruits and players roll a tree at Toomer's Corner -- mimicking the traditional celebration for a major Auburn sports victory. Someone had leaked to the message boards on Auburn fan sites that the grand finale of the Tigers' "Big Cat Weekend" would take place on the corner of campus directly opposite Toomer's Drugs. Dozens of fans showed. So did reporters from the Opelika-Auburn News and at least three Auburn fan sites. Several police officers helped control the crowd and the street traffic.

The News, which also reported a local restaurant advertised the event on its marquee hours before, posted an eight-minute video of the rolling on its Web site. That video includes the weekend's money shot. After someone introduced Bessemer (Ala.) linebacker Ladarius Owens, Temple (Texas) tailback Lache Seastrunk yelled, "Hey, tell Nick Saban he's SOL" regarding Alabama's pursuit of Owens. (Seastrunk has since apologized to Saban.)

Some of the fan sites shot video as well, but some of those videos mysteriously disappeared early this week after others began asking questions about whether the very public celebration violated NCAA bylaw 13.10.5, which states "...prospective student-athletes may not participate in team activities that would make the public or media aware of the prospective student-athlete's visit to the institution."

Auburn spokesman Kirk Sampson said Thursday the school's compliance office continues to examine Big Cat Weekend. "We're doing due diligence," Sampson said. Eventually, Auburn may self-report a secondary violation or two. If there is any punishment at all, the Tigers might dock themselves an official visit or pull a coach off the recruiting trail for a day or so. But if Big Cat Weekend helps Auburn land four or five of its most coveted recruiting targets, the rule-bending will have been worth it.

The secondary violation has become one of the best recruiting tools in a coach's arsenal because, thanks to an insatiable media, every secondary violation that comes to light offers a massive publicity boost. Auburn, a program most of the nation ignored after coach Gene Chizik's offseason hiring, got a small bump from its completely legal tactic of sending assistant coaches to high schools in stretch limos during the spring evaluation period. But after Big Cat Weekend and the potential violations that have kept the story alive, Auburn is getting name-checked across the country.

Unless the NCAA stiffens the penalties for these violations, it may behoove programs in need of buzz to commit them. Consider the fact that the most interesting stories to come out of Washington this spring were about the program's new attitude under coach Steve Sarkisian and quarterback Jake Locker's -- the Tim Tebow of the Pacific Northwest -- adjustment to Sarkisian's offense. But those weren't the stories that earned Washington national headlines. Unless you live in the Cradle of Grunge, you probably read only that Washington used a smoke machine during a recruiting weekend and that Sarkisian allowed a reporter from the Los Angeles Times to sit in on a meeting with recruits. Washington coaches probably didn't intend to break the rules, but the missteps produced more publicity than anything else they did.

We also can't forget Tennessee, which has ridden a tide of secondary violations to national prominence in coach Lane Kiffin's first year. That says less about Kiffin than it does about me and my media brethren. Let's face it. We feed on bad news in the offseason. Unless it's really spectacular, good news rates as dog bites man. Bad news rates as man bites dog. So it would make sense that coaches would try to use that to their advantage. Remember, these guys have tested the limits since the first caveman coach tried to lure five-star, All-Pangea clubbers to his Rockball team.

Some of the rules are silly. Others are not. The ban on "gameday simulations" makes no sense. Shouldn't a recruit be allowed to judge which school has the best gameday atmosphere? And shouldn't an LSU, Penn State or Oregon reap the benefits of fostering a superior gameday atmosphere? The ban on publicizing recruits, however, is absolutely essential. Without it, the schools with the biggest media machines would crush the others. Also, some of the less scrupulous coaches might throw out misinformation about a player to keep other schools away.

At the moment, the rules aren't the issue. It's the punishment. The NCAA manual allows for harsh sanctions for schools that commit secondary violations, including scholarship reductions, the termination of an athlete's recruitment or vacation of victories for games in which an ineligible athlete played. Rarely are those penalties applied, however. Plus, it may prove difficult to parse the intentional secondary violations from the unintentional, which should be punished with a light hand.

The NCAA's recruiting and personnel issues cabinet will meet next week, but don't expect an examination of the secondary violation conundrum. "I would be surprised if that issue was discussed very much," said Georgia Tech athletic director Dan Radakovich, a member of the cabinet.

Eventually, coaches who don't break the rules will have to push their athletic directors and presidents to call for tougher penalties, because in the age of bloggers and the 24-hour news cycle, the attention given to schools who break the little rules in recruiting only will increase. If the rule-abiding coaches want to keep their colleagues from benefitting, they'll have to complain the loudest.

Failing that, they could just rent a smoke machine.

Sammamish (Wash.) quarterback Jake Heaps fell just short of going the full Jimmy Clausen -- he used a publicist, but no limo -- when he announced his commitment to Brigham Young at a Salt Lake City sports bar on Thursday, but Heaps had a reason for the hoopla. He wanted the nation to know that Arlington (Texas) receiver Ross Apo and Westlake Village (Calif.) linebacker Zac Stout plan to join him in Provo.

"This whole press conference wasn't about me. It was about these guys," Heaps told The Deseret News. "It was about BYU as a collective group, getting these guys in the spotlight and BYU in the spotlight. If I have to take the heat for that a little bit, I'm definitely going to do that. I don't need the press conference and all that stuff. I'm not a Hollywood-type kid. But to get national media attention to BYU, I'll do that, definitely."

The fact that BYU is a non-BCS school makes Thursday's haul doubly impressive. Heaps, who has led Skyline High to a 28-0 record and two state titles as a starter, received offers from across the country (check out this highlight video). Apo had previously committed to Texas. Stout had received offers from a number of Pac-10 schools.

All three players are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but according to the Provo-based Daily Herald, they have not decided when or if they will serve two-year, church-sponsored missions. Had they chosen a secular school, the missions might be an issue, but BYU, which is run by the Mormon church, encourages its students to serve missions.