After Byrnes High finished its 60-7 route of Gaffney on Sept. 25 in Duncan, S.C., people poured out of the stands to celebrate the victory. On the field, Rebels star defensive ends Corey Miller and Brandon Willis mugged for the cameras with a pair of young women who seemed overdressed for a high school football game played in the rain.
The women's names were Lacey Earps and Dahra Johnson, and both are members of Orange Pride, a student group that provides hosts for football recruits at the University of Tennessee. At the time, Willis and Miller had each recently pledged to sign with Tennessee in February. Tuesday, The New York Timesreported on its Web site that the NCAA is investigating claims that Tennessee's hostesses have been showing up at prospects' games. If the hostesses decided on their own to make the three-and-a-half-hour drive from Knoxville, Tenn., to Duncan on the Friday before the Volunteers faced Ohio, they violated an NCAA rule that prohibits "a representative of a university's athletic interest" from engaging in face-to-face contact with a recruit beyond a simple greeting. If the hostesses were in Duncan under the orders of a Tennessee coach or football staffer, the NCAA could consider the violation to be much more serious. Since coach Lane Kiffin took over the program late last year, Tennessee has self-reported at least six secondary violations of NCAA rules.
Willis' father, Gary, confirmed to the Knoxville News-Sentinel that the women attended the game and that the players spoke to the women after the game but then parted ways. Willis told Rivals.com that the prospects had no contact with the women. "It had to have been coaches from other schools that turned Tennessee in," Willis told the site. "They probably got jealous when they saw the girls at the game. We did nothing wrong and neither did the girls. They stayed in a hotel alone and didn't even have anything to do with us besides watching us play. I've talked with coach Kiffin and [assistant] coach [David] Reaves and they assured me that everything is fine."
The above photo, taken by SI.com after the game, shows Earps and Johnson violated the letter of the NCAA rule against contact by a representative of the university's athletics interest, which the NCAA considers a secondary violation. Neither Earps nor Johnson responded to e-mails sent to addresses listed for them on the University of Tennessee Web site. Tennessee athletic department spokeswoman Tiffany Carpenter said the department would stand by the statement it issued on Wednesday.
"The University of Tennessee confirms that there is an NCAA review under way. University Administration and Athletics are cooperating fully," the statement read. "We are concerned about the alleged activities of some members of the Orange Pride. Both university and NCAA guidelines are a part of the Orange Pride's orientation and training. If those guidelines were violated, we will take appropriate action. Because of federal student privacy regulations, we can't comment further."
According to the statement, Orange Pride is one of three student ambassador programs that serve the university. In a photo of the group in the 2009 Tennessee football media guide, Earps is listed as a captain. Orange Pride has 75 members, both male and female, who host recruits on their official visits. During sweeping recruiting reforms enacted in 2004, the NCAA banned female-only hostess groups.
According to the Times, NCAA investigators either have interviewed or were scheduled to interview Pahokee, Fla., receiver Chris Dunkley and Suwanee, Ga., offensive tackle JaWuan James about the case.
So why is this photo surfacing two days after the Times story was published? I was in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., covering the Home Depot College Football Awards Show, and I did not have access to my camera until I returned home Friday afternoon.
I attended the Byrnes game between covering the South Carolina-Ole Miss game Sept. 24 in Columbia, S.C., and the Alabama-Arkansas game Sept. 26 in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The following week, Byrnes was set to play Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas in a matchup of the No. 1 and No. 2 high school teams in the nation, and I had been assigned to gather material for an advance story. After watching Miller and Willis dominate that night, I interviewed them and took several pictures, hoping to get a usable headshot that could run with any future story. One of the photos happened to be of the players with the hostesses. I did not know who the women were at the time, and did not put two and two together until the Times published its story.