The Coach said he knew I'd be dropping by because, although the weather was good, his knee was acting up and his sinuses had filled. Accordingly, he said, he had canceled his dentist appointment and moved his golf game back an hour. Swinging a wooden-shafted putter, he led the way to a canopied patio and motioned for me to take a chair opposite the one with the ottoman, which I knew to be his favorite. I remarked that making all the big pro-ams had improved his tan. He massaged the head of the putter against the leg of his Pierre Cardin slacks and ignored my gratuity.
"We are into a renaissance, Scribe," he said without preamble, hovering over me but keeping his eyes on the putter, which he hefted in a manner befitting a five handicap. "College football has experienced a breakthrough. A bright new era dawns, maybe the brightest. Not only is the game on the field a joy to behold, but enlightenment has come to its administration. The 30-95 scholarship rule [a maximum of 30 athletic scholarships to be granted per school per year, with no more than 95 scholarship athletes on campus in a given year] works. The eight-assistant-coach limit works. Costs are down and competition is up. Parity is being achieved despite the grieving conservatives."
He winked knowingly, having been one himself.
"What is more," he continued, "the subdivision of Division I is less than a year away. You can bet on it. When the NCAA meets in January, the brothers will divide the 144 institutions in Division I into 1-A and 1-AA. The 75 or so big-football schools that have been threatening a pullout will get their way within the system. The lions will no longer lie down with the lambs. Michigan will go its way, Marshall its."
September 4, 1977
He hunched over an imaginary ball, lining up a putt, stroked it confidently and watched it fall into an imaginary hole. When he turned to face me, his steel-blue eyes had narrowed.
"But if you had been listening to me all these years, you would have absorbed enough to know those things. I assume you are here looking for the fly in the ointment. Well, the fly is there, all right, Scribe. The cheating is worse than ever."
His putter head dropped heavily onto his Astroturf carpet, making a thudding noise. I flinched.
"The worst kind of cheating. Academic cheating. Exploiting every well-intended loophole, every regulation that never got written. Marginal morons are getting football scholarships today, and nobody seems to be outraged."
His voice was rising. He began to pace. I watched uneasily as he brandished the putter.
"I don't know what the figures are, but I daresay the percentage of star halfbacks who would break into a cold sweat at the mere prospect of having to write a simple declarative sentence is staggering. And you want to hear something really ironic? The colleges are as much the victims of this travesty as they are the perpetrators. The shameful process begins beneath the college level. High schools cheat. Junior colleges cheat.
"Is something wrong with your jaw, Scribe? You seem to have lost control."
I closed my mouth. "I don't mean to interrupt your answers with a lot of questions, Coach," I said, "but I'm not sure I follow all this."
The Coach stroked in another 10-footer and sat on the edge of the ottoman, resting the putter between his legs.
"I will go slower, Scribe. At what point did you leave the trail?"
"Well, to begin with, last year this time you weren't so high on the 30-95. The 30-a-year was fine, but four times 30 still doesn't equal 95."
"I think 95 is an arbitrary figure," he said, "and that 105 would be a more realistic one. Part of my concern, however, was out of my own conditioning. I remembered with horror the days when some colleges had designated hatchetmen whose mission was to make life so miserable for the lesser athletes that they'd quit. I saw that coming again. Now I'm not so sure. Being limited to 30, a coach has to recruit selectively. He can't be sloppy. Ergo, he should never have more than a couple players who can't hack the competition.
"Attrition will take care of some others, of course. Boys being boys, 10 or so will quit, flunk out or run off with a belly dancer. By the end of this year we'll see how much 'firing' is done, and then maybe an adjustment can be made.
"As far as I know, only two conferences have had trouble getting down to the 95 this season—the Big Eight and the SEC—which figures, because those two have always gone in for volume recruiting. In the SEC only Alabama had to give pink slips. Nine of 'em. Each was tempered by a heartfelt letter of apology from Bear Bryant. Bear did the honorable thing. He got the nine fixed up with academic scholarships, a guaranteed education apart from football. Notre Dame did the same. Poetic justice. The Notre Dames and the Alabamas can afford to pay for their mistakes.
"It remains to be seen how the other schools will handle it. I think the best and simplest way is just to shut off the spigot when you reach 95. There's nothing in the rule that says you have to take 30 boys a year. But that might strike some of the brethren as too radical."
He chuckled. "For sure the 30-95 accomplished an overnight miracle. The main idea was to cut costs, but the greater effect was to parcel around the talent. All of a sudden there was the sound of giants crashing. In one week alone last year, Alabama, Arizona State, Notre Dame, USC and Texas were beaten and Nebraska was tied. Nothing like that ever happened before in my memory."
"But some coaches think the opposite might result," I objected. "Johnny Majors says he'd never have turned Pitt around so quickly without bringing in 70 players that first year."
"Of course. Johnny was trying for a quick fall. But don't let him kid you. He'll win under any conditions, and he'll learn to live with these. In the end everybody will benefit. Volume recruiting perpetuates the caste system. A big-budget school with a big staff recruited year-round, hither and yon, nationwide. When pickings were good, they loaded up the freezer with prime meat. Their redshirts were better than most teams. It's natural that those who have had that kind of leverage would not want to lose it.
"I knew something significant was happening along those lines about mid-season last year when Barry Switzer of Oklahoma started complaining about the seven or eight boys who got away to Tulsa, helping that program off the ground. Barry said there wasn't a great team in the Big Eight because of the new rules. What old Barry meant was he no longer could be sure of beating Iowa State 45-0.
"Yet, I can sympathize with Switzer. The Oklahoma alumni are spoiled and can't understand it when he's not 11 and 0. But what's wrong with other schools filling their stadiums and going to bowl games?"
"What does all this have to do with cheating?"
"Nothing and everything. Do you want to get into that?"
"I don't understand all these loopholes you're talking about, or what the high schools and junior colleges have to do with it."
"Neither does the NCAA. Its committee on infractions would rather catch a boy with his hand in the till any day. Cars they understand. Cash money they understand. Unfortunately, or fortunately, that kind of cheating is on the way out. Too much heat from the enforcement agents, for one thing. But this other stuff is a cancer because it goes right to the heart of the educational process. And to the educators themselves."
"But how do high schools...?"
"It starts there, and if nothing else it's an indictment of the current state of public education in the country. High schools don't educate, they graduate. I was talking with one of the NCAA investigators the other day. He said it's a swampland. He said there is an all-too-familiar pattern. The requirement for a football scholarship is a 2.0—a C average through high school. A school finds out a college coach is interested in a boy. The boy reads at a fourth-grade level. The boy suddenly becomes an A student.
"You can't trust transcripts anymore. You have to accept them, what choice do you have? But some of them make better fiction than Gone With the Wind. The NCAA has a case on file of a New York athlete who showed three different transcripts—three different sets of grades. High schools recognize the miserable job they're doing so they 'help a kid out' by shoving him into college. Let Woody and Bo teach him to read."
"Why doesn't the NCAA do something about it?" I asked, exercised by the Coach's word picture.
"They can't. For one thing, it's a matter of jurisdiction. They can't police the colleges and the high schools and the junior colleges. They're not the CIA. As it stands, the NCAA doesn't even have labels to cover most of the problems, much less statutes. The junior-college program grew like Topsy and was left to its own standards and admission policies—and its own integrity. It thus became a Garden of Eden for system-breakers and scholarship goons. Some JCs are no more than barber colleges."
"But they're supposed to help a slow starter on the way, or the kid who can't afford a major college," I said. "What do you expect, Yale?"
"No, but I expect some fidelity in scholastic mission and standards. Listen, where do you suppose the biggest and best JC system is in this country? Where does a keen-eyed football coach go if he wants to round up six or eight prospects in a hurry?"
"Right. And do you know what is required to enroll in a California junior college? Start with the ability to tie your shoes, and you don't have to go much further. A boy doesn't even have to be a high school graduate.
"Now, once in, a boy has to maintain certain grade points. But the NCAA does not monitor these standards or check a boy's progress; they don't have the funds. They rely on the integrity of the JCs."
"But where does the NCAA...?"
The Coach held up his putter in a restraining (if not menacing) position.
"Listen, Scribe. In a minute or two you and I are walking out that door and across the road to the club for 18 holes of highly competitive relaxation. In the meantime, let me finish this course without having to go down any more side streets. The NCAA won't do anything because they can't do anything. They can't even come to grips with their own academic malfeasance, and without uniform standards for progress, and without first plugging up their own obvious academic ratholes, the coaches themselves don't realize what's happening until they wake up one morning with half their squads in remedial-reading courses."
"Hold on," I cried. "What malfeasance? The NCAA has more investigative power than ever and has shown more diligence than ever in catching the outlaws."
The Coach sighed and slumped into the chair.
"Are you familiar with the special-admissions policy, Scribe? Or the 4% rule—or, depending, the 2%?"
"I'm not sure."
"Well, most people aren't. At the institutional level, quite separate from NCAA policies or jurisdiction, an individual school can, if it wants, drop the admission barriers for 'exceptional and unusual cases,' as long as that loosely defined number does not exceed the prescribed percentage of the total enrollment. In California it's 4%, and I believe it all started there. The idea—a good one, I suppose—was to relax the barriers a little for a kid who could draw or play a bassoon but couldn't multiply.
"The practice is now fairly widespread. And with it the abuses. Any coach bent on circumvention finds this loophole. All the athlete has to do, in most cases, is sit out a year of eligibility while special tutors—some schools call 'em 'brain coaches'—fill his mediocre mind with enough knowledge to get him through with a high D average. You can shave an ape and do the same with enough tutoring. Some of this kind of thing is justified, of course, and defendable. Why, even the Ivy League admits its share of 'exceptional cases'—who happen to be able to run back punts.
"The program becomes a joke when you start looking into individual school numbers for that portion of the 2% or 4% who are scholarship athletes. The NCAA investigated one school in the Southwest and found a real laugher: half the special admissions were scholarship athletes."
"What did they do about it?" I asked, subdued.
"Nothing. They backed off. It was a dead end."
"You make it sound bleak."
"It doesn't have to be. This is a phenomenon, but not a momentary one. Now is the time to recognize the flaws in the blueprint. Rip out some wires. Change the plumbing. Set standards and get with 'em. Make it hell for the cheaters, and intimidate the tempted."
He was up, with the putter slung over one shoulder.
"A kid gets caught with an altered transcript, ban him for life. He sure as heck knows his own grades. If he doesn't, he's really illiterate and should be banned anyway. If the coach had a hand in it, ban him, too. If the high school was guilty, put the school on probation. Spend some of those TV millions Walter Byers is hoarding at NCAA headquarters in Kansas City and make a study of junior-college requirements, and their curricula. Eliminate from qualification the ones that don't measure up. I don't mind the idea of farming out talent to let it mature, but to farm it out to circumvent grade requirements is a sin.
"And if you're going to admit a few exceptional cases, make the percentage who are athletes exactly the same as the school's allowable percentage—in other words, if you have a 2% rule, only 2% of the 2% should be athletes."
"You're right—and that's why nobody will do it. We don't stand for anything anymore, so we fall for everything. One of my coaching friends tried to feed me some of that new wave thinking the other day. I bring it up only to point out how pervasive mistaken advocacy can be. He is a man I respect, with a great football mind. He said, 'So what if some of our guys couldn't read at a fifth-grade level? We gave 'em a chance and they turned out to be pretty good citizens. Isn't that better than being on welfare? That's what college football is all about.'
"Like heck it is. No matter how convenient it is to forget, when the stadium is packed and the drums are pounding, we're not here to provide a haven from the cruelties of the world. We're still supposed to be universities, not the USO. The question for the year is this: On the verge of a millennium in college football, how willing are we to set it in line with the academic purpose? Rhetoric is one thing, arrogance is another."
The Coach got up, and making a circular motion with the putter as if to punctuate the conversation, turned away.
"Now, come on, Scribe. I've got clubs and shoes for you and arranged to have you in the foursome."
I closed my mouth and followed him.