The disclosure of a secret Oklahoma State University booster club—which collected several hundred thousand dollars over the last 18 months for the illegal purpose of paying OSU football players—has once again raised questions about the frenzied atmosphere in which football exists in that state. Ironically, the man who blew the whistle on the payoffs is a Tulsa businessman named Jim Treat, who is an OSU alumnus and who, even after his sensational revelations, remains an ardent supporter of the Cowboys' football program.
At first, Treat's accusations brought quick denials from the school officials, but, as verifying evidence piled up, University President Lawrence L. Boger, Athletic Director Floyd Gass, who was forced to resign last month, and Football Coach Jim Stanley all have refused to make any further statements.
That OSU, which is situated in Stillwater, should be at the center of yet another football scandal is no great surprise. The school, whose football team has fanatical adherents even though it has had only 15 winning seasons since 1940, for years has had a bad reputation in the Big Eight regarding the recruiting and favored treatment of football players. In 1975, the conference gave credence to those suspicions by putting OSU on two-year probation for recruiting violations. Earlier this year, the NCAA, after an 18-month probe, one of its longest investigations ever, slapped on another two years of probation for the same type of violations. Among the penalties were the permanent barring of 13 boosters, including Treat, from all recruiting activities. With this latest disclosure, both the Big Eight and the NCAA are investigating anew and their patience is wearing thin. "I don't believe we're going to get out of jail in my lifetime," said one gloomy Cowboy booster last week.
Oklahomans, who have become inured to the University of Oklahoma periodically getting itself in a mess (it has been on NCAA probation three times in the past 22 years), seem not so much shocked that the OSU players were being paid as that the payoffs were so botched up. Treat, 41, and president of a new chain of convenience stores called Circle-7 Food Stores, certainly agrees. In fact, he said upon meeting a reporter for the first time, "You are looking at Outlaw No. 1 in college football."
There is evidence to support Treat's claim, because he himself had routinely broken and flouted NCAA regulations. His justification is that he doesn't think the rules are proper. Treat is especially at odds with one particular rule that prohibits players on scholarship from earning money in excess of commonly accepted educational expenses during school terms. "The only way some of these athletes can survive is if people like me give 'em money," Treat says, "which I will continue to do. The NCAA has no power over me, only its member institutions, and Jim Treat's going to do what he damn well pleases."
Many observers think Treat squealed on his alma mater in a fit of pique over the then imminent, and now consummated, forced resignation of his friend Gass. Treat denies this, insisting he disclosed the existence of the 150-to-200-member North Central Oklahoma Business Development Association, Inc. (called NCO by its members), for three main reasons:
•He thinks it outrageous that the coaches, as has been alleged, would allow themselves to get involved in payoff schemes, because team dissension is inevitable when one player learns he is not getting as much as another player. Treat feels alumni should handle the payoffs, because then the player can't blame the coach if he feels he's not getting his share.
•Boger gave Treat short shrift in April when he went to Stillwater to complain about the NCO. According to Treat, "I expressed my concern that the club was contributing to the deteriorating situation in the academic phase of the program [by creating dissension] and thus to the astronomical attrition rate on our team." Treat says he told Boger that if school officials did not clean things up within 30 days, Treat was going to report the existence of the NCO to the Big Eight. Treat subsequently sent a charter member of the club to fill Boger in on the details of the problem as Treat saw it. In his only statement after the scandal broke in the newspapers, Boger said that nobody presented him with "specifics." Counters Treat, "That's just an excuse and a poor one at that. Boger was knowledgeable, the regents were knowledgeable and Stanley was totally conversant since, after all, the club had ruined our football program."
•Finally, Treat was dismayed with the quality of play and the low squad count at the OSU spring game. The Cowboys are entitled to have 84 players on scholarship; they only have 66, and one third of them are incoming freshmen.
Oddly, Treat says he wasn't a member of the NCO because he was trying to protect it. "When it was formed 18 months or so ago, my name would have started it off with a black mark." Even without the infamous Treat, the NCO generated a lot of cash. One alumnus says that the group raised approximately $10,000 a month, to be "slushed around."
Cowboy players are now starting to come forth, anonymously so far, to confirm Treat's accusations. Last week one revealed, "I didn't get any of the money. It all went to the black guys." (One reason is that black players were the poorest; another is that such an inducement is often needed to recruit quality blacks.) Black athletes generally confirm that statement. No one can prove who got how much from whom, but payments are believed to have ranged from $50 to $100 a month to many players last season. Most sources don't think Heisman Trophy candidate Terry Miller, the NCAA's second leading rusher in 1977, who was drafted by Buffalo, got NCO money.
When Treat dropped his bombshell, Stanley said, "There is no North Central Oklahoma Business Development Association. That's ridiculous." Yet, it has now been documented that not only did the club exist but that Stanley also spoke to a cocktail party gathering of the NCO at the Stillwater Country Club last fall. According to Dean Stewart, a member of the NCO who was present, Stanley "walked in and everybody cheered. Then he told us how necessary an organization like ours was to further the football program."
Further contradicting Stanley's statement is a letter he sent on Aug. 17, 1977 to an OSU booster who belonged to the NCO. The recipient was J. W. (Rocky) Lewis, a Tulsa real estate executive. The letter thanks Lewis for "giving Charlie Alexander your time and consideration." The NCO was run—and contrary to reports that the club is now defunct, still is run—by Charlie Alexander, a former pilot for a flight service maintained by OSU.
But was the money collected by the NCO getting to the players, for sure? "Damn right," says Treat. "But remember that all the other big schools are doing it too."
Does that make it proper for OSU to do it?
College football slush funds are old helmet, mostly because so far nobody has devised a system that can control coaches or alumni who want to win at all costs. But this case is a blockbuster because of the brazen attitudes and statements of the participants, and because of its scope.
Among recent disclosures:
Gass resigned, not because of the slush fund but, apparently, because he was the victim of a, power play by Stanley to become athletic director. Boger was so anxious to make it appear that Gass was leaving of his own accord that he wrote the "resignation" speech. No wonder Gass said later, "It's difficult to explain a lot of times why you just walk away from a job." Gass now refuses to say anything.
Stanley's designs on the athletic-director job sank in the wake of Treat's disclosure. Now the coach is teetering himself and the speculation is not whether he will be fired (to most people, pro and anti Stanley, that's a foregone conclusion) but when the ax will fall. Stanley, too, refuses to comment.
Alexander is under heavy fire by nearly everyone, largely because of the cavalier way he handled the slush fund. Last season he was routinely on the sidelines with the players during games and even NCO members thought that was too brassy. Alexander also refuses to talk.
A Big Eight investigator has already been to Stillwater and his NCAA counterpart is on the way. "They're both going to dig into us," laments Gip Duggan, an NCO contributor. "There is no way they're not going to find something. Let's face it. We got caught with our hand in the cookie jar and I'm not going to sit here and lie to you and say the money was spent on flowers for homecoming. We're going to be in the cellar for at least six or eight years."
OSU officials privately confess to enormous dismay. Few of them doubt that the players were paid but, even so, a whispering campaign is under way to discredit some of the athletes suspected of talking. For example, one OSU official says, "That player is so stupid he thinks manual labor is president of Mexico." A white player says, "We didn't like the payoffs because we weren't getting any. They were discriminating against us because we were white." Asked if he would have taken money, he pauses, then says, "Probably."
Admittedly, anonymous players are not the best witnesses. However, confirmation of their claims and charges comes from Dean Stewart, a car dealer in Broken Bow, 250 miles south of Stillwater. He never attended OSU but says, "I love that school so much." So when he was asked to join the NCO, he immediately signed up for the $1,000-a-year program. Other plans were for $600 and $300 a year, although there was no difference in benefits—which consisted mostly of parties—no matter how much a member contributed. Later Stewart was asked to be on the NCO's board of directors. "I thought at the time that it was an honor," he says with heavy irony.
Stewart was in attendance when the directors met at the Stillwater Country Club before an early-season game last year. There, Stewart claims, Charlie Alexander told the group, "Stanley needs more money." Then, according to Stewart, "Somebody else said, 'Hey, he can't just spend $13,000 or $15,000 a month. He needs to be put on a budget.' " The group subsequently fixed the amount at $10,000. Next Stewart himself asked, "Where's the books? What's happening to our money?" Said Alexander, "Ain't no books." And Dean Stewart responded to the members, "Look, I trust Charlie but I just don't know if that's good business." At which time, Stewart says, "It got quiet. I mean real quiet. I knew right then I was in something that was not quite according to Hoyle." Stewart dropped out of the NCO.
Rocky Lewis was never confused over the destination of his contributions. When he was writing out a check for $129.45 as an installment payment to the NCO last August, he asked Alexander where the funds were going. According to Lewis, "Alexander said, 'The money is going to be disbursed directly by Stanley to the players.' I felt that was the best way because who knows better what the players need than the coaches?"
Whether money was ever handed out by Stanley is not a certainty, but Bob Hartzell, sports editor of the Tulsa Tribune, talked with a former OSU player who said, "Each month a payday would be held in the office of one of the OSU coaches, complete with a payroll list and a tall stack of bills." The player said the amounts varied, depending "on how hard it was to recruit the player, how valuable the coaches considered the player to be on the team and how hard it was to keep the player happy in Stillwater."
Treat thinks he could keep players happy in Stillwater if he didn't have the NCAA to contend with. "I am a strong advocate of legal cheating," he says. "The problem with slush funds is you are not dealing with grown, mature men. These are 17- and 18-year-old kids. So what happens is the kids talk among themselves and compare notes. Then they say, 'What? I go to class and practice and bust my tail and I'm getting $60 a month; you miss class, miss practice and get $275?' That creates dissension."
So Treat favors the one-on-one approach. "I like to sit down with a player and say, 'Son, tell me about your situation. Tell me about your mama and daddy, your brothers and sisters. How much money can your family send?' If the answer is none, then that young man and I are one-on-one and I'll take care of the problem. The way it is, we are committing these student-athletes to four or five years of slavery. What do you think it would feel like to show up on campus in September with two pairs of jeans, two shirts, a pair of sneakers, a jacket, no money in your pocket and know there's no way you're going to have any money until June 15?"
The problem with the way Treat likes to do things, he admits, is that "It's against every rule in the NCAA book." Among the rule changes he thinks should be made is one that would allow each football player to get at least $100 a month "walking-around" money that would be similar in concept if not in scale to the $15-a-month "laundry allowance" that was permitted by the NCAA until two years ago.
Because of his nonconformism, Treat frequently has been in trouble with the NCAA. He refers to the NCAA infractions committee as "Gong Show members" and says of its investigatory procedures, "There's never been a survivor." In 1975, the Big Eight put Treat on probation for "hiding out" an OSU recruit to keep other schools from stealing him. In the NCAA investigation, it was charged that Treat attended a "signing party" in honor of a recruit having chosen OSU. The NCAA said Treat not only attended (true, says Treat) but also paid for the party (false, says Treat), and thus was in violation of the earlier probation that ordered him to have nothing to do with recruiting. Of the two penalties, Treat says, "I felt like the guy who walked out of the courthouse after serving time for murder, jumped in his car, ran a red light and got shot in the head by a rookie cop."
Treat is joined by others with less extreme views. Oddly, perhaps, the prevailing sentiment of those who gave money is not remorse but an attitude of, "Oops, we seem to have done it wrong. We'll just have to keep doing it until we get it right."
Rocky Lewis, for example, is as eager as ever to reach for his wallet because of his view of the alumni role. "If a player has got a financial problem, big or small, we're there to help," he says.
"To try and make our football team competitive. Also, the kids today have to have their character built."
"If they understand, it's O.K. See, this is not a way to beat the system but to make their life easier so they can devote more time to studying, which is the most important thing."
But what about the illegality?
"Although illegal, if put in the proper perspective, they understand."
So paying players is not all bad?
"No. If the money helps them stay in school and get an education, fine. But to pay for their performance on the field? No, that would be wrong."
Gip Duggan, who once played for OSU, has a different code of morality. He thinks giving players money is O.K., but they should have to earn it. "It's not right that athletes get used to being given everything," he says. Duggan, for example, has apartments to rent. A two-bedroom costs $160 in the summer, but he will let it free to two football players—in return for each one picking up trash for one hour a day. That comes to about $2.63 an hour "but if I want to pay an athlete $10 an hour, that's my business, too," says Duggan. The NCAA doesn't share that view, either.
Along this line, Treat suggests players be allowed, for example, to clean up the stadium after the game. Says Treat, "Figure $3,000, which is about half what it actually costs. With 95 players on scholarship, it takes two hours and each player gets $31.58. They'd love to do it and they wouldn't leave anything big enough to make your eye water."
Duggan also feels put upon by the NCAA. He says, "The NCAA is like a highway patrol. Everybody speeds, so you should catch the flagrant ones. I'd say we were going maybe 65 mph but Oklahoma is going 85 to 90 and Nebraska 110."
At the core of the scandal is deep frustration at OSU's lackluster record in a win-at-all-costs environment. The Cowboys have not gone to a major bowl since 1945, when they played in the Sugar against St. Mary's. Resentment builds as it stretches across decades. There's a bumper sticker on a file cabinet in what was the connecting office between Gass' and Stanley's: osu # 1 IN OKLAHOMA. It's torn.
Treat remains unshaken in his belief that his revelations will help OSU in the long run. "I get nothing out of this but the satisfaction that the university will be better off," he says. "I am the most cold-hearted, logical son-of-a-bitch in the world." There should be something in that sentence that every college football fan in the country can agree with.