Last Saturday afternoon everyone inside Florida's sold-out Griffin Stadium was buzzing about junior running back Emmitt Smith. In a 27-21 homecoming victory over New Mexico, he gained 316 yards on 31 carries to become the Gators' career rushing leader. But out in the parking lot after the game, a few old-timers at a tailgate party spoke instead of Honest Jon MacBeth, a fullback whose long-ago heroics seem—in light of Florida's recent ills—no less remarkable than Smith's.
One night in late August of 1960, MacBeth was approached by a couple of gamblers. He was offered nearly $5,000 to shave points in a game against Florida State and possibly another team. MacBeth first turned the gamblers down, and then he helped run them in by cooperating in a police sting operation that resulted in the gamblers' conviction. "I guess Jon was about the last honest man in this town," said one old Gator fan.
If Honest Jon, now a health and P.E. professor at Middle Tennessee State, were still at Florida, he would have to wonder if his ethics meant anything. Gator basketball coaches stand accused of having paid players. Former players stand accused of having purchased drugs while playing for Florida. The starting quarterback and one of his backups were booted off the team last week for having bet on games, and the football coach resigned the week before that for having violated NCAA rules. All this means that the Gators may get the NCAA's death penalty, which could shut down their football and/or basketball programs for one or two years.
The university's Board of Regents would like to concentrate on finding a replacement for president Marshall Criser, who resigned last March—Robert Bryan is filling in on an interim basis—but it has been distracted by the sports morass. When Florida last searched for a president, in 1983, it had 353 applicants from which to choose. This time the total is 67. "I asked a friend to apply, and he said he wasn't up to dealing with big-time athletics," says regent Dubose Ausley. Last Thursday one of the three finalists, Malcolm Gillis, dean of Duke's graduate school and a Florida alumnus, withdrew his name. He cited as a primary reason "fundamental and longstanding" problems in intercollegiate athletics.
Regents chairman Charles Edwards says he can envision Florida voluntarily shutting down its big-time sports programs. "I don't think it's a reasonable alternative today," says Edwards. "If they don't start obeying the rules, there will be no other choice."
The Gators seem to have difficulty following NCAA rules. In 1984 football coach Charley Pell was fired for infractions that included improper recruiting activities and payments. The NCAA hit the football team with a three-year probation, and Criser promised an overhaul of the athletic department. Last year, however, a federal grand jury in Tallahassee, Fla., investigating a cocaine ring, linked some Gator basketball players who no longer play for Florida, to drug use. Athletes appearing before the grand jury admitted to having bought coke. They also said they received money from basketball coach Norm Sloan and assistant Monte Towe.
"Any time I asked for money, you know, I could get money from them—$200, $50—whatever I asked for I could get," said Vernon Maxwell, Florida's leading career scorer and now a second-year guard with the San Antonio Spurs, testifying under a grant of immunity. Maxwell estimated that he received $1,000 each month for six-months during his sophomore and junior years from Sloan or Towe and that he used some of the money to buy cocaine. Sloan and Towe deny Maxwell's allegation.
The drug investigation also led to the indictment earlier this year of four sports agents on charges of conspiracy, racketeering, mail fraud and wire fraud. The agents—accused of defrauding the university by making payments to Gator football and basketball players who still had some eligibility remaining—pleaded guilty to reduced charges. Under a plea bargain in U.S. District Court in Gainesville, the agents promised that they would never again represent athletes.
Florida's 1989 football season kicked off under this cloud—then things got worse. Coach Galen Hall, who had succeeded Pell after three games in '84, lasted only five games. "The man violated his contract and committed major violations," said Bryan. In his letter of resignation Hall admitted that, from '86 through '88, he had paid two assistants a total of $22,000 in "unauthorized salary supplements...from my own funds." An NCAA rule stipulates that only a university can pay an athletic department employee. Hall also acknowledged that he had directed a graduate assistant to drive defensive back Jarvis Williams (now with the Miami Dolphins) to an unnamed city in January 1987 to face charges of nonpayment of child support. The ride constituted another NCAA violation.
Gator fans are sweating. Any school found guilty of serious rules violations twice within a five-year period automatically qualifies for the death penalty. Florida football was penalized for Pell's violations in January 1985, but if the NCAA, whose latest investigation of Gator athletics began in June, has not completed this probe by January '90, it could still apply the death penalty even if the five-year cutoff has passed. The basketball team also could get the death penalty if the NCAA finds major violations in Sloan's program.
As if the NCAA investigation and grand jury testimony weren't damaging enough, on Oct. 15 starting quarterback Kyle Morris, who had thrown for 1,098 yards and nine TDs in six games, and Shane Matthews were suspended for the year for betting on college football games. Athletic director Bill Arnsparger received an anonymous letter alleging that at least two football players were betting with bookies. "It wasn't real detailed, but it did have facts," said Arnsparger. "The writer knew what he was talking about. I called the university lawyers."
The accused players admitted to what they thought were minor indiscretions. They said they had bet small amounts—$25 to $100 per week—with an Athens, Ga., bookmaking operation. They said they had bet on perhaps two games per week between late August and Oct. 7, but had never bet on games involving the Gators or other SEC teams.
The NCAA mandates suspension for athletes who bet on college sports, though an athlete can apply during the off-season to have his eligibility restored. Morris and Matthews had their scholarships revoked and moved out of the athletic dorm. They allowed the university to disclose why they had been kicked off the team. No reason was given for the suspension of two walk-ons, quarterback G.A. Mangus and receiver Brady Ackerman. Said a source at the university, "Two kids thought it would be better to have the real reason out there, so people wouldn't think it was drugs or something worse. Two exercised their rights of confidentiality."
Thus began homecoming week, an annual blowout that purports to be the biggest, best, showiest, just-plain-fun-nest bacchanalia in all of collegeland. Professors go light on homework because the students need time to build the floats that will roll down University Avenue during Friday's parade. Numerous alumni take vacations during the week and head for Gainesville. Student thespians rehearse the raunchy skits they'll perform at the Gator Growl, a Friday night pep rally that fills Griffin Stadium with 70,000 ticket holders.
This year homecoming week was very different. As the alumni pulled into town, they found banners hanging from the eaves of the Delta Upsilon fraternity house ridiculing the homecoming theme of "65 Years of Excellence." Two banners depicted mock front pages of the school newspaper, one with the headline PELL FORCED TO RESIGN, the other with HALL FORCED TO RESIGN. Delta Upsilon's commentary was beneath the bold type: "After 65 years...finally a tradition." While the DU's were hanging their banners, the brothers at Lambda Chi Alpha were preparing a float with a sign that read: GATOR FOOTBALL—YOU CAN BET ON IT.
Each morning The Gainesville Sun provided detailed accounts of the betting ring with which Morris and Matthews were involved. There was even an exposè of a fantasy baseball league that included Arnsparger and other members of the athletic department. (According to Arnsparger, the winner makes a few hundred bucks, and the payoffs go mostly for pizza and beer. University administrators promised to investigate.)
The local TV evening news covered the football team's weekly media luncheon, which was tense, and the basketball team's annual preseason media day, which was even tenser. At the latter gathering, Sloan again denied any wrongdoing. He said his team would weather the NCAA's investigation. Then he let the reporters have it.
"This has been a zoo," he said. "You people have been out of control.... If anything, any kind of evidence at all, had shown up that could verify that we had broken a rule, our asses would already be fired. Don't you know that?" The room was silenced.
Sloan denied requests for further interviews, but Arnsparger agreed to answer questions. He denied rumors that Sloan was about to be fired. "Nothing's been proved against the basketball team," he said. Arnsparger acknowledged, however, that Maxwell's grand jury allegations hadn't been disproved. He said the university was respecting a judge's gag order on the grand jury testimony, even if the press was not. He said the university would address the allegations when the gag order was lifted. He noted that swift justice had been meted out to Hall and the gamblers and that the school, which must show that it is trying to put its house in order if it hopes to appease the NCAA, will address all allegations in due course. As of Sunday, Sloan and Towe were still running the basketball program.
But what about the St. Petersburg Times story claiming Arnsparger had ignored his own drug policy at the time—three positives, and a player is dismissed—by not suspending Maxwell after he had thrice tested positive? "I'm not going to answer a charge made by a newspaper," said Arnsparger.
Had Maxwell tested positive? "I'll answer that at the proper time in the proper forum to the proper authorities," Arnsparger said.
Morris, meanwhile, agreed to answer some questions. He said that "the betting really didn't seem like that big a deal. All of a sudden, it just exploded, and we were shocked. It is like the Pete Rose thing. It's just as big as far as college ball's concerned. When it started, it never seemed it could get this big."
Morris acknowledged that he had often passed the large sign in the Gator locker room warning players not to gamble. He said the message just never sank in. Despite his protestations that the gambling was innocent fun, Morris said that he and Matthews knew they should keep their wagering under wraps. He also revealed a considerable knowledge of gambling lingo.
"How the guy who wrote that anonymous letter knew about it, I don't know," said Morris. "We kept it between ourselves. It would make the games more interesting. We'd parlay, or we'd do three-game teasers and things like that, having to pick four-to-one odds and things like that."
Morris said that he had never met the Georgia bookies, but that he had placed bets with one of them over the phone. "The bookies didn't know who we were, and we didn't know who they were," he said. Morris also said he was under the impression that the bookies were college-aged and that they handled action from a lot of students.
That night Morris attended the Gator Growl. It proved to be a painful experience. Each time his image appeared in highlight films that were shown on two huge screens, the crowd booed. "That hurt," Morris said on Saturday. "People started getting a little confidence in me and then I let them down...."
One thing that couldn't get lost in all the bad news was Smith's performance against New Mexico. Nevertheless, Smith is frustrated because the Gators' renegade reputation may jeopardize his chances of winning the Heisman Trophy. "That's a possibility," he said, "but I think the voters should judge me, not my school. I haven't stepped out of line. Don't penalize me because some of the players are having problems."
If Smith seems ungracious in distancing himself from Florida's troubles, forgive him. The ugliness has worn down even the most die-hard Gators. "This is a good school," said alumnus Mac Steen as he stood outside the stadium after the game. "It's got solid academics. It's not just a jock factory. We're all ashamed of this situation. I'll tell you, I'd rather have a program like Duke's or Vandy's, with integrity top to bottom, than this one."
Steen was cocaptain of the 1969 football team. That was back in the days when everyone still remembered Honest Jon MacBeth.