Obviously delighted that, for a change, a Southeastern Conference football program other than their own was in trouble, a few Florida fans arrived at last Saturday's game at Auburn wearing T-shirts emblazoned with ERIC RAMSEY FAN CLUB. Florida, which was on NCAA probation twice between 1984 and '90, knows all about scandal of the sort that has surfaced this fall at Auburn in the wake of former Tiger defensive back Ramsey's charges of wrongdoing in coach Pat Dye's program. And who knows whether Florida fans had Ramsey to thank as well for Auburn's dispirited performance in a 31-10 loss to the Gators, which dropped the Tigers' record to 4-4—all the more reason that the question of whether Dye will keep his job is Topic A all over the South.
On Sept. 27 Ramsey disclosed in The Montgomery Advertiser that he had been taping conversations between himself and Auburn coaches and boosters. Later he said that he had been making the tapes since 1987. On Oct. 20 The Birmingham News printed excerpts from the tapes that indicate that Ramsey had solicited and received money from booster Bill (Corky) Frost. (Last week, Ramsey played a portion of those tapes for a congressional subcommittee.) On Sunday the News published excerpts from a second batch of tapes. Those tapes seemingly reveal that Larry Blakeney, the Tigers' former receivers coach who is now the head man at Troy (Ala.) State, funneled money to Ramsey in 1989 through Birmingham advertising executive and alum Don Kirkpatrick; that in '90 now-retired recruiting coordinator Frank Young gave Ramsey a $300 payment; and that in '88 secondary coach Steve Dennis made a $319 payment on Ramsey's Chevrolet Beretta after Ramsey told Dennis he was behind on his bills. All of the charges, if proved, would be violations of NCAA rules.
Frost has said he was dealing with Ramsey on his own, not on behalf of Auburn. Kirkpatrick denied making any improper payments to Ramsey. The coaches would not comment to the News on the substance of Ramsey's allegations, but two of them denied wrongdoing when questioned by SI last month (SI, Oct. 7). Young said at that time, "I might have made some mistakes, but I've never given anybody money." Blakeney said, "We probably spent more time counseling Eric than any other player on the team. As far as his accusation about me...I had no reason to arrange any benefits for him. I did help him get summer jobs, which is legal and a common practice for players." Dennis did not want to be quoted by SI.
According to the News, in a tape released last week of a 1988 conversation between Ramsey and Dennis, Ramsey said, "Coach Dye has given me money." That amounts to a teaser for the third and final batch of tapes, which Ramsey's lawyer, Donald Watkins, has promised to release on Nov. 17 and which will, he says, involve conversations between Ramsey and Dye.
November 11, 1991
"The bottom line question is whether Pat Dye, as athletic director and head coach, knew of, or participated in, a scheme to distribute extra benefits to Eric Ramsey and other players," Watkins told News reporters Bob Blalock and Charles Hollis. "I know the answer to that question and Pat Dye knows the answer to that question. I'll give him the first opportunity to answer publicly. If he refuses to answer...or does not come clean, I'll let the Pat Dye tapes provide the answer."
Early in the Ramsey affair, Dye responded to the charges by bitterly attacking both Ramsey and Ramsey's wife, Twilitta, while refusing to discuss the allegations themselves. But on Sunday, Dye admitted his coaches may have some explaining to do. While he told The New York Times, "I've never given the kid anything, I've never promised him anything," Dye conceded that the tapes might indeed be genuine and that he may not have been properly vigilant. "If the tapes are true, and the allegations are true," he said, "then what I'm guilty of is doing a damn poor job of management." Most surprising was Dye's suggestion that he might resign as athletic director if his assistants were found guilty of NCAA violations.
The tone of Dye's remarks had changed abruptly, but with the publication of the second transcript there was little point in his hoping that the tapes might turn out to be inaudible or simply fraudulent. Hollis, who has covered Auburn since 1979, says, "Before we heard the first batch, we had two questions: First, are the tapes authentic? And second, are they open to different interpretations? Both of those questions were resolved to our satisfaction pretty quickly. I listened hard. I don't think there's any question that the tapes are authentic."
Under the terms of the agreement between the News and Watkins, the newspaper cannot make its own copies of the tapes. The procedure is that as Watkins plays the tapes, Hollis and Blalock transcribe them in longhand. Their meeting last Thursday, which resulted in publication of Sunday's excerpts, took place in Watkins's Montgomery office and lasted from 3 p.m. until 7 p.m. "You had a lot of 'Let's play that again,' " Hollis says.
Besides the reporters and Watkins, the meeting was attended by Ramsey, Twilitta and William Saum, of the NCAA's enforcement staff. "It was interesting to watch Mr. Saum's reaction," Hollis says. "I think he was listening to things he had never heard before on tape." Hollis says he knows the voices of Auburn's coaches so well that at times he was able to identify a speaker before Ramsey was able to do so. While Hollis says he was fascinated by what he heard, he is troubled by the idea of Ramsey's having made the tapes: "It's like you're entering the private lives of people, and it's almost embarrassing."
Ramsey not only recorded phone conversations but also concealed a tape recorder in his coat pocket or inside his pants, so he could tape meetings with coaches. "The phone conversations are so clear that it's like you and I talking now," Hollis says. "The in-person tapes aren't quite as clear, but you can hear him walking into the athletic department, people saying hello to him, and then he starts talking to a coach."
On the tapes, Ramsey, who is repeatedly heard asking for money, comes off sounding as bad as any Auburn coach or booster. His motive in going public with the tapes remains unclear—as does his reason for making them in the first place. Ramsey said last week that he wanted to clean up corruption in the sport, but Dye's attorney, Sam Franklin, suggests other motives. He points out that Ramsey has accused Dye of racism, has blamed the coach for his poor grades and has said that Dye didn't promote him enthusiastically to NFL scouts. "It seems to me that Eric Ramsey is just out for revenge or to hurt Auburn University," Franklin says.
Many Auburn loyalists share that view. On a lawn 10 miles from campus a mock graveyard has appeared with a lone headstone bearing the inscription RIP—ERIC RAMSEY AND THE MONTGOMERY ADVERTISER. On Saturday the words RAMSEY MUST DIE were seen scrawled in white shoe polish on a car parked at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
As for Dye, his principal sin in the eyes of Auburn fans may well be his Tigers' win-loss record of late, not his staff's dealings with Ramsey. As one prominent Auburn supporter told SI, "I'm not sure that Dye will weather the storm and keep his job because of all the controversy, plus the way the team has been performing."
Tiger fans who attended the game against Florida made their sentiments known, and not just by means of the posters and shirts that some of them sported depicting a Ghostbusters sign superimposed on photos of Ramsey's face. At kickoff there was a crowd of 83,714 at Jordan-Hare; midway through the fourth quarter, fewer than 25,000 spectators remained. Even the stubborn Dye had to be concerned about that message.