The slot players sat bleary-eyed in the background, prospecting
for their elusive jackpots. But among a handful of college
basketball coaches gathered in the lobby of the Aladdin Hotel in
Las Vegas one night during the summer of 1993, the talk was of
human lucre. The nation's finest high school prospects had come
to the Nevada desert for an All-Star tournament, and these
coaches--procurers of talent, preoccupied for years simply with
getting players--found themselves discussing a sideline in which
they had recently become experts: getting players eligible.
Ever since the NCAA's landmark enactment of Proposition 48 set
minimal academic standards for athletes to meet in order to
compete as freshmen, beginning in 1986, some of the best high
school players have been forced to postpone their trips to the
big time and make detours to junior college. Once enrolled at a
juco, a player has had to earn a two-year associate degree
before he could transfer to, and be eligible to play at, any
NCAA school. Thus some college coaches began priding themselves
on their ability to guide academically deficient young men
through the loosely regulated world of the junior college. It
was in that context, there in the lobby of the Aladdin two years
ago, that a recruiter for an NCAA school let his colleagues in
on what he thought was a trade secret, a sort of genie-in-a-lamp
for an on-the-make basketball coach. He mentioned that he knew
of a small college in Florida that was offering cheap, quick and
easy credits by mail.
A junior college coach scoffed. "Old news," he said. "If you're
talking about Southeastern, we had a kid take courses from there
two years ago."
"Southeastern" is Southeastern College of the Assemblies of God
(SEC), a collection of vanilla-colored cinder-block buildings
strewn over 57 acres in Lakeland, Fla. Most of SEC's 1,200
full-time students are studying to become preachers or teachers.
The school enforces a dress code, a curfew, daily chapel
attendance and antiseptically clean living. It bans "secular
rock" and prohibits students from so much as reclining on a
blanket by the campus's fetching lakefront. The student handbook
is explicit about cheating: It "cannot be tolerated." In short,
there is no more unlikely school to be ensnared in a sprawling
credit-laundering scandal that threatens the jobs of coaches and
the eligibility of athletes at dozens of high-profile
universities across the country.
At some point in 1990 a basketball coach--it is unclear
who--discovered that rules for Southeastern's correspondence
courses, guilelessly drafted with clergymen and other
God-fearing types in mind, were much less stringent than those
at other accredited schools. Southeastern's testing procedures
were founded on trust, and the number of credits a student could
earn in a summer was virtually limitless. By combining
Southeastern credits-by-mail with credits picked up in
summer-school classes taken at his "home" juco, a player who
might have earned, say, 30 credits in four semesters at a junior
college could easily pick up his final 18 credits, an associate
degree and instant NCAA eligibility in as little as six weeks.
Word of SEC spread quickly, particularly among coaches at
arriviste and mid-major programs that rely heavily on juco
talent. "Asking how I first heard of Southeastern would be like
asking how I first heard of Apple Computers," says Texas-Pan
American basketball coach Mark Adams. "It was that common. So
many people were talking about it that you couldn't remember the
first person who told you."
Five years later, coaches and players who abused the system and
used SEC as a credit mill aren't yet in the clear. The NCAA is
only just beginning to sift through transcripts, and the scandal
could cut a wide swath through college sports. Ill-gotten
credits from Southeastern were central to the convictions of
three former Baylor assistant basketball coaches on federal
charges of wire and mail fraud in April. Similar chicanery
figured in the dismissal of three members of the basketball
staff at Georgia Southern, including head coach Frank Kerns, in
November. And New Mexico State is all but assured of stiff NCAA
sanctions as a result of its SEC connections. Over the last
three years the Aggies have supplanted UNLV as the preeminent
hoops power in the Big West Conference by relying on the
wholesale importation of juco transfers.
In the fall of 1993 Britton Banowsky, a Southwest Conference
assistant commissioner looking into the Baylor case, alerted the
NCAA to the possibility of a wider scandal. Since then
enforcement officers have identified as many as 60 junior
colleges that accepted SEC credits from their athletes. In
addition, investigators have found 55 NCAA schools--including
Syracuse, Texas, Clemson, 1994 national basketball champion
Arkansas, four other Southeastern Conference schools and half of
the Big West--that eventually suited up those athletes. Most
ominous, the prosecutors who handled the Baylor case say that
their counterparts in other federal districts have asked for
copies of the Baylor indictment, presumably to begin exploring
how the case may apply to schools in their jurisdictions.
NCAA investigators are focusing on several kinds of potential
violations. Above all, they want to ascertain which coaches took
advantage of SEC's lax standards, either by arranging for
stand-ins to do course work or take tests, or, as in the Baylor
case, by doing the cheating themselves. If an athlete did not do
course work for which he was credited, his NCAA eligibility
would be at risk. And if a coach at an NCAA school helped
arrange academic fraud, both the school and the coach would face
"By the time this is over, it will touch more people than
anything I've heard of in college sports in a long time," says
one coach, who says he placed players in up to 20 of
Southeastern's correspondence courses. "Coaches are still
talking about it, but now it's out of fear. The problem is huge;
it's not just the number of players who took courses there, but
the number who took courses and cheated."
How could a scam of such magnitude have worked? First of all,
Southeastern not only permitted a correspondence student to take
an unlimited number of credits at once but also enforced no
minimum time in which the course work could be completed. After
receiving his textbooks and study guide, a student could return
the assigned work through the mail as quickly as he wished.
Second, cheating on an exam was tantalizingly easy. "It hit me
how big the cheating problem was one day when I was driving down
I-35 from Dallas to Waco," says Banowsky. "I was in the car with
[NCAA director of enforcement] Bob Minnix, and we pulled out
Southeastern's final exams from American History and Old
Testament Survey, and we started asking each other questions.
These were tough questions. There was no way I could pass this
thing. We got maybe half of them right. On the Old Testament
final, the questions were like, 'Who was Nebuchadnezzar's third
cousin?' You had to have an understanding of the Bible well
beyond a vacation Bible school upbringing."
There was a reason Banowsky and Minnix, both law school
graduates, could answer only half the questions, yet four Baylor
juco transfers who could not meet minimal academic standards
coming out of high school two years earlier had aced those very
same finals. SEC answer sheets floating around basketball
offices across the country made cheating easy because
instructors at Southeastern almost never changed the questions
on their tests. Finals also differed only slightly from
open-book "practice tests" that SEC administered and returned,
corrected, to correspondence students.
"They might not have been easy classes, but they were easy to
cheat on," says Jim Darnell, the lawyer who represented former
Baylor coach Darrel Johnson, who, unlike his assistants, was
acquitted of all charges in the Baylor scandal. "It's possible
that some of these players were cheating without the coaches'
Finally, Southeastern allowed a student to designate virtually
anyone with a teaching certificate to proctor his exam. Former
University of New Mexico guard Marlow White needed two classes
to earn his associate degree two summers ago, so he enrolled in
an English course and a science course through SEC while
attending Kilgore (Texas) J.C. He took the science final at the
dining-room table of Kilgore athletic director and dean of
students Jim Campbell. Campbell says all was on the up-and-up,
but he recognizes the gaping loopholes in SEC's system. "I've
heard all the horror stories now about that place," says Campbell.
To administrators at Southeastern the sudden interest in their
correspondence curriculum during the early 1990s seemed like a
blessing. The summer of '93 was the best sales season in school
history, and school officials must have considered it proof that
good things come to the righteous. They registered no alarm that
their new customers were enrolled at universities whose coaches
were calling, with urgency in their voices, to ask which
offerings in the SEC catalog were the easiest. Dr. Tom Wilson,
who was then Southeastern's director of continuing education,
was delighted that so many junior college students were
interested in learning the word of God.
Fern Maturo, a records secretary in the continuing-ed
department, says she spoke with as many as 100 college coaches
in the spring and summer of 1993. She recorded most of the calls
in a notebook. But by the time NCAA investigators began
inquiring about the school's testing procedures, Maturo's log
had been thrown away, an act that doubtless led scores of
college coaches and athletes throughout the land to breathe a
deep sigh of relief.
Business was so brisk that Maturo put in 12-hour days during
that summer of '93 grading course work. And some of that work
was fraudulent. In a statement he provided after his criminal
conviction, former Baylor assistant Gary Thomas admitted having
replaced Bear prospect Tyrone Davis's answer sheet from an Old
Testament final--on which he could see that Davis had answered
barely half the questions correctly--with a sheet that Thomas had
filled out himself. Under statutes that make it a federal crime
to, for example, commit fraud by faxing across state lines test
answer sheets that have been completed by someone other than the
student, prosecutors were able to indict the entire Baylor
basketball coaching staff.
"We're not talking here about a bunch of kids across the country
who got together and swapped answer sheets," said Assistant U.S.
Attorney Dan Mills, one of the two prosecutors on the Baylor
case, in his closing argument. "We're talking about the
grown-ups who were cheating, the ones who work for the
university and are supposed to be teaching things to these kids."
Certainly, some of the players steered to SEC came by their
credits honestly, and some coaches recommended the school in the
same spirit. But answer sheets from algebra finals, taken by
nearly two dozen athletes from all over the country and
introduced into the court record by the prosecution during the
Baylor trial, raise intriguing questions:
Michael Lloyd and Stacy Robinson, then teammates and roommates
at San Jacinto J.C. in Pasadena, Texas, missed the same six
questions on the 62-question multiple-choice exam. (Lloyd missed
two others as well.) In five of the six instances in which they
were both wrong, Lloyd, now the point guard at Syracuse, and
Robinson, a forward at North Carolina Central until he quit the
team in January, chose the same incorrect answer.
Former Texas guard Roderick Anderson, who left the Longhorns
after last season, struggled so much in the same algebra course
that he received a D overall. Yet he missed only six of the 62
questions on the final. Longhorn coach Tom Penders told the
Houston Chronicle that Anderson's odd performance could be
explained. "Rod's a good student--he had a 3.3 grade point here
during the spring of 1994," Penders said. "But when he took that
course in the summer of '93, he was busy taking other classes.
He said he ignored [the algebra] class. But the final was
open-book, I believe with no time limit." Still, Penders said
that Texas refused to accept credit for that course.
Hawaii guard Tes Whitlock, who sat out his freshman season
under Prop 48 at Arizona State and then played a year there
before stopping over at Saddleback J.C. in Mission Viejo,
Calif., scored a perfect 62 out of 62 on the exam, a fact that
his current coach admits is "a little surprising." Algebra
"didn't come easy to me," says Rainbow coach Riley Wallace, "so
I guess I'd be surprised if anyone did that well. We wouldn't
accept credits from that school today."
Melvin Lewis, a star center at Eastern Washington, known by his
teammates as Dinner Bell Mel for his prodigious appetite, also
scored a perfect 62 on his algebra final in the summer of 1993.
According to the Houston Chronicle, Lewis had earlier been
declared academically ineligible at Moberly (Mo.) Area Community
College. Mike Hayes, his coach there, said, "His math skills
weren't real strong ... his biggest problem was math."
Troy Drummond, one of the convicted Baylor assistants, took the
notorious algebra test himself in 1993 when he was a coach at
Westark J.C. in Fort Smith, Ark. He didn't do as well as many of
the athletes, scoring a mere 59. But the exercise was presumably
worth it to Drummond, if only because he now had a copy of that
exam's questions and answers. In fact, one of Drummond's Baylor
students, Shannon Brantley, subsequently submitted a test sheet
for the algebra course that had the same answers as Drummond's.
The mystery persists: Who is Coach X, the clipboard carrier who
discovered SEC? Thomas, the former Baylor assistant, says he
learned of Southeastern from current Drake assistant Denny
Downing, who in turn says he heard of the school in 1992 while
coaching at Ranger (Texas) Junior College. But Downing may have
been behind the curve. Texas-Arlington coach Eddie McCarter says
he has known of SEC since serving as an assistant at Howard J.C.
in Big Spring, Texas, a school he left in 1990, and McCarter
says he's "pretty sure" he first heard of Quick Credit U from
Ralph Radford, a former assistant at Mississippi State. Radford,
who was an assistant at Auburn in 1990, died of liver cancer
last year. Both Mississippi State and Auburn are among the
schools that have accepted players with SEC credits.
The NCAA probe is focusing on athletes enrolled in courses at
Southeastern from 1992 onward because those players are most
likely to have eligibility remaining as the 1995-96 school year
gets under way. Also drawing the NCAA's attention are schools
whose rosters are festooned with former SEC students--places like
New Mexico State, which is awaiting a letter detailing the
specific charges against its basketball program.
"Our situation isn't anywhere near what was going on in Waco,"
says New Mexico State coach Neil McCarthy. But while the Baylor
investigation centered on bogus credits "earned" by five
players, there are five former Aggies and one current player
who, according to the Las Cruces Sun-News, became eligible
during the past two seasons after taking Southeastern courses
ranging from Old Testament Survey to Parliamentary Law. Do-a Ana
County district attorney Greg Valdez is reviewing documents,
including exams, that bear the signatures of proctors.
"It seems clear that some of the signatures signed to those
documents were false," Valdez says. "The persons listed as
proctors on those documents were university employees who
apparently had nothing to do with the proctoring, but their
names were used." Valdez says that he will probably pass this
information on to federal prosecutors.
Meanwhile in Lakeland, officials at Southeastern are still
sorting out their emotions at having become what they say is an
unwitting school for scandal. "We're much smarter now than we
were two years ago," says director of alumni and college
relations Margaret Hennesy, whose husband, James, is the
school's president. "Nobody on campus had any idea what's
involved in athletics at the top level. We hardly knew that
world existed except for watching TV on Saturday. If
Southeastern could be faulted anywhere, it's that we were too
trusting. Being a small Christian school, we take people at
As a result of the events of the past five years, SEC's
Independent Study by Correspondence program has been completely
overhauled. The minimum time for completion of a course is now
eight weeks. A pastor's recommendation is now required for
enrollment. And guidelines governing those who are authorized to
proctor an exam have been stiffened considerably.
Further, independent of the NCAA, Southeastern has begun
investigating course work submitted during the height of the
school's popularity; where SEC believes cheating took place, it
may revoke credits.
The NCAA is planning changes of its own. Delegates to its
January convention will be asked to consider a ban on accepting
junior college credits earned through courses taught by
correspondence or by closed-circuit TV. Another proposal would
limit the number of credits a student could earn during any
given summer. And last week NCAA investigators said that they
were beginning to zero in on at least two other schools that may
have been used to help academically deficient athletes achieve
But at least one person touched by the scam doesn't have much
faith in the NCAA's ability to thwart a membership that seems
determined to cheat. "In 1992 and 1993 I worked in Bulgaria,
helping the post-Communist government build the American
University there," says New Mexico State president Michael
Orenduff. "I was most amazed at how the people found ways to get
around the regulations their government placed on them. That
became the game. The government, the NCAA, passes new rules like
Prop 48; the people, the college coaches, make a game of
figuring out how to get around them. The NCAA can plug one hole,
but someone'll go drill another."