It was not a day to look for honor, not from the plains of
Auburn northward, not in the acres surrounding Tuscaloosa's
Black Warrior River, not in the minds of all those in Alabama
who regard football as their state's last serious measure of
will and strength and goodness. On Aug. 2 a hurricane loomed,
but that kind of disaster comes and goes. This was a horror.
Alabama football had been sent to jail.
And no one saw it coming. For 102 years Alabama football had
prided itself on a history free of censure, and after a nearly
three-year NCAA investigation it expected little more than a
mild spanking. But last week Alabama was placed on three years'
NCAA probation--forced like some common outlaw to forfeit 11
games of the 1993 season (turning a 9-3-1 season into a 1-12
one), forced to give up the chance to play in either the
Southeastern Conference championship game or a bowl this season
and forced, most damagingly, to give up 30 scholarships in 1996
"This has always been a university where nobody ever got into
trouble," says Alabama senior quarterback Brian Burgdorf. "How
could this have happened?" For a clue, all you need do is smell
the Alabama attitude after the penalties were announced. At the
heart of the sanctions was the university's response to improper
loans received by cornerback Gene Jelks in 1989 and '90 and,
more important, the handling of All-America (and now Cleveland
Brown) cornerback Antonio Langham's return to the team after
signing with an agent in 1993. Despite clear evidence that
Langham's case had been badly bungled by coach Gene Stallings,
athletic director Cecil (Hootie) Ingram, now retired compliance
director Gary White and Tom Jones, the vice dean of Alabama's
law school, Alabama president Roger Sayers indignantly declared
the NCAA's actions "excessive and inappropriate....I
categorically reject the one instance of unethical conduct they
allege. We will appeal." At most other schools, there would be
head-rolling and hand-wringing. The flat arrogance seeped
through every TV screen in the state, with one imperious and
unspoken message to the NCAA: How dare you?
"You've got to understand, when the team is Alabama, it's a
whole new thing," says Auburn coach Terry Bowden. "They've got a
prestige that few teams ever had. That's a killer statement the
Short of the death penalty given to SMU in 1987, the NCAA's
action was one of the most severe blows that organization has
dealt a school. The Alabama name has, for the first time, been
stained by the same mud that sticks to the likes of UNLV,
Florida and, of course, arch-criminal Auburn, which, neatly
enough, comes off its sixth probation this season and will be
gunning for a national title. After decades of cutting any
corner to lift itself to Alabama's level, Auburn finds itself in
the curious position of looking down on the Crimson Tide. And
don't think it doesn't feel good.
This was a day without honor, you see, and if those on the
Alabama side demonstrated an unseemly case of denial, Auburn
partisans could hardly contain their glee. You'll never convince
anyone from Auburn, especially former coach Pat Dye, that
Alabama boosters weren't financing the 1991 play-for-pay
revelations by former Tiger Eric Ramsey that resulted in the
resignation of Dye and the removal of much of the Tiger athletic
department. And some around Auburn have been swearing revenge
A handful of Auburn boosters allegedly bankrolled--to the tune of
$60,000--Jelks's original allegations of payoffs by Alabama
coaches, but that didn't work. The charge was rejected by the
NCAA. But the damage was done regardless. While on campus, NCAA
investigators became involved in the questions of Langham's
eligibility. The wheels began turning toward last week's
Meanwhile, Alabama's superior air suffused the state. Tide
backers laughed when Auburn hired the 36-year-old Bowden in 1992
from Division I-AA Samford, and laughed some more when Alabama
defensive coordinator Bill Oliver referred to the 5'6" coach as
"Buster Brown." Then came two years of probation that, despite
Auburn's 20-1-1 record during that period, still enabled Alabama
loudmouths to tell Tiger tailback and Heisman Trophy candidate
Stephen Davis, "You're getting paid," or walk up to quarterback
Patrick Nix to announce, "You cheated."
So it was no surprise to find everyone in Auburn watching the
events in Tuscaloosa last week. Officially, the Auburn response
came through a muzzle. "I'm not going to get into it," Bowden
said. "This thing has got me scared to death."
"Let he who is without sin cast the first stone," said Auburn
athletic director David Housel. "I've walked that valley."
But that doesn't account for the snickers that reverberated
through Auburn when the news hit, or for the Tiger starter who,
when told by a teammate that the Alabama punishment was harsh,
replied, "I don't think they got hit hard enough." It doesn't
account for the story passing through the athletic offices about
the Auburn fan who heard the news and buttonholed an Alabama
man. "I've waited 30 years to say this," the Auburn fan sneered.
"Now you're cheaters--just like us."
Asked how he thinks Auburn fans will react, Housel says, "It'll
be interesting to see." He stands, walks to his desk and punches
in a phone number. It is an hour after the news. "Hey," Housel
says into the phone. "Are they rolling Toomer's Corner? They
are? How many people? Just a few? That's all I need to know." He
hangs up. Toomer's Corner is the heart of Auburn, and after a
big win, fans congregate there to toss rolls of toilet paper
into the oak trees.
The following day, Alabama's football office is all slow
footsteps and low voices. "It's quieter," says Linda Knowles,
Stallings's secretary. "It's like a death in the family around
here. Some people just don't know what to say."
When Bear Bryant coached at Texas A&M from 1954 to '57, that
program was snagged by the NCAA. After moving to Tuscaloosa in
1958, he openly declared, "That will never happen to me again."
It never did, but Bryant's untouchability over the next 25 years
was as legendary as his coaching; no one doubts Alabama had its
share of overzealous boosters and rule-bending, but the man's
record stayed clean. His disciples--both former players and
coaches--are another matter. Jackie Sherrill, Bob Tyler, Dye,
Charley Pell and Danny Ford all got caught up in or left their
respective programs because of NCAA infractions. But that it
happened to the 60-year-old Stallings over a once-minor rules
confusion is almost ridiculous. That the first seeds of the
scandal took root under the glow of Stallings's greatest moment
is almost sad.
On the morning of Jan. 2, 1993, not 24 hours after the Crimson
Tide stunned Miami 34-14 in the Sugar Bowl to capture Alabama's
first national championship since Bryant retired in 1982,
Langham, then a junior, decided he wanted to apply for the NFL
draft and signed an agreement with sports agent Darryl Dennis in
his hotel room in New Orleans. Earlier, he had indirectly
received $400 from Dennis.
Almost immediately Langham had second thoughts about applying
for the draft. A couple of days later, in a panic, he called
Stallings to tell him he had changed his mind about coming out
early. Stallings asked Langham whether an agent was involved and
whether any money had changed hands; Langham said no. "Here's a
guy I've coached for three years, and he's never misrepresented
anything to me," Stallings says. "I don't think he thought there
was an agent involved. He thought what he was doing was filling
out papers to go to the NFL. They say I should've investigated
it further? I just know this: I've raised children, I've been
coaching players a long time. If you don't believe a player, if
you don't have a relationship, you're not going to win any games."
But trust wasn't the issue; knowledge was. At that point, under
NCAA rules, Langham was instantly ineligible, and Stallings
should have investigated further. Instead, Stallings called the
NFL, which told him that voiding Langham's petition was not a
problem. Then he notified Ingram, whose eight years of working
compliance in the NCAA office should have made him familiar with
the rule book. NCAA infractions committee chairman David Swank
says that if Alabama had declared Langham ineligible immediately
and applied for his reinstatement, he probably would have had to
sit out two games of the '93 season, and that would have been
the end of the matter.
Still, Alabama might have escaped with minor punishment but for
an error-filled letter sent to the committee by Jones, the
school's faculty chairman of athletics, on Nov. 23, 1993,
summing up the Langham case and asking for reinstatement of his
eligibility. Even though the NCAA enforcement staff, the
organization's investigating arm, had seen the letter and
declared all of the mistakes by Jones and Alabama to be
unintentional, the NCAA infractions committee saw things
differently. It accused Jones of "providing incomplete and
otherwise false and misleading information," particularly about
when the school knew of Langham's dealings with Dennis, and
recommended the disabling probation.
Stallings is still in "total shock" the following day. His deep,
mellow voice, accent thick as Texas crude, remains tinged with
bewilderment, just as it was when he told his players the news,
just as it was in the press conference broadcast live across the
"We had just won 13 games--it's not like I was under pressure,"
he says slowly, recalling his handling of the Langham situation.
"I was trying to help a player stay in school. There was never
an intent to cover up anything."
How to deal with the probation? To a man, Crimson Tide players
say they want to do the most unusual thing an Alabama team can
do: follow Auburn's lead. Burgdorf would like very much to know
how Bowden geared up his team to play on probation. They all
want to fight the world and go undefeated--just like Auburn did
in 1993. For now, Sayers says, Stallings's job, as well as
Ingram's and Jones's, is safe. For now, the coach says, he has
no intention of leaving. "It makes me bristle," Stallings says.
"It makes me want to work harder to get the team better prepared
than I've ever had 'em before. It doesn't beat me down one iota.
It hurts me. I'm embarrassed about it. But as far as giving up,
that's not even an option."
The phone rings. Stallings stands, ambles over. A former Tide
player, free safety Willie Gaston, is on the line from training
camp with the Houston Oilers, and for a moment all the heaviness
drops from Stallings's voice. "That right?" he yells. "That is
super. What you need to do now, Willie--you need to know how many
safeties they going to keep. If they goin' to keep three, you
pick out the one you think is going to be the third one and you
just do everything better'n he does."
He goes quiet a moment, and when he speaks again, his voice is
low. "Oh, boy, it just makes me sick ... to the bottom of my
stomach. I can't tell you how sick it makes me feel ... for the
players, the past players, everybody that's been involved. Yeah.
Yeah. That's the way I look at it, too. Well, hopefully the
appeal process will help us. Till then, we just got to go on
with what we've got. You know somethin' about that toughness,
don't you?" And now he's yelling again, smiling, telling Gaston
about the need to make a big play to impress the NFL boys.
"Get on special teams, get on all of 'em! Then when you make the
team, let those rookies do it next year! That make sense?"
Stallings laughs, and it's like everything is forgotten; it's
like it was when he was an assistant under Bryant at Texas A&M
and Alabama, or during his first year with his own Texas A&M
team at age 29, or 2-1/2 years ago in the Sugar Bowl; he's just
coaching ball and thinking of nothing else.
"O.K. Keep me posted," he says. "Thanks for callin', Willie.
We'll see you."
Terry Bowden hangs up the phone. He has been the boy wonder of
college football the last two years, and now he is something
else entirely. Auburn is off probation. Every day, everyone is
talking national championship--except this morning. He watched
yesterday's press conference from Tuscaloosa with a surreal
mixture of surprise and dread. "More than sorrow for them or
happy for whoever grew up hating Alabama, I was just thankful,"
he says. "Thankful it wasn't me. Auburn people fought this fight
a lot longer than I have; they're jumping up and down, saying,
'You deserve it.' To a coach, though, it's just thankfulness.
But you won't hear that from most Auburn people."
Here's something the NCAA won't like: For Auburn, almost
everything about probation was wonderful. Auburn senior center
Shannon Roubique had this image of it in his mind: "Dark, like
going into a dark castle. Around every corner there's going to
be something that can hurt you, nobody's going to like you, and
you're going to be there by yourself--no friends, no nothing. But
it wasn't that way."
No, Jordan-Hare Stadium was always sold out. With an 11-0 season
in '93 and a 9-1-1 finish last year, Auburn couldn't have been
more loved. Nix developed into a topflight quarterback, Davis
became a force, Bowden landed one of the nation's top recruiting
classes. Getting off easier than Alabama, Auburn was stripped of
only four scholarships; the program is set to thrive. All of
which makes Bowden nervous.
If the treachery by loving Auburn alums in the Jelks affair is
any indication, Bowden could be subject to any manner of
ham-handed retaliation. He wants his players clean. He is
sending new letters to boosters. Anyone who messes with a player
will be banned. "We've gotten to the point of no return," he
says. "There is not an alum that doubts for a second that the
next mistake any of them make, we are death penalty.
"It used to be from a moral standpoint--that you believe in fair
play, honesty, being a role model. Now it's a matter of
survival. You make one mistake, and your career could be over.
That scares me."
Then there are those other alums, the ones from Alabama who,
even before last week's punishment, Bowden was sure would try to
halt his success by trying to unearth more improprieties. The
only thing worse than losing to Alabama four years in a row, he
likes to say, would be winning four years in a row. How will
Alabama fans like it when Auburn wins recruits and games while
Alabama plays out probation? Says Dye, Bowden's predecessor: "I
have a ton of Alabama friends, and when I came to Auburn, they
didn't think I'd be any threat at all to their football
dominance of this state. But when I won some of those games,
their attitudes changed. Terry's going to have some of that. He
may have more of it than I did."
Alabama is in only a slightly less tenuous situation; a major
infraction over the next five years could wipe out that program,
too. If Alabama's NCAA appeal fails, the greatest rivalry in
college football could become a cold war, with each side quite
capable of destroying the other.
"This is a situation that needs to stop," Bowden says. "This has
got to be the end. No one wins from this attack on each other.
If something happens in the next three years, we're dead. Both
The phone rings; Bowden waves it off. "Forget it," he says. "I
know who that is. I know what he'll want to talk about."
imperious message: How dare you?"
you're cheaters--just like us."
Auburn is now looking down on the Tide."