In SEC, win­ning is worth the sin­ning

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - THE SECOND PAGE - DAVID WHIT­LEY

An in­ter­est­ing poll came out Tues­day that will not warm the hearts of SEC fans.

Coaches do not be­lieve cheating is ram­pant in col­lege foot­ball. But if there’s cheating go­ing on, you know who is guilty.

The SEC.

“Out of the 130 FBS schools in FBS, I would say, in the SEC, 80 per­cent (know­ingly cheat),” a coach said. “Ev­ery­where else, about 20 per­cent.”

The poll was con­ducted by CBS Sports, which granted anonymity to re­spon­dents. About 25 FBS coaches weighed in.

One said that play­ers get up to $500 by wan­der­ing the park­ing lot af­ter games and get­ting cash hand­shakes from ad­mir­ing tail­gaters.

“I guar­an­tee (that sort of thing) is go­ing to hap­pen at Ole Miss and Alabama and Mississippi State and Ten­nessee and Texas prob­a­bly and Ok­la­homa — for sure.”

And I guar­an­tee SEC fans think the poll is garbage. As a born-and­bred South­erner, I’d like to agree.

I’d like to write it off as sour grapes, Yan­kee elitism, Sa­ban envy, what­ever. But as a born-and-bred South­erner, I know bet­ter.

That’s not to say cheating al­ters the na­tion’s bal­ance of foot­ball power. The SEC would still rule thanks to tra­di­tion, fa­cil­i­ties, re­cruit­ing base and pas­sion.

But that pas­sion is harder to con­tain down South. The med­i­cal term is Har­vey Updyke dis­ease.

Updyke is the Alabama fan who got up­set over Auburn’s na­tional ti­tle run in 2010. To get back at Cam New­ton, he poi­soned the hal­lowed trees at Toomer’s Cor­ner.

I’m not say­ing all fans are Har­vey Updykes. The vast ma­jor­ity would never peel off a $100 bill for a re­cruit, much less kill a de­fense­less tree.

They are also con­vinced ev­ery SEC school (save Vandy) cheats ex­cept their own.

And no doubt, Updyke dis­ease isn’t lim­ited to the SEC.

“Ev­ery­body’s got their is­sues,” Vandy Coach Derek Ma­son said at SEC Me­dia Days.

He didn’t think any SEC schools in­ten­tion­ally cheat, which means he hasn’t been reading any news out of Mississippi lately.

But in gen­eral, Ma­son is prob­a­bly right. State-spon­sored cheating waned about the time Terry Bowden be­came head coach at Auburn in 1993.

In an AP in­ter­view eight years later, Bowden said he in­her­ited a sys­tem where boosters were pay­ing play­ers $12,000 to $15,000 to sign.

Bowden was told just to shake the boosters’ hands and say, “Thank you. I ap­pre­ci­ate how much you love Auburn.”

Bowden said he ended the pro­gram. But fans’ love for Auburn or any SEC school is deep and eter­nal.

What’s changed is how it’s ex­pressed. A big rea­son is money.

Florida hired former coach Charley Pell for $45,000 a year. The av­er­age salary of SEC coaches is now $4.3 mil­lion.

As Hugh Freeze is dis­cov­er­ing, it would be id­i­otic to risk that for even a lat­ter-day Her­schel Walker. And I’m still naive enough to be­lieve most coaches want to play by the rules.

To­day’s cheating is more dif­fuse. Coaches don’t con­done it and main­tain de­ni­a­bil­ity, but street agents pay re­cruits through third par­ties.

“There is that deal in the SEC and ACC where they’re fun­nel­ing money through … churches,” one anony­mous coach said.

Since col­lege foot­ball is a re­li­gion in the South, I guess that makes sense.

I am cer­tain some wor­ship­pers would pay the al­tar boy $15,000 if he could bench 500 pounds and run a 4.5 40-yard dash.

I re­mem­ber a cou­ple of them from a trip to Mississippi State in the early 1990s. We were on an air­port shut­tle and they started talk­ing about how thrilled they were with their new coach, the in­fa­mous Jackie Sher­rill.

“I don’t care what he does,” one fan said, “as long as we win.”

It was a clas­sic case of Updyke dis­ease.

Thousands of cash hand­shakes later, there is no cure in sight.

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