The man in cowboy boots is supposed to fix things, at least for a short time. The train has to keep moving, no matter who lies in front of it.
John L. Smith is the latest Southeastern Conference coach with a mess on his hands. He’s answering questions about another man’s mistakes, how such a transgression could’ve taken place and how it affects Arkansas as it moves forward.
“This is just one of those things that you would never have dreamt might happen,” said Smith, who wore red cowboy boots to SEC Media Days.
Maybe, but then again, this is the SEC. It’s not only the nation’s most powerful football conference, but it’s also one with a scandalous history, too. The latest chapter came in April, when Smith’s predecessor, Bobby Petrino, who had led the Razorbacks to the fringe of a national-title run, crashed his motorcycle on a winding road near Fayetteville. It was later revealed that Petrino’s 25-year-old mistress had been riding with him that day, and later still officials learned that Petrino had skirted athletic-department policy to expedite the hiring of that mistress for a job within the football office.
Petrino, 51, was fired. That left a stocked program with an uncertain future, a replacement coach in Smith who’s seen as a temporary solution, and a conference with yet another indiscretion on its hands.
“You just pray for him and hope that the very best can take place,” Smith says of Petrino.
This is nothing new for the SEC or for commissioner Mike Slive. Ten years ago, Slive was appointed to the conference’s top job, and although he didn’t admit it publicly, the SEC was in turmoil. Half of the league’s 12 teams were either on probation or under investigation in July 2002. In the dozen years before that, each of the conference’s schools had been docked by the NCAA for one or more major rules violations. In the 1980s, Florida vacated the only conference championship in its history, won in ’84, after it was uncovered that former coach Charley Pell had broken 106 NCAA rules.
“This conference is too good not to be able to deal with those kinds of situations,” Slive said shortly after his appointment in 2002. “The people in charge care too much.”
At the time, the SEC was trying to atone for major recruiting violations at Alabama. Boosters and big money and a high-profile prospect had collided, and according to testimony offered more than a decade ago, defensive lineman Albert Means’ high school coach charged schools thousands simply to visit Means in 1999 and make their pitches to him. Later, Alabama booster Logan Young, a millionaire and Crimson Tide fanatic, was convicted of paying the high school coach, Lynn Lang, $150,000 to steer Means to Tuscaloosa.
SEC officials learned about it when Phillip Fulmer, at the time Tennessee’s coach, sent a three-page fax to former conference commissioner Roy Kramer, outlining what was going on at Alabama — one of the Volunteers’ rivals.
“I get the feeling we are falling behind fast on these two kids because of Logan,” Fulmer, referring to two recruits from Tennessee, wrote in the fax.
By the time it was over, Alabama was handed five years’ probation and a two-year bowl ban, Means’ football career never took off, Fulmer was seen as a snitch, and Alabama booster Young died in an accident at his home before his prison sentence began.
More than a dozen years later, Means is a 30-year-old, physical-education teacher and assistant football coach at a high school in Memphis, Tenn. He insists that he never accepted nor was offered money and remains surprised and hurt that Lang betrayed his trust.
“With me going through it at a young age, it made me better,” Means says. “It made me a forgiving person. It taught me how not to treat athletes.”
But he admits being as jaded as anyone when it comes to college sports. Means says he believes a player or two at most major-college programs has been recruited illegally.
“I thought that my story would’ve at least stopped it,” he says. “But I guess it didn’t, though. I’m pretty sure it’s still going on, and it probably will be until the end of time.”
He says he advises youngsters to make their own college decisions and to listen only casually to the opinions of coaches, friends and even family members.
Students and players ask him about the scandal occasionally, and some don’t believe that he wasn’t involved. Means says he can’t convince those who doubt him, adding that he’s confident God knows the truth.
“It’s best forgotten,” he says.
It’s a mess that redirected the arc of Means’ life, allowing him to leave Alabama and the SEC to enroll at the University of Memphis. And it’s a situation that Slive inherited when he took over the SEC.
“Our goal,” the new commissioner said in 2002, “is to put these (incidents) behind us and develop a task force and begin to move ahead so that next we don’t have to answer these questions.”
Slive paid particular attention to reducing violations at SEC schools and indicated that repeat offenders might find their way out of the conference. In the years since, with emphasis placed on cleaning up the SEC, member schools have mostly avoided the large-scale scandals that once permeated the conference.
College football has continued to be stained by improper benefits and academic infractions at schools such as Ohio State, Miami, North Carolina and Southern California. Penn State, of course, came close to being sacked with the “death penalty,” or a suspension of its football program, as a result of former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky’s sex abuse of children, and the rampant cover-up by former head coach Joe Paterno and others.
“No one program, no one person, no matter how popular, no matter how successful can be allowed to derail the soul of an institution,” Slive said last month, at his 10th SEC Media Days.
Still, trouble hasn’t avoided the SEC — at least not fully. As coaches’ salaries have skyrocketed, the value of recruits has increased, and boosters are still lurking. When LSU and Alabama met in last season’s BCS championship game, both teams were on probation for rules violations.
But the Petrino dishonor has been the most glaring under Slive’s decade atop the conference. It lacks the long-term implications of previous SEC scandals, other than the fact the Razorbacks’ national title hopes took a hit when the team lost its head coach five months before the regular season was to begin. The NCAA isn’t expected to punish Arkansas beyond its own regulations.
Smith isn’t seen as a lasting solution for the Razorbacks; it’s widely believed that he’ll coach the football team in 2012 and then will step aside for a new coach. Smith, though, isn’t willing to cede Arkansas’ chances at a national championship. Maybe, he says, his team — temporary as it might be — will be stronger for having experienced this latest black eye.
“They took a little adversity they had,” Smith says, “they locked up, came together, said: ‘We’re going to be better because of it.’”