Big money can't mask SEC problems

From Staff Reports

DESTIN, Fla.? The Southeastern Conference will distribute more than $100 million in revenues this year, yet another gaudy reflection of the strength of the nation's richest league.

Then there are the facts and figures nobody at this week's annual conference meetings wants to talk about.

Three of the SEC's 12 schools have football teams on probation. Six more have had football or men's basketball teams under NCAA investigation in the past 24 months. Alabama is reeling from an embarrassing coaching scandal, and when the Crimson Tide failed to hire a black coach, Jesse Jackson called the conference a bastion for racists.

"I know we've got our issues and our problems," LSU football coach Nick Saban said. "But I think we're trying to correct these things as quickly as possible."

The man trying to make the fixes is new commissioner Mike Slive. Soon after he took over for Roy Kramer last July, the former commissioner of Conference USA issued a bold ? some said unrealistic ? challenge: In five years, he wants everyone in the SEC off probation.

He reiterated that point earlier this week to football coaches, and he seems to have sold everyone on the idea, no matter how farfetched it may seem.

"I started saying that a little earlier and I haven't really wavered from that at this point," Slive said. "I really believe we can get there."

Cleaning up this mess won't be easy. Academic fraud, overzealous boosters, recruiting violations and corner-cutting coaches have resulted in probations and investigations from Knoxville to Starkville. It's a daunting task to keep tabs on it all.

"You educate, audit, double-check and keep your fingers crossed," said Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley, an assistant in the 1980s when the Gators were on probation. "We've learned some painful lessons. We know it could happen again tomorrow. All it takes is for one person to step out of line."

Most painful is when that single person is someone inside the program who should have intricate knowledge of what's right and wrong in the voluminous NCAA rulebook.

Georgia officials recently sent a letter to the NCAA stating assistant basketball coach Jim Harrick Jr. was solely responsible for academic fraud that left two players ineligible and compelled the Bulldogs to withdraw from the NCAA tournament last season.

Harrick Jr. was fired in March and his father, Jim Harrick, resigned as head coach shortly after.

Since then, nine football players have been declared ineligible for violating NCAA rules by selling their SEC championship rings.

"You have to take care of yourself first, but the way I look at it, whenever anyone's in trouble, it's not good for the league," said Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan.