DESTIN, Fla. – The view from the Hilton Sandestin Beach where the Southeastern Conference this week is holding its annual spring meetings offers sunny skies, palm trees, white sand beaches and the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
The past athletic year hasn’t painted a picture anywhere near as pretty for the conference and college sports.
Yes, an SEC team won a fifth straight BCS national football title, but Auburn’s championship came amid an investigation into a pay-for-play scheme involving Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton’s father.
The basketball season began with Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl suspended for the first eight conference games by commissioner Mike Slive and ended with the school firing Pearl, who broke NCAA rules and lied to investigators about it.
Tennessee, which had recruiting violations in football and basketball, is scheduled to go before the NCAA Committee on Infractions next week in Indianapolis. Alabama remains on probation through 2012 for players improperly benefiting from free textbooks.
Auburn and LSU football are currently under NCAA investigation and South Carolina has received a letter of inquiry.
“Y’all haven’t had much to write about lately, have you?” Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said while greeting reporters. “That’s a joke.”
The scandals in college athletics are no laughing matter to many.
As presidents, athletic directors and coaches met here this week, they did so against the backdrop of Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel resigning under pressure after lying to NCAA investigators in a case involving players selling memorabilia to a tattoo parlor, along with other allegations.
Georgia’s A.J. Green was suspended four games and Alabama’s Marcell Dareus two for agent-related violations to start last season, but Ohio State was allowed to use five players in the Sugar Bowl who are suspended for five games this season.
“There’s no question that I don’t understand how they were eligible to play in the game,” said Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, whose team lost to the Buckeyes in the Sugar Bowl. “I just don’t, and I never will.”
“I can understand his position,” Slive said.
In the Auburn case, the NCAA said it did not have evidence that Newton or the school were aware of the scenario involving his father.
“I put my head on the pillow every night knowing we’re doing our best to do everything right,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said.
Dooley took over as Tennessee’s coach after serving as both coach and athletic director at Lousiana Tech.
“Anytime something falls in your lap, I’ve always felt like you better investigate it,” Dooley said. “When you turn a blind eye to matters, it can lead to things you never dreamed could happen.”
Auburn, Ohio State and Southern California – which was hit with a two-year postseason ban and the loss of 30 scholarships – all have won BCS titles, but Georgia coach Mark Richt doesn’t think that rules need to be pushed up against or broken to compete at the highest level.
“I think you can win without feeling like you’ve got to cheat or that you’ve got to break the rules or bend the rules,” said Richt, whose team won the Sugar Bowl in the 2007 season, but has gone 14-12 the past two seasons. “Everybody’s human. Everybody’s going to make mistakes.
“The rule book is sometimes very specific and sometimes it’s kind of vague,” Richt continued. “To sit there and never have any kind of secondary violation or that type of thing, I don’t think that’s possible. From a gut level, philosophical point of view, do I think you can win by doing things right and within the rules? Yeah.”
Richt said he posed this question to then-athletic director Vince Dooley and president Michael Adams when he interviewed for the job in December 2000: “Do you think you can recruit in this league 100 percent above board and win? Their answer was yes. I said ‘Good, because that’s the way we’re going to go about our business.’ ”
Ohio State tapped Tressel as its coach on Jan. 17, 2001, weeks after Richt was hired at Georgia. Tressel coached in eight BCS games. Richt has coached in three.
Slive stated after he became commissioner that his goal was to have all SEC schools off probation within five years in a conference that endured more than its share of scandal. It nearly happened until Arkansas’ track program was found to have committed major violations in 2007.
Now the league and college sports are dealing with a perception problem, acknowledged Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity.
“There’s no question that it’s tough times right now for certain elements,” McGarity said. “Everybody’s going to be mistakes. … It’s all how you deal with it and you how you get ahead of things. The challenge we have as a conference, as everyone, (is) what we do about it. What can we do to change that perception?”
Richt said it’s up to each coach to decide how much pressure there may be to bend the rules.
“I’ll do something else for a living if I have to do that to succeed and to win,” Richt said.