No easy answers after scandals

Originally Published: June 1, 2012
By Chris Low | ESPN.com

The scandals that rocked college football this past year were of such force that no Richter scale on the planet could have fully measured them.

While riding the tremors, we also learned that nobody is immune.

North Carolina and its pristine academic reputation?

Jim Tressel and Ohio State?

Even the iconic Joe Paterno and Penn State?

[+] EnlargeJeff Long
Beth Hall/US PresswireAthletic director Jeff Long, right, took firm steps to move past the Bobby Petrino scandal at Arkansas and hired John L. Smith, left, as interim coach.

That's not to mention the bombshell former Miami booster Nevin Shapiro dropped on the Hurricanes … from prison.

And in Arkansas, they're still trying to come to grips with a certain motorcycle crash involving former coach Bobby Petrino and a female staffer that made for the kind of headlines no school wants.

"Our expectations of character and integrity in our employees can be no less than what we expect of our students. No single individual is bigger than the team, the Razorback football program or the University of Arkansas," Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long said after firing Petrino when it was learned that Petrino had not been forthcoming about his affair with Jessica Dorrell, whom Petrino had hired to be the Hogs' director of on-campus recruiting.

It was Long's leadership that helped Arkansas stay afloat while the rest of the college football world looked on and wondered if the damage had already been done.

We'll find out a lot more in the fall when Arkansas hits the field under interim coach John L. Smith, but it's a given that things could have turned out a whole lot worse had Long not shown some courage and done what was right for the university.

If nothing else, history has shown that shortcuts rarely work on the heels of scandal, and that's whether a school's misdeeds are NCAA-related or otherwise.

Nobody knew in 1987 that the so-called "death penalty" really would result in the death of a football program. But when SMU was banned by the NCAA from playing during the 1987 season and then given a multiyear postseason ban, the Mustangs all but disappeared from college football's radar.

Keep in mind that SMU had already been placed on three years' probation in 1985, but the payments to players never stopped. Not only that, but the trail led all the way to then-Texas Gov. Bill Clements, who admitted to knowing about the payments. That's when the NCAA brought down the hammer and issued the only death penalty to a college football program in history.

The effects were devastating.

Since 1989, the Mustangs have had just four winning seasons, and two of those have come in the past three years.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireHiring Nick Saban finally moved Alabama past some of the school's old NCAA problems.

A little more than a decade ago, Alabama was also leveled by NCAA sanctions and placed on five years' probation in connection with the Albert Means scandal. The NCAA concluded that an Alabama booster, the late Logan Young, gave a Memphis high school coach $100,000 and two SUVs to steer Means to Alabama.

According to NCAA officials, it's the closest they have come to shutting down a program since the SMU case. Alabama had been placed on probation in 1995 after Antonio Langham admitted to signing with a sports agent and then coming back to play his senior season.

"They were absolutely staring down the barrel of a gun," Thomas Yeager, then chairman of the NCAA's committee on infractions, said at the time. "These violations are some of the worst, most serious that have ever occurred."

And while Alabama stumbled through an assortment of football coaches over the next few years and was banned from the postseason in 2002 and 2003, the Crimson Tide finally got it right with the hiring of Nick Saban in 2007.

In the past three seasons, Alabama has won a pair of national championships, and has played in BCS bowls three of Saban's five seasons in Tuscaloosa.

Obviously, hiring the right coach helps, and no coach in America has more power than Saban right now.

From an athletic director's perspective, Pat Haden has had a similar influence at USC.

The Trojans were hit with a two-year postseason ban in 2010 in connection with the Reggie Bush scandal and also incurred heavy scholarship losses. The NCAA said Bush was ineligible dating back to the Trojans' 2004 national championship season because he accepted improper benefits, and the NCAA also cited USC for a lack of institutional control.

Haden took over for Mike Garrett in August 2011 and immediately started the changing the way the Trojans do things. He still contends that the sanctions were too severe, but has also made it clear that USC will do its part to follow the rules and "have a better relationship" with the NCAA.

The Trojans have made it through the two-year postseason ban, and with Lane Kiffin entering his third season as head coach, are expected to start the 2012 season ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the polls.

[+] Enlarge Pat Haden
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireAthletic director Pat Haden said USC needed to have a better relationship with the NCAA.

So these most recent NCAA sanctions were just a bump in the road for the Men of Troy.

The step that schools have almost universally adopted when there's serious trouble is to fire those responsible or fire those at the top.

USC sent Garrett packing. North Carolina fired head football coach Butch Davis, and Tressel at Ohio State and the late Paterno at Penn State also lost their jobs.

Starting anew, even when you're replacing a legend or a highly successful coach, can score you points with the NCAA and/or help erase the stain of an embarrassing episode similar to what happened with Petrino at Arkansas.

How would he ever be able to go into a recruit's living room again, look that recruit's parents in the eyes and tell them that he was fully committed to developing their son as both a football player and a man?

Moreover, Long knew that Petrino could no longer be an effective leader.

So instead of letting the whole thing fester, Long got out in front of it and did the right thing.

The same applies with NCAA issues.

South Carolina got off lightly earlier this year after appearing before the committee on infractions in February.

The Gamecocks lost six scholarships over two seasons in connection with the Whitney Hotel scandal, in which athletes, including some football players, received significantly reduced rates for rooms. The sanctions could have been much worse had South Carolina not been so diligent in its internal investigation.

"In some cases, they even went beyond what the NCAA staff was doing," said Britton Banowsky, the chairman of the committee on infractions. "We see that [less often] than the other approach.

"They took the interview process and discovery process to a higher level."

Chris Low | email

College Football