If it wasn't the best team in the nation, last fall's University of Florida football squad was certainly one of them. Florida went 9-1-1 playing a schedule that included seven bowl teams, and won the Southeastern Conference football championship for the first time in its 52 years in the conference.
However, one slight problem intruded on what was otherwise an extraordinary season.
Florida cheated so much that its season-ender against Florida State came to be called the Sunshine State Pro-Am.
In the wake of a scandal precipitated by allegations of cheating in the football program, Marshall Criser, the university president, fired head coach Charley Pell, who had cheated at Clemson before coming to Florida. Later, two of Pell's assistant coaches were also fired. And even though Florida won the league title and under normal circumstances would have automatically gone to the Sugar Bowl, the SEC instead selected LSU for the game.
Ultimately, the NCAA judged the Florida football program guilty of 67 rules violations--including a direct payment of $935 by Pell to one of his players--and placed it on probation for three years, banning Florida from appearing in bowl games and on TV, reducing the number of football scholarships it can offer.
But despite its cheating--its arrogant, deliberate cheating--Florida had been allowed by the SEC executive committee to keep its conference championship, and the trophy that went with it; in turn, the school bought championship rings for its players.
Now, presumably to show people that cheating is not something that ought to be rewarded with loving cups and jewels, the SEC presidents have voted, 6-4, to strip Florida of the title.
(6-4? After 67 violations and three years NCAA probation? What does it take to get a 9-1 vote in the SEC?)
And Criser is furious.
Criser maintained, "By law, by any standard of fairness, and in our hearts, 1984 will always be 'The year of the Gator.' As a university we shall continue to proclaim the 1984 team as the SEC football champions."
Not only has he decided to disregard the vote of his fellow presidents, but he has ordered a study to determine whether or not Florida should withdraw from the SEC.
Don't you love it?
It's the president of a university sticking his fingers in his ears, making a funny face and shouting, "Nyahhhh, nyahhh."
And he's got Florida Gov. Bob Graham right alongside him, giving Gator-Aid.
The dialogue is right out of Monty Python's Argument Room.
SEC Presidents: "You're not the champion."
Criser, Graham: "We are too."
As I understand it, Florida cheated, Florida got caught, and now Florida is getting punished.
What's his problem?
What does he want Florida to get, a medal?
His school had 67 violations. Is there some kind of new rule that says that under 100 it doesn't count? What did Pell tell him? "When it gets to 85, sell."
Florida used improper means to get and keep the players that helped it win a championship.
The championship was won unfairly.
It has to be given back.
The record books have to be changed.
The trophy has to go.
If Florida won't give it back, the SEC ought to hire some people to take it back in the dead of night. Do the names E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy ring a bell?
As for the threat to leave the SEC, the thinking now is that Criser is full of sound and fury signifying nothing, that these loud noises are to placate the loud and powerful constituency that galvanizes around football.
Most of us have long since stopped believing that big-time college athletics have anything much to do with getting an education. The football constituency cares about winning. Ethics and fair play are fine for the classroom, but what the football lobby is concerned with is getting some stud hoss of a halfback who'll pass his tests on Saturday. All they know is that Florida finally won the SEC, and now six tweedy guys who probably never threw a block in their lives are saying that it doesn't count.
Criser has said NCAA rules are "too many, too complicated and too difficult to administer. We have to figure out a way to differentiate between the T-shirt and the Trans-Am."
Here's a way: Ask Pell.
Maybe Florida should leave the SEC. Maybe the schools that have been caught cheating should form their own conference.
Now which schools would be in there with Florida?
Since 1975 those SEC stalwarts have been placed on NCAA probation in either football or basketball.
Then we'd throw in schools like SMU and Clemson, because they've been major players before.
And Southern Mississippi, Arizona, Arizona State, Illinois, Kansas, USC and Wisconsin, because they're all either on probation or under NCAA sanctions now.
How many is that? Thirteen.
And we haven't even mentioned Tulane.
The main attraction of a Big Cheaters Conference would be that schools like Florida could join without even rearranging their schedules.