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In Reality, Programs Coming Clean

Cars for stars, ammunition caches, steroids, academic fraud, rent-reduced housing for receivers and the parents of award-winning tailbacks ...

Did the old Southwest Conference reunite over the summer, or did it just seem that way?

Harris Interactive doesn’t conduct an off-season poll for major college programs, but if it did, this might make a top five:

* Oklahoma. National title hopes derailed after quarterback Rhett Bomar and guard J.D. Quinn are shown the barn door for taking more than a test drive at a local car dealership.

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* USC. Star tailback Reggie Bush leaves behind a Heisman Trophy and a Pac-10 investigation. Dwayne Jarrett celebrates NCAA reinstatement after agreeing to donate back rent to charity while, in an odd case involving steroids and departing players, one Ting led to another.

* Miami. Player shot in buttocks by unknown assailant; teammate responds by returning fire. Star tailback and receiver suspended for opener for violation of unspecified team rules -- and it must be serious because the opener’s against Florida State.

* Texas. Running back Ramonce Taylor is run off the Longhorn ranch after a Cheech & Chong party pack is discovered in his car trunk. An anonymous Texas player’s national title ring shows up on EBay, a definite NCAA no-no if said player is still active.

* Ohio State: Poised for a national title run if you believe the first coaches’ poll, the Buckeyes suspend their starting tight end for the season and then are haunted by the ghost of Maurice Clarett’s past.

So, it might look as if the game’s backdrop really hasn’t changed over the years.

But it has.

The headlines and the reality don’t square up, creating a pigskin paradox.

The sport, in fact, has never been cleaner, its coaches never more vigilant, compliance officers never more defiant.

This is not the SWC, says Grant Teaff, the former Baylor coach who is executive director for the American Football Coaches Assn.

“From that time to now, it’s the difference from daylight to dark,” Teaff said.

Hardworking people scour the NCAA rule book the way ministers scour the good book.

Renegade coaches have been pushed off to golf courses.

Boosters lurk on the outskirts, but at least now they are cordoned by ropes.

Perceptions are tougher to shake.

“Some people say it’s the same old Oklahoma,” said Joe Castiglione, the Sooners’ besieged-of-late athletic director. “That’s absolutely and totally untrue.”

What is true is that a 24/7 news cycle, the Internet, ESPN and chat rooms have escalated transgressions to unprecedented proportions.

It used to be that you could be three free Cadillacs into an NCAA scandal before an investigator knew how to find your campus.

Now, you sneeze a violation at Oklahoma and it is posted on a rival’s blog.

Responsible programs have adjusted and actually taken the proactive approach.

Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops did not hesitate to dismiss Bomar and Quinn, a move that might have cost him a national title.

“I hope we’ve demonstrated a zero tolerance,” Castiglione said. “Act swiftly, decisively, fairly and appropriately.

“Compliance programs are much better than they’ve ever been ... but you can’t be everywhere with everyone.”

At Texas, under Coach Mack Brown, there was no 12-step program to get Taylor back in the lineup.

Miami Coach Larry Coker, under pressure to win after last year’s ugly ending, benched two difference-makers.

“The clarity of the coaches’ positions stands out,” Teaff said.

And although USC Coach Pete Carroll can be held accountable for opening his sidelines to Snoop Dogg and Ricky Bobby, he has also screamed himself hoarse about rule-following.

Phil Bennett, coach at Southern Methodist, the only team to ever receive the NCAA’s death penalty, said last fall: “I’ll tell you one thing unequivocally. I don’t know a school that breaks rules. None. I don’t know anybody that I think just openly breaks rules.”

Which is a good thing, but here’s a main point about college football that often gets lost: It is largely ungovernable.

Until 1998, its national championship was mythical -- voted upon by coaches, writers, foundations and probably a few Kiwanis clubs.

Even with the creation of the Bowl Championship Series, a flawed mechanism to produce a clear-cut winner, the premise has always been suspect.

The NCAA can send schools to the sanction shed, but it has no jurisdiction over a football champion -- NCAA officials, by and large, don’t even attend BCS bowl games.

The rules in football are such that you win first and deal with the rest later -- you can ask Ohio State about the later.

In the pros they play for the Lombardi Trophy; in college it’s the Machiavelli.

One of the interesting subplots in the Reggie Bush case is wondering what would have happened had USC won the national title last year while possibly using an ineligible player.

Who was going to strip USC of its national title, Congress?

The BCS has no bylaw to adjudicate the issue, although it promised to look into the matter when it appeared the Bush case was going to explode.

The NCAA, sorry, has no chips in the title game.

The Associated Press pulled out of the BCS and crowns its champion independently.

The BCS championship is really the voting coaches’ baby, and although their poll will not allow a team on probation to be ranked, it could be a cold day in Waco before the coaches take a title from an after-the-fact offender.

It is under this murky umbrella that college football leaks.

College basketball is controlled by the NCAA and thus tournament titles can be vacated (note the asterisk next to UCLA’s 1980 title-game run) and offending schools can be forced to return money.

Football is complicated by its labyrinth of television contracts, bowl tie-ins and, for lack of a better word, greed.

Coaches are more vigilant now because their million-dollar jobs are at stake.

Presidents have cracked down because scandals are bad for business.

But then there’s your alumni base ...

You think anyone toasting at the 10-year reunion mixer for Alabama’s 1992 championship team cares that probation was the price?

The NCAA can cut the lizard’s tail off with scholarship reductions, but you know what lizard tails do. Alabama and Miami were hit hard in the 1990s after winning national titles, but both programs eventually recovered -- Miami won 34 straight games and a national title as recently as this decade.

Getting people to play by the rules is tougher than you think because ...

“The general population thinks the rules are stupid, that we’re over-restricted,” said Mike Karwoski, associate athletics director for compliance at Notre Dame. " ... But when it comes to being part of an association, we’re a volunteer member of NCAA. You don’t have to join. If you’re not going to follow the rules, don’t join.”

Bottom line: If a top college player is six months from earning $24 million in guaranteed NFL money, some bloodsuckers just aren’t going to wait.

Castiglione compares maintaining order in football to a department store trying to fight theft.

“They have cameras set up all over the store,” he said. “You have a bank of video monitors. You have plainclothes security eyeballing shoppers. Still, at the end of the year, stores report thousands of dollars lost due to shoplifters. People do what they do. No one’s trying to make excuses. I’m just trying to provide perspective.”

The rabble-rousers know how to work fringes and how to exploit the buttonhooks and crannies.

College football is cleaner than it has ever been, but don’t ever expect it to be a bleach load, not as long as there are ambiguous trophies to hoist and the reward outweighs the risk.

You can only hope to throw spike strips down to curb the enthusiasm.

For the men in compliance, unfortunately, it’s always like eating soup with a fork.

Notre Dame has three full-time enforcement staffers working under Karwoski. One off-season Internet story suggested that quarterback Brady Quinn had made illegal contact with an agent and that his eligibility was in question.

The story?

“It was a joke,” Karwoski said.

But stuff does happen.

So what’s a compliance staff to do?

“The best we can,” Karwoski said.


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