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Breaking the rules: College football

Rules made to be broken on and off college campuses

Posted: Wednesday July 25, 2007 12:11PM; Updated: Wednesday July 25, 2007 6:04PM
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Quarterback Rhett Bomar was expected to carry the Sooners into national title contention last year before he was kicked off the team for holding a suspect summer job.
Quarterback Rhett Bomar was expected to carry the Sooners into national title contention last year before he was kicked off the team for holding a suspect summer job.
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Cheating in college football is a tradition as old as the sport itself. In fact, it's hard to imagine one without the other. Scandal is almost as much a part of the sport's culture as tailgating and fight songs.

But only the most common acts of deceit do not take place on actual playing fields; they go down in country clubs and living rooms, back-alleys and parking lots, or wherever else one might choose to partake in hush-hush transactions. And oftentimes, the perpetrators aren't even actual participants -- they're fans. Fans who really want to see their team win and who possess the financial means -- not to mention the ethical leniency -- to help.

College football's worst-kept secret is the age-old tradition of boosters -- often with a coach's implicit approval -- buying the services of blue-chip recruits and/or fattening star players' wallets during their stay on campus. Tales of hundred-dollar handshakes, cash-filled duffle bags and shiny new cars date back to at least the days of legendary coach Bear Bryant, whose Texas A&M teams were placed on NCAA probation in the 1950s as a result of the coach soliciting the help of a few deep-pocketed oil men in the Aggies' recruiting efforts. Corruption became so commonplace in the old Southwest Conference that at one point in the '80s seven of the nine schools had been placed on probation, most notably SMU, which received the NCAA "death penalty" (and was forced to shut its football program down for one year) for a series of booster-related scandals of which school personnel were not only aware but involved.

Though the sport is monitored much more closely today than it was in its Wild West days, most reasoned observers believe the greasing of palms occurs more frequently than ever gets reported. And new scandals emerge on a near-annual basis, causing no shortage of shock and outrage among pundits, observers and academics. After all, it was only seven years ago that overzealous Alabama booster Logan Young, now deceased, paid a Memphis high school coach the outrageous sum of $150,000 -- and a brand-new SUV to boot -- to secure the signature of defensive lineman Albert Means, subsequently landing the Crimson Tide on five years' probation. In 2004, then-sophomore Troy Smith netted a two-game suspension for allegedly accepting $500 from an Ohio State booster. And just last year, Oklahoma booted quarterback Rhett Bomar and another player who received thousands of dollars while holding phony jobs at a Sooner-friendly car dealership.

It seems the recruitment of players is the one area most ripe with cheating. While illicit booster payments raise the most eyebrows, monitoring coaches' recruiting activities has become a full-time job. The NCAA places restrictions on how often and when coaches can contact a recruit, but many of the more aggressive ones try to push the boundaries. Former Colorado coach Rick Neuheisel landed the school on probation for several shady tactics, including calling a coveted recruit from the prospect's front yard and telling him to look out his window in order to subvert a restriction on in-person visits. Alabama is currently investigating allegations that coach Nick Saban violated the so-called "bump" rule -- which says if a coach "bumps into" a recruit during a non-contact period he can only say a quick hello -- by engaging several South Florida recruits in conversation during visits to their high schools. It's widely assumed that coaches violate these ticky-tack rules all the time, but in doing so they are theoretically trying to gain a leg up on their competitors -- i.e. cheating.

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