The most brazen episode was a midseason, two-handed, shelf-clearing, 90-minute shopping spree by members of the Florida State team that would go on to win college football's national championship. Running shoes galore. Team jackets of all colors. Dozens of hats, T-shirts, shorts and gloves. Winter coats that the players could wear to South Bend for the big game against the Fighting Irish. Some $6,000 worth of merchandise in all, armloads and armloads, large cartons crammed full, every item purchased on the credit card of Raul Bey, a Las Vegas businessman who was in a loose partnership with a street agent named Nate Cebrun.
"We had about seven boxes of stuff," says Corey Sawyer, a Seminole cornerback, describing the buying binge that took place last Nov. 7, six days before Florida State was upset by Notre Dame, the Seminoles' only loss of 1993. "Big boxes. We were fitting about 12 winter coats in one box. We just bought out Foot Locker. Period." Sawyer, though only a junior, made himself available for last month's NFL draft and was chosen by the Cincinnati Bengals as the first player in the fourth round. "Half the football team was there," says Sawyer, one of seven sources who told SI about the after-hours expedition to the Foot Locker store in Tallahassee's Governor's Square Mall. "We had four carloads of people. When we stopped, they [Bey and Cebrun] asked, 'Are y'all finished?' Everything was fine. That was the purpose of them coming to Tallahassee: to buy."
To buy not just clothing but also the honor of Florida State, whose national title is now tainted. At least seven players—Sawyer, linebacker Ken Alexander, offensive tackle Marvin Ferrell, tailback Sean Jackson, wide receiver Kevin Knox, fullback Tiger McMillon and offensive guard Patrick McNeil—made the trip to Foot Locker. In addition, an SI investigation has turned up evidence of cash payments made during the 1993 season to at least six players: all of the above-mentioned except Alexander. Like the Foot Locker foray, the payments were part of a month-long recruiting blitz by Bey, Cebrun and their confederates. Bey says that the operation, which he bankrolled at Cebrun's behest, set him back $60,000, and while that figure may be inflated, he clearly laid out substantial sums for airfare and hotel rooms for Cebrun, himself and others, and for the wining and dining as well as the enrichment of various Seminoles. Bey and Cebrun deny having given cash to players, but four sources agree that some of Bey's money went directly to players in the form of cash. The payments—as much as $10,000 in all—were allegedly made at two Tallahassee hotels and the school's football dorm, Burt Reynolds Hall.
Bey, a former computer executive from the San Francisco area, says he joined forces with Cebrun in hopes of breaking into sports marketing. His goal, he says, was to start a line of apparel, and he wanted Florida State players to wear and endorse his merchandise. Bey turned for guidance to Cebrun, one of a growing breed of free-lance operatives known as bird dogs. The bird dog's modus operandi is to get to know top college athletes and steer them toward an agent in return for a commission. All too often the bird dog does so through gifts, cash and promises of favors. Never mind that giving or promising gifts to college athletes violates NCAA rules or that in Florida it is against the law for an agent or a representative of an agent to give money to or buy gifts for a college athlete with eligibility remaining.
Had the NCAA learned about the payments before the end of last season, the Seminoles who accepted favors from Bey and company would presumably have lost their eligibility and been unable to play in any of Florida State's remaining games, including its 18-16 Orange Bowl victory over Nebraska on New Year's Day, which decided the national championship. Further, if any members of Seminole coach Bobby Bowden's staff knew about the infractions, or even suspected them, and failed to report them to the NCAA, Florida State might have to forfeit the games for which those players were ineligible and might be placed on probation by the NCAA. Says NCAA director of enforcement David Berst, "An institution is obligated to apply the rules about amateurism and eligibility to its student-athletes and report any possible violations."
Until last weekend Florida State did not report the violations to the NCAA or the Atlantic Coast Conference—because, say Bowden and athletic director Bob Goin, the school did not know about them. But while Florida State coaches are by all accounts diligent in admonishing their athletes about the perils of dealing with agents, they appear to have been lax, at least in this case, in heeding warning signs. At practice on the day after the Foot Locker trip, the buying spree was the primary topic of conversation among Seminole players. According to Sawyer, one assistant coach, Jim Gladden, appeared to know something about the outing. "At least he was giving the players the idea that he knew," Sawyer says. "He mentioned there were a whole lot of guys on the team wearing new shoes. He let everybody know he knew someone had done something wrong." But Gladden said last week, "I've never heard about any players' trip to Foot Locker. I've made gestures, kidded those kids, saying things like, Man, where'd you get those clothes? But never with an implication that they got them illegally."
In another indication that the Seminole staff may have suspected something was amiss, Bowden called a team meeting during the week after the Foot Locker visit. "It must have been Tuesday," Sawyer says. "Coach Bowden said he wasn't sure what happened, but he heard a lot of agents were coming around the dorm and buying things. Then he said, 'Guys, you can't throw your whole college career away on agents.' He didn't specify one person, but we knew what he was trying to get to." Sawyer says that Bowden didn't ask any questions to try to determine exactly what had happened the previous weekend. Bowden told SI that he called the meeting because he was concerned about a reported autograph-signing appearance by one Seminole player. In fact, sources say the appearance in question occurred more than two months earlier.
Nor was any action taken even after a Tallahassee woman who had been close to Cebrun, Meirley Lockhart, called a Seminole assistant coach, John Eason, in January and told him about the cash payments and the Foot Locker gifts. Eason, who is now an assistant at South Carolina, suggested that she see Seminole compliance officer Brian Mand and asked her to come to the athletic department. When she didn't, Eason concluded that she wasn't credible. To his credit, Eason talked to a couple of players to try to corroborate some of Lockhart's claims, but in hindsight it's obvious he should have taken her more seriously.
Only after being pressed last week by SI did Florida State officials begin to pursue details of the payments and gifts. The school's inquiry into the matter began in a heavy-handed manner. One of SI's sources, Paul Williams of Tallahassee, a grocery store worker and part-time high school football coach who had been enlisted by Cebrun and Bey as an on-the-scene recruiter, says he was grilled last Thursday in a late-night session with Goin, faculty athletic committee chairman Charles Ehrhardt, athletic department publicist Wayne Hogan and Seminole defensive back Corey Fuller, whom Williams had coached in high school.
Williams says he was tricked into meeting with the Seminole officials by Fuller and two other friends, who led him to believe the four were getting together socially. As the group rode in Fuller's Ford Explorer, Williams says, "I saw we were getting closer and closer to Florida State, and my heart started pounding. I was freaking out. I felt like I was being kidnapped." The two other friends left as Fuller ushered Williams into the Moore Athletic Center, which was dark except for a single beam of light emanating from an upstairs conference room. The terrified Williams took his seat at an oval table with Fuller and the Florida State administrators. Goin, Williams says, began by saying that the Seminole brass wanted answers immediately. For the next 90 minutes Williams told his inquisitors about Foot Locker, Bey and Cebrun, and provided details of improper payments.