Easy money slides in, gentle as a snake. What is it you want? Sneakers, warmups, hats? Take them. Pocket money, cash for your date, plane ticket home? Take it all. Easy money wants you to be happy. Easy money corrupts, easily.
"I thought it was wrong," University of Miami quarterback Frank Costa said this spring. "I had heard other players were doing it, that it had been going on for a couple of years and nobody got caught. I figured if everybody else was doing it, I wanted to take advantage of it, too."
"I saw the other guys grabbing things, and I said to myself, Hey, I might as well go ahead and pick up a few things, too," said Marvin Ferrell, who played offensive tackle for Florida State last fall. "I knew it was illegal. I can't say why I did it."
College football has a new champion. Easy Money. Or maybe we should resort to that cute code name, Measy Oney, used by Miami football players for the illegally obtained Pell Grants doled out to Hurricane athletes in 1989, '90 and '91 that may yet land Miami on NCAA probation. Now, with revelations that football players from Florida State, one of this decade's powerhouse programs, took cash and gifts during last season's run for the national championship (page 18), it's clear that success in the oft sanctimonious world of college football comes at an ugly price—tarnished image, possible NCAA sanctions, corruption of student-athletes—and neither coaches nor administrations nor the NCAA know how to do anything about it, assuming that they want to.
Consider the three powerhouse teams in Florida. Since 1983 the rise of Miami, Florida State and the University of Florida from also-rans into top-10 perennials has transformed a state once known only for fruit and gangsters into a football mecca. Every season, it seems, the national champion either hails from or must barrel through Miami, Tallahassee or Gainesville to prove its mettle. Now, sadly, the state stands as No. 1 in greedy players and dim-eyed coaches.
Take the Gators, who in 1984, under coach Galen Hall, won their first SEC championship in 52 years of conference play but couldn't claim the title because they were on probation at the time. Florida's morass of violations—including gambling, drugs and payments to players—had sunk Hall's predecessor, Charley Pell, and would drag down Hall and basketball coach Norm Sloan and nearly erase the football program entirely. Current football coach Steve Spurrier and basketball coach Lon Kruger have built seemingly clean and winning programs, but the Gators will need years of purity to repair the damage done during their tawdry climb.
Miami, despite its outlaw image, stayed a step ahead of the law until 1991, when the school found that academic adviser Tony Russell had set up a fraudulent system for shoveling cash from the Pell Grant program to 85 athletes, including 57 football players. At one point the line outside Russell's office grew so long that extra chairs were placed in the hallway. The court that sentenced Russell to three years in prison recently backed Miami's claim that no other school officials were aware of the scam, but the NCAA is holding its own inquiry. "I knew nothing about it until [the university probe began]," said football coach Dennis Erickson in a recent interview. "Which amazes a lot of people."
The same reaction today dogs Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, whose boosters have always held up his 18-year career as an example of how to win with a clean program. Now there's that $6,000 trip to Foot Locker to explain and the assertion that Bowden held a meeting in the week that followed that spree to warn his team in general terms about agents on the prowl. Like Erickson, Bowden's sin seems to be an inability to police his players and, at the very least, to set a tone that demands adherence to the rules. Bowden's reaction to his players' behavior has been curiously resigned—"What do you expect us to do?"—but such laissez-faire management will cost him. The year of his greatest triumph has now been marred.
If there's anything heartening in all this, it's that last year's Heisman Trophy winner, Charlie Ward, knew how to say no. In one of the creepier moments in this week's SI account, bird dog Paul Williams tells of the instructions he received on how to seduce Ward: Give him seven jackets, seven hats, seven pairs of shoes. Ward didn't bite. That is a comfort. But what's disturbing about the report is that so many Florida State players shrugged and said yes. According to players, the coaches suspected trouble—and potential criminal behavior—but didn't investigate until they knew the facts would be made public. This is the best football program in the country?
Yes, indeed, and that may be the most chilling thing. The Seminoles were the team of the moment last year, watched weekly, interviewed endlessly, glamour boys all. And agents worked the dorm through the season, easy money sniffing out weakness. The question now isn't so much what happened at Florida State. The question now is, What happened everywhere else?