The slot players sat bleary-eyed in the background, prospecting for their elusive jackpots. But among a handful of college basketball coaches gathered in the lobby of the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas one night during the summer of 1993, the talk was of human lucre. The nation's finest high school prospects had come to the Nevada desert for an All-Star tournament, and these coaches—procurers of talent, preoccupied for years simply with getting players—found themselves discussing a sideline in which they had recently become experts: getting players eligible.
Ever since the NCAA's landmark enactment of Proposition 48 set minimal academic standards for athletes to meet in order to compete as freshmen, beginning in 1986, some of the best high school players have been forced to postpone their trips to the big time and make detours to junior college. Once enrolled at a juco, a player has had to earn a two-year associate degree before he could transfer to, and be eligible to play at, any NCAA school. Thus some college coaches began priding themselves on their ability to guide academically deficient young men through the loosely regulated world of the junior college. It was in that context, there in the lobby of the Aladdin two years ago, that a recruiter for an NCAA school let his colleagues in on what he thought was a trade secret, a sort of genie-in-a-lamp for an on-the-make basketball coach. He mentioned that he knew of a small college in Florida that was offering cheap, quick and easy credits by mail.
A junior college coach scoffed. "Old news," he said. "If you're talking about Southeastern, we had a kid take courses from there two years ago."
"Southeastern" is Southeastern College of the Assemblies of God (SEC), a collection of vanilla-colored cinder-block buildings strewn over 57 acres in Lakeland, Fla. Most of SEC's 1,200 full-time students are studying to become preachers or teachers. The school enforces a dress code, a curfew, daily chapel attendance and antiseptically clean living. It bans "secular rock" and prohibits students from so much as reclining on a blanket by the campus's fetching lakefront. The student handbook is explicit about cheating: It "cannot be tolerated." In short, there is no more unlikely school to be ensnared in a sprawling credit-laundering scandal that threatens the jobs of coaches and the eligibility of athletes at dozens of high-profile universities across the country.
At some point in 1990 a basketball coach—it is unclear who—discovered that rules for Southeastern's correspondence courses, guilelessly drafted with clergymen and other God-fearing types in mind, were much less stringent than those at other accredited schools. Southeastern's testing procedures were founded on trust, and the number of credits a student could earn in a summer was virtually limitless. By combining Southeastern credits-by-mail with credits picked up in summer-school classes taken at his "home" juco, a player who might have earned, say, 30 credits in four semesters at a junior college could easily pick up his final 18 credits, an associate degree and instant NCAA eligibility in as little as six weeks.
Word of SEC spread quickly, particularly among coaches at arriviste and mid-major programs that rely heavily on juco talent. "Asking how I first heard of Southeastern would be like asking how I first heard of Apple Computers," says Texas-Pan American basketball coach Mark Adams. "It was that common. So many people were talking about it that you couldn't remember the first person who told you."
Five years later, coaches and players who abused the system and used SEC as a credit mill aren't yet in the clear. The NCAA is only just beginning to sift through transcripts, and the scandal could cut a wide swath through college sports. Ill-gotten credits from Southeastern were central to the convictions of three former Baylor assistant basketball coaches on federal charges of wire and mail fraud in April. Similar chicanery figured in the dismissal of three members of the basketball staff at Georgia Southern, including head coach Frank Kerns, in November. And New Mexico State is all but assured of stiff NCAA sanctions as a result of its SEC connections. Over the last three years the Aggies have supplanted UNLV as the preeminent hoops power in the Big West Conference by relying on the wholesale importation of juco transfers.
In the fall of 1993 Britton Banowsky, a Southwest Conference assistant commissioner looking into the Baylor case, alerted the NCAA to the possibility of a wider scandal. Since then enforcement officers have identified as many as 60 junior colleges that accepted SEC credits from their athletes. In addition, investigators have found 55 NCAA schools—including Syracuse, Texas, Clemson, 1994 national basketball champion Arkansas, four other Southeastern Conference schools and half of the Big West—that eventually suited up those athletes. Most ominous, the prosecutors who handled the Baylor case say that their counterparts in other federal districts have asked for copies of the Baylor indictment, presumably to begin exploring how the case may apply to schools in their jurisdictions.
NCAA investigators are focusing on several kinds of potential violations. Above all, they want to ascertain which coaches took advantage of SEC's lax standards, either by arranging for stand-ins to do course work or take tests, or, as in the Baylor case, by doing the cheating themselves. If an athlete did not do course work for which he was credited, his NCAA eligibility would be at risk. And if a coach at an NCAA school helped arrange academic fraud, both the school and the coach would face severe sanctions.
"By the time this is over, it will touch more people than anything I've heard of in college sports in a long time," says one coach, who says he placed players in up to 20 of Southeastern's correspondence courses. "Coaches are still talking about it, but now it's out of fear. The problem is huge; it's not just the number of players who took courses there, but the number who took courses and cheated."