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Trading Places
S.L. Price
August 14, 1995
Last fall Alabama was a national title contender and Auburn was finishing its probation. Now that the Tide has been hit with NCAA sanctions, football in the state has turned upside down
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August 14, 1995

Trading Places

Last fall Alabama was a national title contender and Auburn was finishing its probation. Now that the Tide has been hit with NCAA sanctions, football in the state has turned upside down

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It was not a day to look for honor, not from the plains of Auburn northward, not in the acres surrounding Tuscaloosa's Black Warrior River, not in the minds of all those in Alabama who regard football as their state's last serious measure of will and strength and goodness. On Aug. 2 a hurricane loomed, but that kind of disaster comes and goes. This was a horror. Alabama football had been sent to jail.

And no one saw it coming. For 102 years Alabama football had prided itself on a history free of censure, and after a nearly three-year NCAA investigation it expected little more than a mild spanking. But last week Alabama was placed on three years' NCAA probation—forced like some common outlaw to forfeit 11 games of the 1993 season (turning a 9-3-1 season into a 1-12 one), forced to give up the chance to play in either the Southeastern Conference championship game or a bowl this season and forced, most damagingly, to give up 30 scholarships in 1996 and '97.

"This has always been a university where nobody ever got into trouble," says Alabama senior quarterback Brian Burgdorf. "How could this have happened?" For a clue, all you need do is smell the Alabama attitude after the penalties were announced. At the heart of the sanctions was the university's response to improper loans received by cornerback Gene Jelks in 1989 and '90 and, more important, the handling of All-America (and now Cleveland Brown) cornerback Antonio Langham's return to the team after signing with an agent in 1993. Despite clear evidence that Langham's case had been badly bungled by coach Gene Stallings, athletic director Cecil (Hootie) Ingram, now retired compliance director Gary White and Tom Jones, the vice dean of Alabama's law school, Alabama president Roger Sayers indignantly declared the NCAA's actions "excessive and inappropriate.... I categorically reject the one instance of unethical conduct they allege. We will appeal." At most other schools, there would be head-rolling and hand-wringing. The flat arrogance seeped through every TV screen in the state, with one imperious and unspoken message to the NCAA: How dare you?

"You've got to understand, when the team is Alabama, it's a whole new thing," says Auburn coach Terry Bowden. "They've got a prestige that few teams ever had. That's a killer statement the NCAA made."

Short of the death penalty given to SMU in 1987, the NCAA's action was one of the most severe blows that organization has dealt a school. The Alabama name has, for the first time, been stained by the same mud that sticks to the likes of UNLV, Florida and, of course, arch-criminal Auburn, which, neatly enough, comes off its sixth probation this season and will be gunning for a national title. After decades of cutting any corner to lift itself to Alabama's level, Auburn finds itself in the curious position of looking down on the Crimson Tide. And don't think it doesn't feel good.

This was a day without honor, you see, and if those on the Alabama side demonstrated an unseemly case of denial, Auburn partisans could hardly contain their glee. You'll never convince anyone from Auburn, especially former coach Pat Dye, that Alabama boosters weren't financing the 1991 play-for-pay revelations by former Tiger Eric Ramsey that resulted in the resignation of Dye and the removal of much of the Tiger athletic department. And some around Auburn have been swearing revenge ever since.

A handful of Auburn boosters allegedly bankrolled—to the tune of $60,000—Jelks's original allegations of payoffs by Alabama coaches, but that didn't work. The charge was rejected by the NCAA. But the damage was done regardless. While on campus, NCAA investigators became involved in the questions of Langham's eligibility. The wheels began turning toward last week's sanctions.

Meanwhile, Alabama's superior air suffused the state. Tide backers laughed when Auburn hired the 36-year-old Bowden in 1992 from Division I-AA Samford, and laughed some more when Alabama defensive coordinator Bill Oliver referred to the 5'6" coach as "Buster Brown." Then came two years of probation that, despite Auburn's 20-1-1 record during that period, still enabled Alabama loudmouths to tell Tiger tailback and Heisman Trophy candidate Stephen Davis, "You're getting paid," or walk up to quarterback Patrick Nix to announce, "You cheated."

So it was no surprise to find everyone in Auburn watching the events in Tuscaloosa last week. Officially, the Auburn response came through a muzzle. "I'm not going to get into it," Bowden said. "This thing has got me scared to death."

"Let he who is without sin cast the first stone," said Auburn athletic director David Housel. "I've walked that valley."

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