Last Saturday afternoon everyone inside Florida's sold-out Griffin Stadium was buzzing about junior running back Emmitt Smith. In a 27-21 homecoming victory over New Mexico, he gained 316 yards on 31 carries to become the Gators' career rushing leader. But out in the parking lot after the game, a few old-timers at a tailgate party spoke instead of Honest Jon MacBeth, a fullback whose long-ago heroics seem—in light of Florida's recent ills—no less remarkable than Smith's.
One night in late August of 1960, MacBeth was approached by a couple of gamblers. He was offered nearly $5,000 to shave points in a game against Florida State and possibly another team. MacBeth first turned the gamblers down, and then he helped run them in by cooperating in a police sting operation that resulted in the gamblers' conviction. "I guess Jon was about the last honest man in this town," said one old Gator fan.
If Honest Jon, now a health and P.E. professor at Middle Tennessee State, were still at Florida, he would have to wonder if his ethics meant anything. Gator basketball coaches stand accused of having paid players. Former players stand accused of having purchased drugs while playing for Florida. The starting quarterback and one of his backups were booted off the team last week for having bet on games, and the football coach resigned the week before that for having violated NCAA rules. All this means that the Gators may get the NCAA's death penalty, which could shut down their football and/or basketball programs for one or two years.
The university's Board of Regents would like to concentrate on finding a replacement for president Marshall Criser, who resigned last March—Robert Bryan is filling in on an interim basis—but it has been distracted by the sports morass. When Florida last searched for a president, in 1983, it had 353 applicants from which to choose. This time the total is 67. "I asked a friend to apply, and he said he wasn't up to dealing with big-time athletics," says regent Dubose Ausley. Last Thursday one of the three finalists, Malcolm Gillis, dean of Duke's graduate school and a Florida alumnus, withdrew his name. He cited as a primary reason "fundamental and longstanding" problems in intercollegiate athletics.
Regents chairman Charles Edwards says he can envision Florida voluntarily shutting down its big-time sports programs. "I don't think it's a reasonable alternative today," says Edwards. "If they don't start obeying the rules, there will be no other choice."
The Gators seem to have difficulty following NCAA rules. In 1984 football coach Charley Pell was fired for infractions that included improper recruiting activities and payments. The NCAA hit the football team with a three-year probation, and Criser promised an overhaul of the athletic department. Last year, however, a federal grand jury in Tallahassee, Fla., investigating a cocaine ring, linked some Gator basketball players who no longer play for Florida, to drug use. Athletes appearing before the grand jury admitted to having bought coke. They also said they received money from basketball coach Norm Sloan and assistant Monte Towe.
"Any time I asked for money, you know, I could get money from them—$200, $50—whatever I asked for I could get," said Vernon Maxwell, Florida's leading career scorer and now a second-year guard with the San Antonio Spurs, testifying under a grant of immunity. Maxwell estimated that he received $1,000 each month for six-months during his sophomore and junior years from Sloan or Towe and that he used some of the money to buy cocaine. Sloan and Towe deny Maxwell's allegation.
The drug investigation also led to the indictment earlier this year of four sports agents on charges of conspiracy, racketeering, mail fraud and wire fraud. The agents—accused of defrauding the university by making payments to Gator football and basketball players who still had some eligibility remaining—pleaded guilty to reduced charges. Under a plea bargain in U.S. District Court in Gainesville, the agents promised that they would never again represent athletes.
Florida's 1989 football season kicked off under this cloud—then things got worse. Coach Galen Hall, who had succeeded Pell after three games in '84, lasted only five games. "The man violated his contract and committed major violations," said Bryan. In his letter of resignation Hall admitted that, from '86 through '88, he had paid two assistants a total of $22,000 in "unauthorized salary supplements...from my own funds." An NCAA rule stipulates that only a university can pay an athletic department employee. Hall also acknowledged that he had directed a graduate assistant to drive defensive back Jarvis Williams (now with the Miami Dolphins) to an unnamed city in January 1987 to face charges of nonpayment of child support. The ride constituted another NCAA violation.
Gator fans are sweating. Any school found guilty of serious rules violations twice within a five-year period automatically qualifies for the death penalty. Florida football was penalized for Pell's violations in January 1985, but if the NCAA, whose latest investigation of Gator athletics began in June, has not completed this probe by January '90, it could still apply the death penalty even if the five-year cutoff has passed. The basketball team also could get the death penalty if the NCAA finds major violations in Sloan's program.