If the Albert Means Affair and "Jetgate" taught us anything, it's that the truth about football scandals in the SEC – and in the state of Alabama, in particular – are usually more bizarre than any fiction writer could ever dream up on his own. A rumor that initially sounds like another tinfoil-hat conspiracy (Auburn's president and athletic director secretly met with a former assistant coach to replace an active head coach during the season? A fan filed an FOIA request to examine a coach's cell phone records? Give me a break.) slowly floats to the surface, and every so often emerges as an accepted chapter in the story.
The murky rumors surrounding Florida coach Urban Meyer and his former backup quarterback, current Auburn star Cameron Newton, aren't quite there yet. But the conspiracy theories saturated the Web almost from the moment last Thursday that ESPN and the New York Times reported the existence of an ongoing NCAA investigation into Newton's re-recruitment out of junior college last year, most of them specifically painting Meyer as the puppet master behind former Mississippi State quarterback John Bond's on-the-record statements that he was approached about buying Newton's services for his alma mater for the low, low price of roughly $180,000.
And now that an anonymous source at Florida has likely violated student privacy laws to tell Fox Sports that Newton's exit from Gainesville in late 2008 was due to multiple charges of academic cheating, even the beat writers have been forced to don the tinfoil and actually ask Meyer what he has to do with this mess:
"Obviously, it's a joke," Meyer told The Gainesville Sun on Tuesday morning. "I don't know anything about anything. I heard they've got me meeting with the agent and all that. I never met with anybody. It's ridiculous."
Meyer said he was aware of several off-the-field issues with Newton.
"But we had a great relationship right up until the time he left," Meyer said. "Cam and I and his family always had a great relationship. I don't know where this is all coming from. But it didn't come from me. I know nothing about nothing."
Meyer also specifically denied leaking any information about Newton's academic standing: "[F]or anyone to think that I or anyone on our staff may have leaked information about private student records to the media doesn’t know us very well. It's a ridiculous claim and simply not true."
Who does know something about something? John Bond, maybe, if you believe him. But everyone he implicated last week – notably Newton's father, Newton himself and the "agent" who allegedly solicited money, former MSU teammate Kenny Rogers – swiftly performed the traditional Kabuki of denial. Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs and unusually "emotional" coach Gene Chizik went with indignance at this afternoon's regular Tuesday press conference, calling the Fox Sports report on Newton's exit from Florida "sad" and "frankly garbage."
All of which makes for good theater as the real show unfolds backstage. Is Urban Meyer the leaker? Is someone "out to get" Newton? What happened in Gainesville in 2008? Did you see Gene Chizik get mad? In an environment where tinfoil-hat territory and reality overlap at regular intervals, it makes for a very nice soap opera while we wait for real answers to the initial questions: What, specifically, is the NCAA investigating? Why did it want Cecil Newton's financial records, and what did it find? Did he or his son solicit or receive payment from any school? From an agent? What happens if the NCAA or one of the legions of reporters on the trail of the story finds (or, more likely, confirms) evidence that threatens Newton's eligibility before the BCS Championship Game in January?
There's your drama. The rest is filler. Highly entertaining filler, maybe, but if it's not going to keep anyone off the field, cost anyone a job, cost anyone scholarship or vacate any victories, it's just filling in the pages between the real story, which is still a long, long way from being finished.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.