Tuesday afternoon TMZ reported the FBI, intrigued by the tales of Cameron Newton being shopped for $200,000, may now get involved in recruiting investigations. Tuesday night ESPN went with a story about an emotional Newton telling a source he only went to Auburn because "the money was too much."
Somewhere in between we imagine SEC commissioner Mike Slive felt like turning off his downtown Birmingham office lights, pouring himself a stiff drink and then burying his head in his hands.
And that was before a report circulated briefly Wednesday on Twitter that Newton was about to be suspended by the NCAA. It was a false alarm. He wasn't. Or hasn't been yet. Or never will be. Or who the heck knows at this point?
"Cameron Newton will be playing Saturday against the Georgia Bulldogs," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said before refusing to answer any other questions about the swirling situation.
It's been that kind of week down South. The SEC is coming apart at the seams. The league's best player and most realistic BCS title contender is under siege from all sides, even from within the league.
Tuesday, while Chizik was assailing a report that Newton had committed academic fraud during his days at Florida as "garbage" (not that anyone was denying its validity), Gator coach Urban Meyer and Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen were busy claiming they weren't the ones that leaked the news to FoxSports.com.
Hours later there was a new ESPN report which identified "two sources who recruit for Mississippi State" relaying conversations with Newton and his father about being paid to play. Mississippi State can't explain that one away easily since the only people allowed to "recruit" for the school are certain university employees.
It ought to take the NCAA about 15 minutes to pull everyone's phone records and find out who spoke to ESPN recently. And how many Bulldog "recruiters" even spoke to the Newtons? Two? Three? Then the NCAA can compel any Mississippi State employee to testify. If you lie, you risk your job.
(And by the way, if you're looking for a couple of three-letter acronyms no college administrator wants to deal with, FBI and TMZ, would probably top the list. IRS is also a contender.)
So now everyone is pointing fingers in every direction. Where the nation's best football conference winds up when the ratting and bitterness (and alleged cheating, of course) stops is anyone's guess.
Slive has long contended that the only thing that can stop the SEC is the SEC. The league's proximity to talent, fan passion and institutional financial commitment to the sport should ensure a steady stream of national contending teams.
The league has won the past four BCS titles. So confident is Slive of the league's ability to win on the field he's pushed hard for a small playoff (a Plus One) to ensure at least one league rep gets a chance. (If Auburn stumbles, the SEC may be locked out of playing for the title, which should lead to endless cries for reform from the league.) Others in the league, including the president of Georgia, favor an eight-team playoff, in part because they imagine they'd wind up with an all-SEC final.
That's the self confidence the SEC enjoys.
Slive figures that as long as it can avoid self-inflicted wounds – i.e. scholarship reductions from NCAA sanctions – it should cruise along at the top. The SEC, as a whole, doesn't need to cheat to win. With its inherent advantages, it should dominate on a clean and level playing field.
In a global sense, this is correct. On a local one though, the schools compete with each other and coaches get hired and fired on their ability to land players. If a top recruit is choosing among three SEC schools then, for the league as a whole, it doesn't matter where he goes. For those three schools however, it matters on multiple levels. Not only might you not get the player, you'll have to compete against him.
Slive, a former judge, tried to clean up the "Surely Everyone Cheats" league when he took over in 2002. Under his predecessor, Roy Kramer, all 12 league schools had been put on probation. In NCAA history no league has been hit for more major infractions than the SEC.
"When I took over half our institutions were somewhere in the NCAA infractions pipeline," Slive said a couple years back.
That changed, for awhile. At one point Slive thought the entire league would be off probation for the first time in years. It didn't happen as the Arkansas track team got busted. By now there are scandals at multiple schools in both football and basketball.
Worse for Slive, frustration appears to be boiling over and manifesting itself into dropped dimes to the media.
ESPN's latest report said that a Mississippi State recruiter (presumably an assistant coach) was told by Newton's father, Cecil, that it would take "more than a scholarship" for Cam to play in Starkville. Another recruiter shared that Cam has told him that he wanted to play for the Bulldogs but Cecil had forced him to Auburn because of the money.
Is it true? Only time may tell.
The story also said the Mississippi State compliance office turned the information over the SEC last January. Eleven months later Newton is still eligible. Last week SEC associate commissioner Greg Sankey said the league received "specific information" on Newton in July (not January). He later said, "We don't deal in rumor and innuendo. We deal in facts."
The facts may say there is nothing to the stories of Cam and/or Cecil Newton being paid by Auburn. (The NCAA is currently looking into it). It stands to reason, however, that the unnamed sources in the ESPN report were not satisfied with the pace of the investigation. And taunted with weekly highlights of Newton racing up and down the field, they decided to make it public.
If nothing else, next year's Mississippi State at Auburn game ought to be a doozey.
If Auburn did cheat for Cam Newton, then Slive should applaud the whistle blowers. If they didn't, then he should be furious at the vengeance shown here.
If there's nothing to the story, then this is a messy, unnecessary inside hit job. It's the kind of soap opera that could distract Newton and Auburn, making the road to the title game even more difficult. The Tigers already face the most difficult remaining gauntlet of the unbeaten BCS contenders.
Auburn certainly doesn't need added hurdles. They're getting them though. It's officially a circus down South, a feeding frenzy of scoops and sources and, who knows, even the FBI.
It's up to Mike Slive to figure out how to steady the ship.
- Cameron Newton
- Mike Slive
- Mississippi State