Friday, March 17, 2006

Clarifying the historical record about 1981

I'm not one to get into these blog pissing matches, but I must respond to part of this post by uber-Gamecock fan The Cool Chicken and, in the process, try to correct the record about a longstanding smear against the Clemson football program -- namely, that the harsh NCAA penalties that were handed down a year after our 1981 national championship are "proof" that our title was won by a bunch of ringers who wouldn't have come to Tigertown if wads of cash hadn't been waved in their faces.

The truth of the matter is a bit more complex than that.

Now, Mr. Chicken is certainly free to hate Clemson fans. Lord knows I hate Gamecock fans, and some of them are my relatives.

But Mr. Chicken is not free to his own facts. While engaging in a slap-fight with the guys from Six Degrees of Bowden, he states that Clemson fans are "a bunch of whiny bitches hanging their hat on a bought and paid for championship."

All Clemson fans are familiar with this line. We've been beaten about the head and shoulders with it for more than 20 years.

And, as far as what some of our boosters and coaches actually did back then, we fully deserved the punishment handed out by the NCAA. (The ACC's additional penalties, well, I'm not so sure about them.)

However, if it was a "bought and paid for championship," then Clemson certainly didn't get its money's worth.

Here's why: The two prospects who were widely known to be at the heart of the NCAA's investigation never enrolled in Clemson; indeed, if I remember correctly, neither ever played big-time college football. And the world probably wouldn't have known about them if they hadn't willingly taken the improper gifts, signed with Clemson, and then suddenly decided to back out of their letters of intent to sign with their hometown university, an SEC powerhouse.

Clemson fans with long memories will recall the names James Cofer and Terry Minor. In 1980, they were two hot-shot prep football stars in Knoxville who were allegedly offered cash, cars and other gifts by an overzealous Clemson alum who lived in the Knoxville area, as well as by Clemson recruiters. Sadly, these allegations were confirmed by the NCAA's investigation, as were some other unsavory things that were peripheral to the heart of the case.

UPDATE: Here are more in-depth details on the violations. As expected, they include all the bad stuff you'd expect to find about cash payments and cars. (Not enough to fill an entire football team, but still, bad stuff.)

They also include the "gave a prospective student-athlete a T-shirt/hat/cheeseburger/ride down the street" nonsense that makes the NCAA such an infuriating, hypocritical organization.

Taken as a whole, it's obviously damning, but does it add up to a "bought and paid for championship"? Not even close, especially considering that most of the really bad violations seem to have taken place prior to 1980, when Charley Pell was the coach of the Tigers in 1977 and 1978. Pell departed in 1978 for Florida, another school he led to NCAA sanctions, so it's unclear if the contact with Cofer and Minor began then, when the players were likely sophomores in high school, or later.

OK, back to our original story:

After signing with Clemson in early 1981, Knoxville residents Cofer and Minor suddenly decided they wanted out of their letters-of-intent so they could attend -- wait for it -- the University of Tennessee! Which, if you're familiar with geography, is located in Knoxville.

(Hmmm. I wonder how that happened. ... Maybe the Vols offered an upgrade to that rich Corinthian leather? Kidding!)

In December 1981, with the Tigers ranked No. 1 in the country and prepping for the Orange Bowl game that would give the school its first national championship, Cofer and Minor, with the help of John Mark Hancock, a lawyer who happens to be a huge UT booster, filed a headline-grabbing lawsuit seeking $12 million in damages against Clemson.

(The suit was filed after the NCAA had been sniffing around Tigertown; this story, dated Nov. 10, 1982, says the ACC had just wrapped up an 18-month probe, which means it would have begun around May 1981, soon after Cofer and Minor had committed to Clemson. Nonetheless, the timing of the $12 million lawsuit was interesting, considering that it came nearly a year before the usually discrete NCAA announced its penalties against Clemson.)

The lawsuit was later dismissed (rightfully so), and Cofer and Minor, viewed as damaged goods by Tennessee and the SEC, ended up much further down the college football food chain (Carson-Newman, I believe). However, the unsuccessful attempts to get Cofer and Minor into Clemson led to the NCAA hammer coming down with full force.

Again, I want to emphasize that the infractions Clemson was found guilty of were serious; the athletic department fully deserved the punishment it received, which included steep reductions in scholarships and a ban on TV appearances and postseason bowls for two years (to which the ACC helpfully added on a third year for both -- thanks, guys!).

But if you read the summary of the infractions and penalties, you'll see that it does not include forfeiture of any games from 1981.

That is because the players at the heart of the NCAA's investigation never took the field for Clemson during that season.

That's a damn important point. Yeah, we screwed up, and we paid for it -- dearly. But in no way does it detract from what Jeff Davis, Perry Tuttle, Homer Jordan and so many others accomplished on the field in 1981.

And why? Because there is no proof that players who may have been given favors or cash were in any way responsible for the Tigers' success. (If there's any out there, I'd love to see it.) Cofer and Minor are the most obvious examples of that -- hell, they never even enrolled in Clemson.

Signing high-quality recruits, whether it's done legally or illegally, is no guarantee of success. Lots of schools know all about that.

It's always been my opinion that Clemson's early-1980s probation encapsulated much that is distasteful about college recruiting: Clemson alums and coaches did sleazy things to entice players to sign, then apparently got "turned in" to the NCAA because they may have out-sleazed another school's alumni and coaches. Viewed in that way, it's an ugly situation all around.

But the idea that Clemson's violations, bad as they were, are the sole reason we won the national championship in 1981 is laughable, especially coming from the fan of a school whose own athletic programs have been in the NCAA's major-infractions slammer three times.

UPDATE: Here are the details on the Gamecocks' two-year postseason and TV ban in football AND basketball circa 1967. Note that the punishment recommends the forfeiture of football games from 1965 for using ineligible players.

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