Major College Sports: Can You Win Without Any Wrongdoing?
Let me put it in a different way:
Is it possible for a major college football or basketball program to be a consistent power, contending for - if not winning - a national championship year after year without breaking rules or avoiding trouble of any kind?
Keep in mind that I'm not talking about teams like Stanford, whose football team won the Rose Bowl this past season while having never gotten on probation in its history, or Butler - that small Indiana mid-major who barely lost to Duke in the basketball's Final Four in 2010.
Anyone can have a good season and win a championship in any given year. A perfect case in point is Rice University in Houston, a perennial doormat in football who a few years ago went 10-3 and won a bowl game this past season.
But that's not what I'm talking about here; I'm talking about teams like Alabama in football and Kentucky in hoops, traditional powers with the mindset being that anything short of a national championship every year is a failure.
I've particularly considered this question during the past two years, with the University of Southern California getting severe sanctions from the NCAA for their football team's violations and Ohio State's gridiron program being currently investigated due to their players allegedly selling their jerseys and other memorabilia, leading to their coach resigning in the process.
Over the roughly 25 years that I've been following college football and basketball, it has gotten ever so clearer that for a major gridiron or (men's) hoops program to become and remain a longtime power, because of the rules that the NCAA - the governing body of college athletics - has, it has become very difficult, if not impossible, to stick to the NCAA's archaic and what many consider to be outdated and oppressive rules.
A telling sign of this is this fact:
Over the course of the past 35 years (or so), every college football team that enjoyed a dynastic run of prestigious bowl games and championships has ended up in some kind of trouble, whether by probation or scandal.
The following is a list of the most dominant teams since the 1970s and the sins they committed:
1. Oklahoma in the 1970s through the mid-1980s
These crimson and cream-clad Sooners from Norman used their "wishbone" offense to run teams into the ground and win back-to-back national titles in 1974-75, followed by a third title in 1985, led by coach Barry Switzer and guys like Billy Sims, a Heisman Trophy winner, and linebacker Brian Bosworth, "The Boz", who was famous for his unique hairstyles.
Along with their success was, unfortunately, reports of players shooting guns in the dorms, dealing drugs and freebasing cocaine, and a charge of three players raping a co-ed along with guys admitting that they took money from boosters, leading to the Sooners going on probation by 1990.
Quite the lawless program, that was.
2. Southern Methodist University in the 1970s and 80s
I can sum up these Mustangs from Dallas, a force in the then-Southwest Conference holding their own against the Texases and Texas A & Ms, in two words:
Being an affluent school loaded with rich alumni and boosters, and with Texas being a football-crazy state, the blatancy that those boosters and alums showed in securing condos, luxury cars, swank wardrobes and money for football players was so pronounced that the NCAA had no choice but to kill SMU's program in 1987, and put sanctions on them that were so harsh that officials decided to skip 1988 as well.
"Pony Excess", a "30 for 30" documentary produced by ESPN, details these shenanigans at length, the program being so devastated that until coach June Jones' arrival in 2008, the Mustangs had only one winning season from their reinstatement in 1989 until '08.
3. Miami in the 1980s and early 90s
With the possible exception of in-state rivals Florida State, no team was more successful from 1983 to 1992 than these Hurricanes from the tony suburb of Coral Gables, taking four national titles in that span and sending many players to the NFL. However...
There's a reason why these 'Canes were called "Hurrigangs" by some folks, what with numerous players dealing and using drugs, stealing from dorms, fighting, getting into trouble with the law, excessively showboating and taunting opponents during games, and generally living the thug life, ultimately ending up on probation.
Put it like this: ESPN did a two hour feature on this madness called "The U", which detailed all of the 'Canes' crimes.
And Sports Illustrated wrote a cover story called "Why The University of Miami Should Drop Football".
If that doesn't make clear what degenerates too many of those Miami players were, nothing does.
4. USC in the 2000s
Let's not forget those Trojans from just south of downtown Los Angeles...
Superstar running back Reggie Bush's sins, which have been well documented, were only part of Southern Cal's transgressions; losing 30 scholarships, vacating all of their wins from their championship season of 2004 as well as 2005, and being kicked out of post season play for two years were a result of incidents like alleged steroid use, being caught with ecstasy in the dorms, soliciting prostitutes, and a star linebacker currently in the NFL knocking out a student at a fraternity party, crowing "I own the police!", and getting a mere slap on the wrist by not being suspended for the next game.
Those sins undoubtedly put an ugly mark over the team's dominance during those years.
All of these institutions of higher learning - and a lot more I may add - have one thing in common:
1. They were all dominant programs with blowout victories, undefeated records, top five finishes, and national titles galore, and...
2. They all landed on probation or got into various degrees of trouble.
Basketball has notoriously been in similar situations, as iconic programs like Kentucky and UCLA have been put on probation for recruiting violations and, in UCLA's (my alma mater) case having at least some of their players being set up with money and other benefits in the 1960s and 70s - during the time they won 10 NCAA championships in a 12-year span - courtesy of Sam Gilbert, a local contractor known as "Papa Sam".
In my view, all of this rule-breaking is more due to the NCAA having rules that hold student-athletes in an indentured servitude of sorts than a case of college kids sowing their wild oats, though that has also definitely happened.
As an illustration, during my last year as an undergraduate at UCLA I worked in two different jobs, including an on-campus one. Save for the summer, under NCAA rules a student-athlete is forbidden to do that.
It's true that their scholarship provides room, board, books, meals, and a free education that's extremely valuable, but it's been found that often doesn't make up for the fact that there have been reports of players going hungry during weekends and lacking money for necessities like clothes and things like that. God forbid if, like other students, they want to live off campus - if they get a job to earn money for rent, or accept financial help from anyone other than family - they and the school are busted.
Meanwhile, their school makes a fortune - multiple millions - of revenue off these athletes and their likeness, while they get zip.
While I understand that without these regulations all of the schools with the richest, most influential boosters would get even more of the lion's share of the top athletes than they already do, it certainly doesn't seem fair to me that they are forced to live like virtual paupers.
I also understand that if someone tried to solve this dilemma by paying the athletes in the revenue-producing sports - football and men's basketball - everyone else in a school's athletic department would have to be paid an equal amount for equality reasons; a softball player would have to get the same amount of dough as the All-American quarterback, which would be fair, and which they should get, but Bill Gates and Warren Buffet put together wouldn't have enough money to pay every student-athlete at every Division-One school.
In other words, it would become a damned-if-you-do- and-damned-if-you-don't-situation.
So my answer to the original question - can top traditional football and basketball powers win on a consistent basis without breaking rules, is no, as examples abound that illustrate how programs, to remain among the elite, are pretty much forced to bend the rules if not flat-out cheat, which is not right.
And until the suits and ties at the NCAA's headquarters loosens up on these unnecessary restrictions that they put on these young men and women, situations such as what is happening at Ohio State right now will likely continue.