Even by the secretive, cover-your-ass, obstruct-and-obfuscate standards of college athletics crisis management, Auburn stands out as the most craven of schools. Its motto might as well be Lie and Deny. It sure isn’t Truth and Transparency.
But in time, lie and deny can be a losing strategy. Eventually, there is nowhere left to run and hide.
Auburn, a school that would line up boosters for sworn affidavits stating that the sky is green if it would help the Tigers win a game or sign a recruit, started running out of real estate Sunday. That’s when the school suddenly announced a self-imposed postseason ban for the 2020-21 season.
If any Auburn fans believe in the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus, news of impending trouble in Bruce Pearl’s program may have come as a surprise. For everyone living in the real world, this was Auburn being forced to acknowledge what has been percolating for three years: the Tigers are in deep trouble.
Nobody self-imposes a postseason ban unless they know they’re on the hook for major violations. Start with that knowledge.
Now, is it possible that the Tigers are thinking that this is a mess of a season and they have a weaker team than the past couple, so take your lumps now? Especially when five-star point-guard recruit Sharife Cooper’s eligibility has been under investigation, according to multiple sources? Sure. Pearl alluded to it in the school’s statement Sunday night, saying, “We need to take this penalty now to put it behind us.”
But if anyone is thinking Pearl and the school are outsmarting a bad situation, understand: this isn’t putting anything behind Auburn. Self-imposed sanctions may help mitigate future sanctions—but they also might not, at the discretion of the NCAA Committee on Infractions. And if the violations are bad enough—which they certainly might be—then this will be more than a one-season problem.
Per the NCAA’s penalty matrix, a standard Level One violation can result in a postseason ban of one or two years. An aggravated Level One violation can yield a postseason ban of two to four years.
Could this be an aggravated case? Without knowing particulars, that’s just a guess. But this is not a guess: Auburn hired a guy with an NCAA rap sheet coming off a three-year show-cause penalty for violations at Tennessee. Great coach, much baggage. If you ask for trouble by bringing trouble to town, don’t expect the NCAA to take a sympathetic view.
Last winter, the school assuredly received a Notice of Allegations from the NCAA regarding potential major rules violations. Auburn’s response was to hide it from the public, refuse to turn it over via freedom of information requests, reject questions about it and basically stick its fingers in its ears and shout, “I can’t hear you” at anyone trying to get to the bottom of the situation. Athletic director Allen Greene’s idea of leadership was to cower in his office and decline interview requests, retreating behind statements about “cooperating with the NCAA.”
Auburn was one of many schools caught up in the federal probe of college basketball corruption, with assistant Chuck Person pleading guilty to bribery charges for accepting money to steer players to a prospective agent and financial advisor. Auburn fired Person. But that wasn’t the end of the situation; it was just the beginning.
Auburn was one of the few implicated schools that wouldn’t even acknowledge being formally charged by the NCAA. The only other school to totally hide from the truth is Creighton. North Carolina State, Kansas and Louisville released their Notices of Allegations; Oklahoma State, USC, South Carolina, TCU and Arizona acknowledged that they had been charged but did not release details.
The purpose of pretending the bad news doesn’t exist? That question remains unanswered for now. It certainly makes it easier to sign recruits—including top-five national prospect Jabari Smith last week—if there is no university acknowledgment of major allegations. But even then, those recruits could have a strong case for a waiver to transfer immediately if they were not fully apprised of what the school is facing.
(The precedent for that: Mississippi football under Hugh Freeze. The school’s deliberate misinformation campaign understating the extent of its NCAA allegations resulted in an exodus of players who were given immediate eligibility elsewhere.)
This may simply be the Auburn Way. This is a school that had five major infractions cases between 1979-2004, according to the NCAA infractions database. That doesn’t include evading sanctions in an investigation of the Tigers’ recruitment of star quarterback Cam Newton in 2010, who led the team to the national championship.
Investigators were told by Mississippi State boosters that Newton’s father, Cecil, worked through a former Bulldogs player to request six figures for his son to sign with the Bulldogs—and then he signed with Auburn. The NCAA actually changed its bylaws as a result of that case to hold family members more accountable when involved in alleged requests for impermissible recruiting benefits (the so-called “Cecil Newton Rule”).
So let’s just say that Auburn, and Bruce Pearl, have been around the NCAA violations block. Now here they go again, in a case they tried to wish away. That wish wasn’t granted, and it’s time for the industry leaders in Lie and Deny crisis management to face the music.