Bryce Brown, a standout running back from Wichita, Kansas, puts on a Tennessee ball cap shortly after announcing on Monday, March 16, 2009 that he intends on playing for the University of Tennessee. (AP Photo/The Wichita Eagle, Jaime Oppenheimer)
KNOXVILLE -- It took the NCAA at least several weeks, and likely much longer, to determine that Tennessee freshman tailback Bryce Brown was 100 percent eligible to continue his amateur football career.
News of the NCAA's Wednesday decision spread across Knoxville in seconds.
First-year head coach Lane Kiffin told players at practice that the highly touted freshman was cleared to compete. Moments before and after the team's celebration, rumors lit up sports talk radio programs all over East Tennessee and several Internet message boards.
Kiffin confirmed to reporters after practice that Brown -- the nation's top overall high school prospect last year, according to several recruiting services -- was initially suspended four games and ordered to repay money raised to send him and other prospects on trips to college campuses in the summer of 2007.
The final result, though, said Brown was immediately eligible with no financial strings attached.
"I think that that's a heck of a deal by the NCAA to get it done right and get it done with a sense of urgency, so we're very grateful for that," Kiffin said. "His smile when I told him going into that last (practice) period ... you know, he put his arm around me. It was pretty neat to see. He was pretty excited."
Kiffin again said UT and other universities that recruited Brown were never directly implicated in the situation.
Brown's connection to Brian Butler -- who called himself an advisor, trainer and manager to several Midwestern prep prospects -- was believed to be the most closely scrutinized issue. Butler has maintained for months that his sole purpose was helping the student-athletes.
"We just got the news actually during practice, so I don't know exactly what were the final factors (in the investigation), except for it's what's right," Kiffin said. "In the end, they got it right that he shouldn't be punished. He didn't do something knowingly wrong. I'm very excited about that. I think that says a lot about the system.
"Our people did a great job and the NCAA did a great job of continuing to investigate it, to look at it, to go back and ended up waiving it and changing it to nothing. It was four games and a lot of money. We're very excited for Bryce, and for our whole team."
Kiffin didn't say specifically how much restitution the NCAA initially asked Brown, or who would have received that money, but he said the price was steep. Asked if the total figure was "in the thousands," Kiffin replied, "Up there."
"I think (fundraising for trips) is something that in recruiting over the years you know is very common," Kiffin said. "People or towns assist players as they grow up. They're assisting high school players to have the ability to go visit campuses and go to camps to better themselves as players -- not just to evaluate the colleges they may go to, but to better them as players when they come to college camps.
"That's something that goes on a lot, and I'm sure that weighed into it. But by no means was it something Bryce was doing knowing that it would be wrong. He was just part of the group."
Kiffin said recent talks with the NCAA eased his concerns regarding the situation, so he never followed through with initial thoughts on limiting Brown's role with the offense -- which would have made sense if the player wasn't eligible.
"Without going into too much detail, I had some conversations with the NCAA, and I really thought they were going to get this thing right," he said. "I really spent time explaining who this kid is and what he's about. Obviously, this is not a kid that should be punished for something like this."
Kiffin and his players are reluctant to divulge game plans, but it's no stretch to suggest that a healthy, eligible Brown will play a pivotal role.
"We have four (tailbacks) that we feel can win games for us," Kiffin said. "All of them are different in different ways, so we're going to continue to find ways to get them involved, continue to push them."
Brown has scrimmaged with the No. 1 and No. 2 offenses throughout camp and generally produced strong results for a freshman -- though ball security has been an occasional bugaboo.
"You can see why people said he was the top back in the country," senior offensive guard Vladimir Richard said. "He's a really talented guy, and a really mature, focused guy for a freshman. He's going to do some special things up here, man."
Added senior guard Jacques McClendon, a former Baylor School star: "The sky's the limit for him. He's already shown he's a great player, and he just got here."
McNeil's status uncertain
Kiffin didn't reveal specifics about Josh McNeil's Wednesday knee scope, but he said the senior center's 35-game starting streak will expire.
"At best, probably (out) three or four weeks," Kiffin said. "But that's just the initial scope that they did. They may have to go in and do a bunch more stuff as they continue to look at how it rehabilitates."
Senior Cody Sullins, a former walk-on, will start at center. His twin brother, Cody, has been the primary backup this week.