published Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

NCAA investigating UT football program

  • photo
    The 2008 University of Tennessee Orange Pride hosts.



c.2009 New York Times News Service

The NCAA is conducting a wide-ranging investigation into the University of Tennessee’s football recruiting practices, according to interviews with several prospects, their family members and high school administrators. A significant part of the investigation is focused on the use of recruiting hostesses who have become folk heroes on Tennessee message boards for their ability to help lure top recruits.

NCAA officials have visited four prospects and are scheduled to visit two others this week in an investigation covering at least three states. The investigation is unusual in its scope and its timing. It is rare that the NCAA looks at this wide a swath of one university’s recruits before the players have signed with a program in February.

Tennessee Athletic Director Mike Hamilton confirmed that an investigation was under way but declined to elaborate.

“Typically, we do not comment on inquires that are in progress,” he said Tuesday night in New York.

Since Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin took over in December 2008 after being fired as the Oakland Raiders’ coach, the Volunteers have committed at least six secondary NCAA violations — unintentional violations that provide minimal recruiting or competitive advantage.

Interviews with multiple recruits and their family members revealed that the NCAA has strong interest in Tennessee’s use of recruiting hostesses, students who are part of a formal group at the university that hosts all manner of prospective students at campus visits, including athletes. It is not clear whether the university sent the hostesses to visit the football players.

In one case, hostesses traveled nearly 200 miles to attend a high school game in South Carolina in which at least three Tennessee recruits were playing.

Marcus Lattimore, a running back who took an unofficial visit to Tennessee but said he would not go there, said multiple Tennessee hostesses attended a game at James F. Byrnes High School in Duncan, S.C., in September. He said they brought signs, including one that read, “Come to Tennessee.”

“I haven’t seen no other schools do that,” he said. “It’s crazy.”

The hostesses are considered representatives of the university, which would mean they could not recruit players off campus. Therefore, the visits may be considered violations of NCAA recruiting rules.

Two of Lattimore’s teammates have orally committed to Tennessee, Brandon Willis and Corey Miller. Lattimore described the hostesses as “real pretty, real nice and just real cool.” He said he thought they had “a lot” of influence in Miller’s and Willis’ commitments to Tennessee.

Because of their influence on recruits, the recruiting hostesses have become popular with Tennessee fans. Bryce Brown, the country’s top running back recruit last year, who is a freshman at Tennessee, was pictured on a social networking site last year with a hostess. Other Tennessee hostesses have publicly conversed with prospects through Facebook and MySpace.

Some recruits say their influence is significant.

“You don’t want to go to a college where they ain’t pretty,” Lattimore said.

Gary Willis, the father of Brandon Willis, said in a telephone interview Tuesday night that the NCAA had interviewed his son about the girls’ trip to the game. He said the girls met his son at Tennessee’s football camp last summer and told them that they would attend a game at Byrnes High, which generally has one of the best teams in the country.

Gary Willis said that the trip was not orchestrated by Tennessee’s coaches or staff.

“It was nothing planned on no one’s part,” he said of the girls’ visit.

Despite Willis’ statement that the move was not orchestrated by the university, the hostesses driving that far to attend a high school game and hold up signs would be considered highly unusual. Christian Jones, an outside linebacker at Lake Howell High School in Winter Park, Fla., made an official visit to Tennessee in October and said Volunteers hostesses told him they wanted to attend one of his games.

That did not happen, but he said he occasionally exchanges text messages with them.

“That’s real exciting, getting people like that wanting to support you,” Jones said Tuesday night in a telephone interview.

The NCAA visited the home of Chris Dunkley, an uncommitted receiver prospect who attends Pahokee (Fla.) High School, on Tuesday night. Dunkley confirmed the visit by the NCAA but said in a phone interview that he did not want to say more.

The NCAA is also scheduled to visit North Miami High School to talk with Ted Meline, who committed to Tennessee. North Miami Athletic Director Hector Gray confirmed the NCAA’s visit but said he knew nothing else about it.

On Thursday, the NCAA will visit the high school of JaWuan James, who has orally committed to Tennessee. He attends North Gwinnett High in Georgia.

James’ mother, Nichelle Mickens, said the visit regarded Tennessee’s hostesses.

“It’s not about the coaches,” she said. “It’s about some of the attendees of the university. It has to do with the hostesses on these visits. That’s as much as I know.”

Rick Evrard, a partner in Bond, Schoeneck & King, a law firm that specializes in helping colleges deal with NCAA issues and a former NCAA investigator, said he could not comment specifically on this issue. He did say, generally, it was not common for the NCAA to interview recruits interested in a particular university or to ask them about a particular program.

Kiffin’s numerous secondary NCAA violations could be a factor or have prompted the current investigation.

“Secondaries mean something to the NCAA,” Evrard said in a telephone interview. “It’s very telling if an institution continues to report secondaries particularly if they’re in the same category. If you keep doing the same thing over and over and keep reporting it, that would trigger the NCAA’s enforcement staff to possibly go in and look at some of that activity.”

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signalmtnman said...

As I remember it, a quick review of other schools over the last year or so had also reported at least 6 secondaries, so to refer to Kiffin's "numerous" violations seems a bit opinionated. Also "the hostesses driving that far to attend a high school game and hold up signs would be considered highly unusual" according to whom? Yeah, college students rarely take road trips. When Miami recruits get taken to South Beach to check out the bikinis is that also unusual? This story is slanted from very beginning.

December 9, 2009 at 10:04 a.m.
Salsa said...

A very common thing for many schools:

Sounds like some other school really fears what Kiffin might be able to put together.

December 9, 2009 at 12:20 p.m.
Saban101 said...

To catch up with Urban and Saban, Tennessee has to break the rules and hope nobody finds out. Busted!

December 9, 2009 at 3:10 p.m.
signalmtnman said...

Yeah, those Bama players selling textbooks weren't violating any rules, right? Bama had to get rid of its head coach because of Extreme Ho - stessing as I remember. When hasn't the Tide been on probation in the last decade?

December 9, 2009 at 3:25 p.m.
Salsa said...

Sorry Saban101 but Alabama didn't make it to #1 in the country so quickly under coach Saban by following all of the rules either. If you look at any major football program closely you are going to find violations.

December 9, 2009 at 4:26 p.m.
Max said...

Isn't the bottom line here what involvement the university has with the "hostesses" as far as promotion, enlistment, reimbursement and so forth? I would like to see comment based upon that discussion rather than the pointless dissing of other schools.

December 9, 2009 at 4:58 p.m.
Saban101 said...

Yeah, you can only dream Salsa. Can't beat him so call him a cheater. Intelligent class there. Kiffen had 6 secondary violations immediately, homers. This is a sign of blatant disregard of the rules and trying to cut corners to play catchup. I knew this would happen to Tennessee or Auburn. These staffs started on Day 1 way behind their arch rivals. Mix in impatient, unreasonable alumni and you have a recipe for massive violations. This is only the tip of the iceberg. The NCAA will take care of your 2010 class, Vols. Hope you learned a lesson about cutting corners.

December 9, 2009 at 5:06 p.m.
Humphrey said...

December 9, 2009 at 6:50 p.m.
moonpie said...

I said from the beginning I would judge Kiffin on if he could run a clean program. Even before his first violation, there was something about him that told me he couldn't.

He might have been completely unaware of this kind of activity. However, his flip way may have been contagious.

If this results in significant sanctions against Tennessee I, for one, will hold Kiffin partially (at a minimum) accountable.

December 9, 2009 at 8:37 p.m.
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