To watch Emmitt Smith’s induction into pro football’s Hall of Fame over the weekend was to view all that’s great about athletics, even within the Southeastern Conference.
With tears in his eyes the former Florida Gator effusively thanked his prep coaches at Escambia High in Pensacola, Fla., his family, his Dallas Cowboys teammates — especially blocking fullback Daryl Johnston, of whom Smith said, “You took care of me as if you were taking care of your little brother.”
And when he realized too late that he had failed to take care of Gator Nation during the adlibbed 24-minute speech, he went on NBC’s Hall of Fame Game telecast Sunday night to correct the error, even executing the Gator chomp for the cameras as his interview with Al Michaels ended.
If this isn’t the good side of the SEC, there is none.
But Smith last played for Florida in 1989. Less than a month from the opening weekend of the 2010 college football season, there is little warm and fuzzy about an SEC increasingly under fire for the way it does business.
Everyone knows about Agent-gate, which unfortunately stole the show at the league’s annual media event last month and threatens to deplete rosters at Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
There’s also an ongoing investigation at LSU and every Tennessee fan knows of the lingering stench of Lane Kiffin. UT athletic director Mike Hamilton even admitted last week that he wouldn’t be surprised to receive a letter of inquiry from the NCAA regarding Hostess-gate, among other recruiting issues that occurred under Kiffin’s brief watch.
Finally, there’s the Worry of the Week at Kentucky, where basketball coach John Calipari’s latest potential landmine centers on a Chicago Sun-Times article that someone tied to UK promised the family of super-recruit Anthony Davis $200,000 if he signed with Big Blue.
UK has threatened a lawsuit and the Sun-Times briefly removed the story from its website, then returned it there a day later with new information that three college coaches supported the paper’s claim that the player’s family had asked for money if a school wanted to sign Davis.
Rumors are just rumors, of course, and as one college coach requesting anonymity told me last week, “I’d never swear it wasn’t true, but making a claim like that also accomplishes a couple of things for rival recruiters. One, the kid may decide it’s too much of a hassle and just decides to go somewhere other than Kentucky. Two, if you don’t get the kid, you can always say it was because the other guy paid for him. It makes you look better to your fan base.”
Except for Vanderbilt, almost no SEC school looks good across the board when it comes to football and men’s basketball.
You can blame petty jealousy and vindictiveness from the recruiting losers. You can shake your head and say it’s merely business as usual in a league that has long been rumored to skirt the NCAA rules book whenever possible.
SEC commissioner Mike Slive has proudly and rightly pointed to what has appeared to be — until recent months, at least — a new level of commitment to play by the rules and the declining numbers of investigations and probations has underscored his leadership and diligence.
But Agent-gate, Hostess-gate and the Cal(amity) Cats threaten to undermine much of Slive’s work. Beyond that, a recent ESPN.com story by Dana O’Neil disclosed that 14 of 20 basketball coaches interviewed anonymously labeled the SEC as the dirtiest league.
The NCAA’s Rachel Newman-Baker also recently told the Associated Press of the perceived increase in whistle-blowing: “I think people are kind of tired of sitting around and watching some of these abuses, and so I think you’re starting to see more and more people who are willing to talk.”
All of which brings us to Vanderbilt, which was recently taken to task by gifted Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Bianchi, who wondered why the SEC didn’t drop the football-challenged Commodores for such new blood as Central Florida.
On the field it’s often been a good question. But let the NCAA take a scorched earth stance toward the SEC’s rules breakers and Vandy just might become the league’s lone eligible member for the Sugar Bowl.
Now that’s a scenario that would really get people talking.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...