It's time to apologize. To Cam Newton. To the rest of Auburn's 2010 football team, especially coach Gene Chizik. To the War Eagle Nation. To the school administration. Maybe even to the poor, poisoned trees at Toomer's Corner.
It's time for all of us in the media, myself included, as well as all those opposing fans who've ripped Auburn on the Internet and talk radio airwaves to tell the Tigers we're sorry.
With Wednesday's announcement that the NCAA has cleared the program of all wrongdoing in Newton's recruitment, a good number of Southern football fans in general and untold media in particular have enough egg on their faces to feed a third-world nation for a month.
Call it Egg McNewton.
We arrogantly found the Tigers guilty until proven innocent regarding their obscenely talented quarterback, an error in judgment that needlessly lessened the joy of Newton's Heisman Trophy win and march to the national championship during his lone season on the Plains.
On the vaguely defensible level that Cam's dad, Cecil, has admitted to shopping his son to Mississippi State for $180,000, such initial hysteria was somewhat understandable.
After all, what parent in his right mind would encourage his son to go to Auburn for nothing if he could get even close to $180,000 at another school?
But asking is not the same as receiving. I could ask the New York Times to pay me $1 million per year. You could tell your boss that you've asked your rival company to triple your salary. Doesn't mean they're going to do it.
Whatever any of us may think happened, there has never been much credible evidence that any member of the Mississippi State athletic department ever seriously considered handing Cecil Newton $180,000.
Moreover -- as has been written in this space previously -- people forget that Newton was a junior college transfer with some pretty heavy baggage from his earlier days at Florida. Damaged goods, some labeled him. Beyond that, he wasn't even a clear Auburn starter until late in preseason camp.
But then he blossomed into the most talked-about SEC player since Georgia's Herschel Walker tongue-tied the nation for superlatives 30 years earlier. By the time Newton was done he had thrown 30 touchdown passes, run for 20 TDs and almost single-handedly carried the Tigers to their first national title since 1957.
A player that good had to have gone to the highest bidder, went the argument. And money well-spent, at that.
Nor did the NCAA help quell the masses when it told an exasperated Chizik in the late spring that the investigation remained alive.
In Chizik's mind it must have seemed as if the Mark Twain's line "A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth puts on its shoes," had been altered to include the entire Earth.
Yet Chizik's confrontation with NCAA enforcement also may have encouraged the NCAA to bring this to the swiftest end possible, especially since the coach's frequent statement "I sleep well at night" began to sound more and more like an honest man wrongly accused than lawyer lingo.
Could it be that we -- all of us accusing Auburn of wrongdoing -- were the ones doing wrong?
Finally, on Wednesday, Auburn released this statement from the NCAA: "Any allegations of major rules violations must meet a burden of proof, which is a higher standard than rampant public speculation on line and in the media."
For those conspiracy theorists who still believe the Tigers got away with something, the NCAA did oddly add the following words: "As with any case, should the enforcement staff become aware of additional credible information, it will review the information to determine whether further investigation is warranted."
(Note to Tennessee fans: Allegedly wiring $1,500 to Willie Lyles for former recruit Lache Seastrunk's unofficial visit may still get you in trouble.)
But as it stands now, Auburn is free and clear and back in the NCAA's good graces.
Maybe next time at least a few of us (blush, blush) will be more patient and more prudent with our criticisms. Until then, let me be the first to apologize to the entire War Eagle Nation. The line behind me should stretch at least halfway around the world.
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 ...