By PETE THAMEL
Thayer Evans contributed reporting.
c.2009 New York Times News Service
The Southeastern Conference is examining a new issue involving Tennessee's football recruiting, Mike Hamilton, the university's athletic director, said Friday.
Hamilton said in a telephone interview that the SEC was looking into the actions of a Tennessee recruiting intern, Steve Rubio, who flew to South Florida with Coach Lane Kiffin recently and visited the athletic powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale.
Under NCAA rules, Rubio, who graduated from Aquinas and volunteered there, is not allowed to recruit off the Tennessee campus. Hamilton said the concern was whether Rubio did recruiting work and contacted players while he was at the high school.
Hamilton said it was his understanding that Rubio did not recruit at the high school. Hamilton said Tennessee had given the SEC all the information the conference has requested. Whether to forward the matter to the NCAA, Hamilton said, was "for someone else to make that determination."
News of the latest recruiting problem came on a day when SI.com published a photograph of two Tennessee recruits, Brandon Willis and Corey Miller of James F. Byrnes High School in Duncan, S.C., with two hostesses from Tennessee's Orange Pride group. Also on Friday, a summer basketball coach from Memphis called the Tennessee recruiting hostess program the most "orchestrated and aggressive" he had seen in 28 years on the recruiting circuit.
The SI.com photo confirmed the presence of the hostesses at a high school game and illustrated their purpose in attending it. They held a sign that read, "Miller and Willis Have Our Hearts."
Gary Willis, Brandon's father, said on Tuesday that his son had had no contact with the hostesses, although running back Marcus Lattimore, who also plays at Byrnes, said in an interview that the players had been expecting the hostesses.
As the NCAA examines the matter, it is likely to focus on whether it can prove that the Tennessee coaching staff sent the hostesses to the high school specifically to recruit. While their presence would most likely be considered a violation, its severity would probably be determined by extent of the coaching staff's knowledge.
"I don't want to talk about that," Gary Willis said on Friday. "Let the NCAA do what they're going to do."
The New York Times reported on Wednesday that a number of recruiting hostesses traveled nearly 200 miles to attend the game of Willis, Miller and Lattimore. The NCAA is examining Tennessee's hostess program in a review that has covered at least six prospects, including Miller, Willis and Lattimore. Tennessee has yet to receive a formal letter of inquiry from the NCAA.
"I'm not at liberty to talk about the issue of Orange Pride," Hamilton said Friday night. Kiffin declined to comment through a university spokesman.
Also on Friday, Keith Easterwood, a veteran summer basketball coach, said that on a visit last year with his son, a football recruit, he had to ask a hostess to stop brushing her breasts against both him and his son.
He recalled saying, "Young lady, if you don't stop doing that, we've got a problem."
Easterwood said that he took a group of basketball players to a Western Kentucky football game at Tennessee this year, and that the presence of the hostesses had his players "literally reduced to blubbering idiots."
"I've been up there five times, four for football and one basketball visit," Easterwood said. "My observation is that this is a very organized operation. These girls have obviously been groomed. There's a lot of eye contact and touching."
The inquiries are creating problems for Tennessee, but Hamilton said that was part of having a successful yet controversial coach like Kiffin.
"It's like any situation as an institution - you're always concerned about an institution's public relations and integrity," he said. "We're always evaluating those things."