Two separate, seemingly unrelated stories have appeared in the last few days. The first was from the New York Times’ Pete Thamel on the potential for abuse in how unofficial visits play a role in recruiting. The second was a report from the Birmingham News’ Jon Solomon covering remarks Ole Miss Coach Houston Nutt made in a speech before the Monday Morning Quarterback Club in Birmingham.
In the Sunday Times report, Thamel reports that illegally arranging payment for travel and lodging expenses for recruits’ unofficial visits to college campuses is one of the most frequent violations of NCAA rules. Research indicates that he’s onto something: A search of the NCAA infractions database yields no fewer than 15 major infractions cases involving impermissible benefits associated with unofficial visits since 2001.
Thamel interviewed ESPN Basketball Analyst Dave Telep and former Florida Head Football Coach Urban Meyer—now an ESPN Football Analyst—and both men indicated that the problem is pervasive in the two biggest revenue generators in college sports.
“Behind the scenes in college basketball, people will tell you that the unofficial visit is one of the bigger problems facing recruiting right now. It’s a place where things can be easily manipulated by third parties. At the same time, I have no idea how you can fix it,” Telep told Thamel.
Said Meyer: “I’d ask my assistants, ‘Why is this kid not visiting us?’ They’d say, ‘Coach, we’re not paying for his trip.’ ”
In the Birmingham News story, Nutt is reported to have complained that a prized recruit was “stolen” from him by Auburn Tigers Coach Gene Chizik. “Gene Chizik came in and stole my man, Jermaine Whitehead,” Nutt told the audience. Nutt claims to have had a handshake agreement with the prospect, in which Whitehead told the Rebels’ coach he was coming to play in Oxford. But something changed Whitehead’s mind and on National Signing Day 2011, he signed with Auburn. When Nutt finally reestablished contact with Whitehead, he described the conversation this way:
"Jermaine: 'Coach, I gotta go to Auburn.'"
"Why? Why would you go to Auburn? They already won their title. They already have the crystal ball. They don't need you. I need you."
"Coach, it's business."
"Business? You shook my hand, man! You said you were committed to me!"
"I know, Coach. I'm sorry."
Whitehead’s official visit to Auburn occurred over the weekend of the 2010 Georgia game, played on Nov 13. At the time, Auburn was in the midst of controversy surrounding its recruitment of then Quarterback Cam Newton.
But according to the Birmingham News story, Whitehead had made several unofficial visits to the campus as well, including the 2010 Big Cat Weekend. Others making the Big Cat Weekend trip were Kiehl Frazier, Kris Frost, Reese Dismukes, Greg Robinson, Erique Florence, Brandon Fulse, Jonathan Rose and Gabe Wright. All signed with Auburn in February.
While there is currently no evidence showing that the Auburn program provided impermissible benefits in connection with these unofficial visits, various news reports indicate that the NCAA has at least some of these players’ recruitment on their investigation menu, including recruits from Louisiana and South Florida. Many of these players made several unofficial visits to the Auburn campus.
Perhaps this explains why the seemingly interminable NCAA investigation into Auburn’s recruiting practices is now dragging into its 12th month without so much as an official Notice of Inquiry. If you’re familiar with the Anatomy of an NCAA Investigation, you understand that this can be a long, drawn out process despite changes to investigative procedure in the last decade. Auburn is still in the review phase and that has no official timetable.
As it stands now, we have a report that unofficial visits are a major focus of NCAA enforcement. We have a bare allegation by an embattled rival head coach that Auburn “stole” a prized recruit. who explained to the coach that his decision to sign with Auburn was “business.” And we have pretty good information that the NCAA is looking into a lot more than a pay-for-play scheme unearthed by the New York Times and ESPN nearly one year ago.