Auburn announced Wednesday that it had received an official letter of inquiry from the NCAA. Assistant head coach Shannon Weaver and former assistant coach Mike Wilson were charged with major violations. One charge is that former Huntsville-Lee star Chadd Moore was offered $50,000 and a car to sign with Auburn. The other is that Jackie Butler of McComb, Miss., was offered improper inducements.
Auburn will certainly dispute that improper inducements were offered to Moore, who is a sophomore at Cincinnati. Most involved in Auburn's investigation were shocked by the charges of major violations. The NCAA, in conjunction with Auburn, has been investigating since March 2002. An official letter of inquiry means the investigation is essentially over. The letter of inquiry spells out charges and is akin to being indicted in a court of law. Here's a look at where things stand:
First, rest assured that anyone in the media or elsewhere who claims to have inside knowledge of what the outcome of the case will be is not telling the truth. Auburn is to respond by Nov. 5. If there was agreement between Auburn and the NCAA on the validity of the charges--and there won't be--the case could be settled by summary judgment. That would mean Auburn could suggest appropriate penalties and the NCAA could accept them or add to them. Since Auburn will not plead guilty, the case is virtually certain to go before the Committee on Infractions early next year. It will have no impact on the coming season.
There is no possibility that the current investigation could spread beyond basketball.
If there was any good news in the letter, it was that Auburn was not charged with lack of institutional control or failure to monitor. Though the Committee on Infractions has the right to add those charges, it rarely happens. It is even more unlikely in this case because of Auburn's cooperation from the start. Alabama was not charged with lack of institutional control or failure to monitor in its case but was hammered anyway. The significant difference is that Alabama was a repeat offender. Auburn, if found guilty, would not be considered a repeat offender.
Head coach Cliff Ellis has a clause in his contract that he can be fired without severance pay if he is personally found guilty of major violations. He is not charged with any wrongdoing and was not even interviewed by NCAA investigators. Does that mean his job is safe? Not necessarily. If the program is hit with major sanctions, Ellis' hold on his job could be tenuous. He has a six years remaining on a contract with a base salary of $150,000 per year. According to his contract, Auburn would be obligated to pay his base salary for the length of the contract and would not be responsible for the outside income that makes up most of his compensation.
What are the likely sanctions if Auburn is found guilty of major violations? It's impossible to know. My guess is they would include loss of scholarships and other limitations, but not a ban on postseason play. But that is just a guess and nothing more. One thing is certain: It has not been a good week for Auburn fans.
Turning to football, Auburn players and coaches have been much more successful than have their fans in putting last Saturday's 23-0 loss to Southern California to rest and looking to Saturday's game at Georgia Tech. It was a painful day for all involved, but there is a long season ahead. It's a season that could still be anywhere from great to disastrous. But a lot of folks could use a dose of realism.
Those who say this Auburn team "should" win the SEC championship need to look at the schedule. By most any measure, the top five teams in the SEC going into the season were Auburn, Georgia, Tennessee, LSU and Arkansas. Auburn plays them all. It plays Georgia, LSU and Arkansas on the road. Even an outstanding team might not navigate those shark-infested waters without a couple of losses. Auburn could win the SEC championship. It could also have a great year and not win the SEC championship.
As for this weekend, Auburn certainly will have a physical advantage at Georgia Tech. But it might not be as great as some suppose. The Yellow Jackets will be spoiling for a fight in their home opener. A loss would leave Auburn on the brink of one of the more disappointing seasons in school history. It doesn't really matter if they win by one point or 50 points, but the Tigers need to leave Grant Field feeling like they played well and improved over last Saturday. Until next time…