Good Day For A Good Man

Columnist Phillip Marshall takes a look at a former Tiger's success and this week's SEC football games.

The smile on Larry Blakeney's face told it all.

As Blakeney talked on ESPN2 Thursday night, celebrating students tore down the goal posts behind him. Troy had beaten 19th-ranked Missouri 24-14 for the biggest win its history. And a good man had a memory for a lifetime.

A career once clouded by scandal had reached its zenith. Those days of adversity seemed long ago and far away.

Eleven years ago, days after the NCAA hammered Auburn's football program with severe sanctions in the wake of improper payments to defensive back Eric Ramsey, I sat in a Troy restaurant with Blakeney, a former Auburn quarterback who spent 14 seasons as an assistant coach at his alma mater.

"I know why I did what I did," Blakeney said that day. "The kid was suffering. He was genuinely suffering. He was telling me his baby was sick and he didn't have any money to buy food. I think my judgment was clouded by the situation in Eric's life. So I did it, and it almost cost me my career."

It was never about gaining an advantage. Ramsey was an ordinary defensive back. Auburn was the only Division IA school that offered him a scholarship out of Homewood High School.

Little did Blakeney know when he tried to help what he saw as a family in need that Ramsey was carrying a hidden tape recorder. Ramsey went public in September 1991 with recordings he said were of him receiving money from Blakeney, administrative assistant Frank Young and alumnus Corky Frost.

Blakeney relayed $500 from alumnus Don Kirkpatrick to Ramsey. In the end, the scandal pushed head coach Pat Dye into retirement and made Ramsey a pariah at his alma mater.

"This boy was in dire straits from what he was telling me," Blakeney said. "Back then, I believed everything he told me. He had already contacted Don Kirkpatrick, and (Kirkpatrick) contacted me and told me he wanted to help Eric. You have to remember that Eric played with Don's son in high school and he had known him."

That, Blakeney said, was the end of his involvement in the Ramsey saga.

"I had no idea he was getting money from Corky or from Coach Young," Blakeney said. "Coach Dye didn't know anything about it. I'll go to my grave saying that."

Blakeney paid a serious price. He was hit with sanctions by the NCAA, but more importantly, he probably lost opportunities to coach on college football's biggest stage. The great irony is that, in the twisted logic of college athletics, many viewed Ramsey as a victim.

Instead of pouting, Blakeney went about building a program at Troy. He took the program from Division II to Division I-AA and finally to Division I-A. In his 14th season, he is beloved by his players, his school and his community.

But nothing in Troy's football history, not even a pair of Division II national championships, equaled what happened Thursday night. Playing on national television for the first time, the Trojans were, on this night, clearly the better team. They fell behind 14-0, then took over the game.

Maybe Troy caught lightning in a bottle, but it didn't matter.

"We don't have to beat them 365 days," Blakeney said. "We just have to beat them for one 60-minute segment of history. For that one 60 minutes, Troy was better than Missouri."

Blakeney will be 57 on Sept. 25. Maybe it's too late for some big-time program to come calling. Maybe not. Blakeney, I believe, would be a big winner on any level. He says he'll be happy to coach the rest of his days at Troy.

The future will take care of itself. Thursday was for celebrating. It was a good night for a good man.


It's not difficult to pick out the biggest games on Auburn's schedule. Home games against LSU and Georgia and road games at Tennessee and Alabama will probably define the 2004 season.

But, in its own way, Saturday's trip to Starkville to play Mississippi State is as crucial as any of them. In terms of perception, a victory over the Bulldogs won't mean a whole lot. After all, the Tigers are 13-point favorites on the road. But a loss would be devastating in so many ways.

A win would set up a showdown with LSU next Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium that could go a long way toward deciding who wins the West. A loss would create so much unhappiness and raise so many questions that it could haunt the rest of the season.

Sylvester Croom has energized Mississippi State players and fans. The Bulldogs will, no doubt, be ready to give an all-out effort. Barring a rash of Auburn turnovers, it shouldn't be enough.

This week's SEC picks:

Auburn 27, Mississippi State 14;

Ole Miss 23, Alabama 21;

Texas 35, Arkansas 24;

Florida 56, Eastern Michigan 7;

South Carolina 21, Georgia 17;

LSU 42, Arkansas State 0.

(Last week's record: 8-2.)

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