Opportunity Beckons For Tigers And Tuberville

Why Bama's near death penalty experience is good news for the Tigers.

Friday was surely the darkest day in the proud history of University of Alabama football.

A program that as recently as seven years ago could say it had never run afoul of the NCAA in any serious way was branded an outlaw. Alabama went before the NCAA Infractions Committee in November to answer charges of major violations for the third time in just over six years.

This time, the committee decided to make a statement. The Crimson Tide was hit with program-wrecking sanctions--21 scholarships lost over three years, two years of bowl sanctions, five years of probation. Recovering from that explosion will take years.

Alabama officials, in righteous indignation, vowed to appeal. They had all kinds of things to say about how they cooperated, how the cheaters were gone or disassociated with the program, how the punishment didn't fit the crime. But they had virtually nothing to say about the fact that Alabama has had three major violations cases since 1995.

The infractions committee press release said Alabama narrowly avoided the death penalty, given previously only to SMU. And so it is today that the program that once symbolized championships now symbolizes cheating. The program once talked about in the same breath with Notre Dame is now talked about in the same breath with SMU.

It's sad. Such cases always are. It won't be the guilty parties who suffer most. It will be Tyler Watts, who will never get to take a snap in a bowl game. It will be all the others like him who had nothing to do with anything that has happened but must pay the price.

Sad as that is, never doubt that Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville has a song in his heart today. Like it or not, in the unique and intense rivalry in this state, what's bad for one is good for the other. Friday was a very bad day for Alabama. Conversely, it was a very good day for Auburn.

Tuberville has been handed the opportunity of his professional life. Alabama lies wounded, weaker in many ways than perhaps it has ever been. Auburn will never have a better opportunity to grab the upper hand in this state.

Alabama is finishing up what was already a mediocre recruiting class. It could get worse as the news sinks in on prospects who had committed or were considering committing to the Crimson Tide. The impact won't be felt as much next season as it will in seasons down the road. Once next season's seniors are gone, Alabama will be left with a team not talented enough to be a contender in the SEC.

The wailing and gnashing of teeth started even before the sanctions were released. Word had leaked out and Tide fans vented their anger on the Internet and on talk radio.

Once the sanctions were announced, the blame was assigned everywhere but where it should be assigned. Alabama isn't in trouble because of the SEC, the NCAA, Tennessee, Florida or Auburn. Alabama is in trouble because some boosters and former coaches decided they didn't have to play by the rules. They got caught, and now it's time to pay the price.

That the price is high shouldn't be surprising.

A day before Alabama got the bitter news, Kentucky got a similar blast. The Wildcats lost 19 scholarships and were banned from bowl games next season. They, too, will be a long time recovering, if they ever recover.

For Auburn, opportunity beckons, but dangers lurk in the shadows. There are those at Alabama who believe Auburn and other SEC schools had a lot to do with what happened Friday. They will have revenge in their hearts. They will be watching and waiting for an opportunity to pull others into the hole they have dug for themselves.

Tuberville's mission is clear. Keep his program on the right side of the rules, continue to recruit as has done the past two years and build a big winner.

That job is always difficult, but it got a little easier about 1 p.m. Friday when official word came that the actions of a few had brought a proud and successful program to its knees.

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