Marshall: Odd Week on the Auburn Beat

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about what he calls his strangest week as a reporter.

It has been a time unlike any other in almost 37 years in this business.

My integrity, my character, my ethics and professionalism have been questioned. I've been called a "homer," journalistic slang for one who toes the party line of the beat he covers. I have been called a disgrace to my family. I've been told my late father would be ashamed of me.

I've received dozens and dozens of emails, many of them also copied to various others at my newspaper. Of those 100-plus emails, a huge majority of have been negative. And more than 90 percent have come from people identifying themselves as Alabama fans.

I find that to be strange, and here's why: Other than mentions in the recruiting update I write once a week for The Huntsville Times and a story about Alabama signee Rolando McClain of Decatur, the last thing I wrote about Alabama was a story on Sunday, July 9. It was more than 50 inches long. I spent most of the previous Friday in Ozark and wrote a story about former Tide great Wilbur Jackson, the first black football player to sign with Alabama. Before that, I wrote stories about athletic budgets and about football weight programs that included quotes from Alabama athletic director Mal Moore and strength and conditioning coach Rocky Colburn. One of my more pleasant times this summer was spent visiting with Moore, who I have known and considered a friend for more than 30 years.

There was not a negative word in any of those stories. That trouble for one side in this state sparks such passion and joy on the other--and that goes both ways--speaks, I'm afraid, to the sickness of the rivalry. But that's another story.

Early last week, even before the story broke that sociology director James Gundlach had accused department head Thomas Petee of academic irregularities, the storm was gathering.

It really started a couple of weeks earlier when word began to get out that a New York Times reporter had been on the Auburn campus several times. I was curious, but not overly curious. As time went by, I heard that the reporter was working on some sort of story about athletics and academics.

Later, I heard that he planned to write a story and that it apparently would allege some sort of wrongdoing, specifically involving football. Then I heard that a professor had complained about something another professor was doing and had talked to the reporter. I began to ask questions, but for a good while, that's all I really knew. I didn't know who the professors in question were or even what department they were in.

On the drive home from Ozark, I made several telephone calls. It was becoming obvious that a supposedly damning story was in the offing and that it was coming fairly soon. I was told then that the reporter--by this time I knew it was Pete Thamel--wanted the story to come out around the time of SEC Media Days, which begin Wednesday.

In this space on Monday, July 10, I wrote that I had not seen or even sensed anything improper about the approach to academics within the Auburn football program. I said I believed Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville's commitment to academics is very real. I also said it was possible something could still be amiss. A lot of people took issue with that.

And so it began.

The following day I started trying to find out the identities of the two professors in question. By this time, I was determined to get the story and write it as soon as possible. I wanted, of course, for my story to come out before The New York Times' story, which I was told might run as soon as the following Saturday.

The identity of the professors was a closely guarded secret, for some reason. It took me until around mid-day Wednesday to find out who they were. Along the way, I found out that an investigation had been started in early June. I found out that Gundlach had alleged, among other things, that Petee taught far too many directed study classes. I found out Petee taught some athletes but that they were in a distinct minority. I heard about Doug Langenfeld and the class in which he got three hours credit for reading one book and doing a report. I talked to many people who said what Petee was doing with directed study students was way out of line.

I also found out that, as of the Board of Trustees executive session in late June, the investigating committee said no wrongdoing had been found but that the investigation was ongoing. I talked to some former Auburn players who found the whole thing preposterous. I couldn't find one who even hinted at impropriety. It took only a few minutes to figure that 21 Auburn players had played in the past two bowl games as graduates, and only three of them had degrees in sociology.

I wanted to write the story for Thursday's Huntsville Times. I sent emails and left voicemail messages for Gundlach and Petee. Petee finally responded, saying in an email he couldn't talk. I did not hear from Gundlach. I did not yet feel comfortable writing the story. I talked to Langenfeld late Wednesday night. He vehemently denied having done anything wrong.

By mid-morning Thursday, I knew I was going to write the story for Friday's paper. I tried to get interviews with the other principals in the case. I soon learned, to my dismay, that university officials who had been made available to The New York Times would not be made available to me. Instead, prepared statements from President Ed Richardson and Provost John Heimel came out of University Relations, once again to my dismay. Within minutes, those statements had spread like an out-of-control fire. By sometime around 6 p.m., The New York Times had put its story on the Internet.

Along the way, I had been told that Gundlach had said he was angry because he wanted the job as chair of the department. I was told that by people whom I trust and whom I believed were in position to know. I included that in my story in Friday's Huntsville Times.

The name-calling heated up.

From there, I went on pursuing the story, knowing full well it was not over. I believe it was when I read a story in The Birmingham News that I learned for the first time that Gundlach was disputing the report that he wanted the job. Finally, on Sunday afternoon, after he had talked to several other media outlets, Gundlach agreed to talk to me. He was very accommodating and very gracious. He told his side of the story and told me he would no longer cooperate with the investigating committee. I reported his statements in Monday's paper.

Gundlach also told me that his main motivation was that Petee wasn't "fit to be a department administrator," and that he'd never said it was an issue exclusive to athletics. He said he didn't believe Auburn had broken NCAA rules. He chuckled at the irony that, by coming forward, he might have kept the situation from getting to the point that it would have been an NCAA problem.

Things have calmed down some now, but obviously this story has not yet run its course. The committee has not finished its work, and Richardson said Friday that 3-4 weeks probably remain in the investigation. He said he would recommend at an Aug. 4 meeting of the Board of Trustees that controls be put into place that will limit how many directed study courses an instructor can teach. He said he didn't expect any NCAA or SACS problems. We still have not heard Petee's side of the story, other than a few quotes from him in the original story. As the days have gone by, it has become increasingly obvious that this is an academic issue in the sociology department far more than it is an issue that has much, if anything, to do with athletics.

As for me, I still have seen no evidence of wrongdoing in the football program. I still say, from what I've seen in being around the program almost every day, the commitment to academics in Auburn's football program is very real. And I still say there could always be something amiss that I don't know about. The investigation is continuing and I will continue to pursue this story wherever it goes.

If that makes me a no-good homer with no character, ethics or integrity, so be it.

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