Marshall: Little Weekly Gets Big Scoop

Columnist Phillip Marshall takes a look at the ongoing saga of Auburn and the New York Times that had in interesting twist on Thursday.

For two weeks, I and others who cover Auburn athletics have tried to talk to Tom Petee, the interim chair of Auburn's Department of sociology, anthropology, social work, criminology and criminal justice and the central figure in the allegations of academic wrongdoing made by sociology director James Gundlach reported first by The New York Times.

Petee has finally broken his silence. But he didn't talk to The Huntsville Times. Or The Birmingham News. Or The Mobile Register. Or The Montgomery Advertiser. Or The Opelika-Auburn News. He didn't talk to Inside The Auburn Tigers.

Nope. All of us who cover Auburn athletics for a living were scooped by Jacequline Kochak, the news editor of The Auburn Villager.

The Auburn Villager, in case you didn't know, is a new weekly newspaper. It put out its fifth edition Thursday. Included was Ms. Kochak's indepth interview in which Petee vehemently denied that he gave special treatment to athletes.

So new is The Auburn Villager, Ms. Kochak said, that it doesn't yet even have a telephone in its office. The first editor left after two editions and Ms. Kochak, a former O-A News reporter and a free lance journalist, agreed to take over.

It was still sinking in Thursday night that she'd gotten a story of great significance.

"I thought I was just writing for the people in Auburn," Ms. Kochak said. "I had no idea how much attention it was going to get."

It all started at the church both Ms. Kochak and Petee attend.

"I've been a journalist and I know a lot of people," Ms. Kochak said. "People tend to trust me because I've always been fair. I ran into him at church and I could tell he was dying to talk to me."

Ms. Kochak's mind was on her father, gravely ill in Kansas, and a planned trip to visit him. She told Petee she would call him when she returned.

"I got home and the journalist in me kicked in," Ms. Kochak said.

She called Petee and set up an interview. He told her that, in teaching a large number of directed study classes, he was trying to find a solution in a department with too many students and not enough instructors. He told her that athletes actually made lower grades in those courses than non-athletes. He said he was "ambushed" by New York Times reporter Pete Thamel and said Thamel "came in under another pretense."

Ms. Kochak never expected to even write a sports story, much less break a big one.

Asked if she had been a sports writer or followed sports, Ms. Kochak chuckled.

"Anybody who knows me would break out laughing at that," she said. "But I have covered Auburn University for the O-A News. I understand the university environment."

So she got the big interview. And in the process a little weekly newspaper trying to make a place for itself will get far more publicity than it ever could have bought.

Moving on …

After listening to eight coaches and 16 players in the first two days of the Southeastern Conference's Media Days, I have come to a conclusion: Nobody is going to finish last.

Ah, summertime. Everybody can win in the summertime. For some teams, though, the reality of autumn will bite hard.

For anyone who cares, here is how I voted in the preseason poll that was to be released today:

WEST: 1. Auburn, 2. LSU, 3. Arkansas, 4. Alabama, 5. Mississippi State, 6. Ole Miss.

Auburn and LSU, I believe, are the most talented teams in the division. I voted for Auburn because LSU must play at Jordan-Hare Stadium. I moved Arkansas ahead of Alabama because the Razorbacks have more starters (19) back than anyone and Alabama has huge holes to fill. On top of that, the Tide must play at LSU, at Florida, at Tennessee and at Arkansas. No one in the SEC has a tougher league road schedule than that. I voted Ole Miss last because I am not convinced the Rebels will be any better this season than last, when they won but four games, and I believe Mississippi State will be significantly better.

EAST: 1. Georgia, 2. Florida, 3. Tennessee, 4. South Carolina, 5. Kentucky, 6. Vanderbilt.

Why Georgia? I believe Mark Richt is one of the nation's better coaches. Though they'll have to break in a new quarterback, I think the Bulldogs are exceptionally talented.

Why not Florida? I'm still not convinced Urban Meyer's approach to offense can win championships in a league as physical as the SEC. I'm not even convinced that the Gators will finish ahead of Tennessee.

Until next time …

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