Checking In On Auburn Basketball And Football

Phillip Marshall writes about the men's basketball team's NCAA investigation and this week's football matchup with Arkansas.

Auburn, Ala.--The letter created quite a stir, as such letters always do. A preliminary letter of inquiry from the NCAA is never good news, and it wasn't good news when Auburn got one earlier this week. But it was neither unexpected nor a sign that disaster is on the horizon.

In truth, the investigation into Auburn's basketball program has been ongoing for some six months, ever since self-described sports consultant Mike Walker of McComb, Miss., called athletic director David Housel with allegations of wrongdoing. Barring an unexpected turn, it's almost over.

The letter specified that the NCAA hoped to complete the investigation by Dec. 1, a remarkably short time period. NCAA investigator Jim Elworth has already been to town at the university's invitation. People with thorough knowledge of the investigation say secondary violations have been found, but that no major violations have been uncovered. It should be remembered, however, that a secondary violation isn't secondary until the NCAA says it is.

In truth, what has happened is that Auburn's basketball program found itself caught in the middle when Walker was angered at AAU coach Mark Komara of Huntsville. The dispute centered around high school star Jackie Butler of McComb and what AAU team he played for during the summer. Butler never made an official visit to Auburn and has committed to Mississippi State. Walker made the call and it all began.

As frequently happens, once the investigation started, it led in other directions. If Auburn is found to have committed violations, they may well be things that are unrelated to what started the investigation in the first place. If the mission is to label Komara an Auburn booster, that mission is doomed.

Auburn wasn't the only school Walker called. He made the same kinds of allegations in calls to Alabama and Kentucky and was essentially ignored. Only Auburn launched an investigation. Nobody is about to say it publicly, but the presence of Dave Didion as a director of enforcement on the NCAA staff probably made Auburn officials a little quicker on the trigger. Didion, of course, is a former Auburn compliance director.

Head basketball coach Cliff Ellis' feelings about Didion became a matter of public knowledge during the summer when a letter Ellis wrote seeking Didion's ouster from his position at Auburn was leaked in the media. Didion never tried to hide his disdain for Ellis.

There is no evidence that Didion has done anything improper or has been involved in the investigation at all.

Major sanctions are unlikely. The theory floated on Internet message boards that the investigation could expand to include football is off base. NCAA investigations don't work that way. This investigation is about basketball and nothing else.

What Auburn officials want most of all to avoid is the case being classified as major, thus opening the five-year window that means a school can be labeled a repeat violator if there is trouble later in any sport. Alabama got what seemed a slap on the wrist for the Tyrone Beamon case, losing one scholarship. But the five-year window was extended, and that became part of the NCAA's rationale in hammering the football program with a two-year bowl ban and loss of 21 schoalrships.

There is no question the NCAA would like to find a case in which it can make a statement about the influence of AAU coaches in college recruiting and the sleaze many of them bring to the process. But it seems unlikely this is the one.

REALITY CHECK

Just what are we to make of this Auburn football team? Are four straight wins a sign of a big season to come? We'll know in the next four weeks.

The Tigers start a four-week run of SEC games with Saturday's game against Arkansas at Jordan-Hare Stadium. After they play the Razorbacks, the Tigers play at Florida, return home to play LSU and play at Ole Miss.

When that stretch is over, Auburn will either have proved itself a contender or been exposed as a pretender.

Those who believe Saturday's game should be a blowout need a reality check. Arkansas is a good team that played a bad game in a 30-12 loss at home to Alabama. The Razorbacks would have beaten Tennessee at Neyland Stadium last Saturday if they could have made a 38-yard field goal in overtime. They have ample weapons.

I look for a very close game Saturday, one that probably won't be decided until the final minutes. At 2-2 overall and 0-2 in the SEC, the Razorbacks will be fighting for their lives in the SEC West Division race. I would expect that to have more impact than the fact that they played six overtimes and lost at Tennessee last Saturday.

This week's SEC football predictions include:

Auburn 24, Arkansas 19
Ole Miss 42, Arkansas State 14;
Mississippi State 35, Troy State 17;
Tennessee 27, Georgia 25;
Vanderbilt 38, Middle Tennessee State 14;

South Carolina 20, Kentucky 17;
Florida 31, LSU 21.


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