These have to be troubling times for Douglas A. Dickey. With Juicy-gate, Tee-gate and Tutor-gate scandals all breaking loose in the span of a single month, it has to be getting a little warm in the venerable University of Tennessee Athletics Director's kitchen.
It's way too early to say whether there's any fire coming from the direction of "The Hill." But considering the program has managed for most of Dickey's period of influence to stay one step ahead of the NCAA, it certainly has gotten smoky over there in a big hurry. (And I ain't talking about that dang coon dog.)
The Clinton White House purportedly had a set of aides designated to handle "bimbo eruptions." Do you suppose Dickey will soon set up a squad to handle "jock outbreaks"?
First the football program voluntarily forfeits two scholarships and chastens Phil Fulmer for a secondary violation involving a booster and Eric Locke. (UT claims it did the right thing by imposing its own sanctions. And even rival fans know there is good reason to be suspicious when Richard "Juicy" Locke is involved.)
Then a Mobile, Ala. newspaper reporter steps forward saying he was the intermediary for $4500 sent by a fan to star quarterback Tee Martin in 1999. It was a headline-grabbing story that involved embezzlement and a mysterious suicide.
Fortunately for Dickey, however, it's an allegation that is looking more unreliable by the day as principals come forward to tell their sides.
But just last week, another scandal involving Tennessee made its way into the media-- one which, from a Vanderbilt perspective, is far more intriguing than either of the others.
This time the story was broken not by a newspaper, but by the Paul Finebaum radio show out of Birmingham. Finebaum, the caustic Birmingham columnist and TV/radio personality who is both loved and loathed by the good residents of Alabama, has never met a scandal he didn't like.
Last Tuesday Finebaum invited columnist Bob Gilbert onto his talk show for an interview. During the interview Gilbert revealed that the SEC was sending an investigator to look into some allegations Gilbert had made about academic fraud among UT football players.
Gilbert, whose column is published by several small papers in Tennessee (including the Nashville City Paper), had written, "The SEC investigated allegations of academic fraud within the UT men's athletics department and found nothing. I've seen the evidence — have it in my possession — and it is compelling and incriminating."
SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer, bothered seeing those words in print, would be sending ex-FBI man Bill Sievers to Maryville, Tenn. to talk with Gilbert. The "Tutor-gate" scandal, which Dickey and UT fans thought had been safely put to bed two years ago, was suddenly alive and well once more.
But wait a minute, UT fans started asking-- aren't these the same documents that NCAA investigators examined two years ago, without finding anything? Yes, it turns out, they are. Gilbert, a Tennessee graduate and former employee in the news department, was mystified at how the NCAA could have examined the evidence and found nothing amiss.
"Nobody would look at her documenation," Gilbert told Finebaum. "The UT administration didn't... the SEC apparently didn't... and the NCAA certainly didn't. The NCAA sent an investigator down, Dr. Bensel-Meyers presented what she had, and the NCAA didn't want to see it. Well, I've seen it. And I think it's compelling, and it's incriminating... this woman has tried to get her story out for some time, and no one would look."
The transcripts, said Gilbert, showed patterns of convenient and improper grade changes... of student-athletes failing to declare a major after two years, as is mandatory... and of athletes being shepherded into courses such as 'Walking" and "Jogging" in order to keep them eligible [insert your own joke here]. Gilbert even implicated former UT President Wade Gilley, saying Gilley had no desire to get to the bottom of the mess.
On Wednesday, Gilbert appeared on a Knoxville talk show. On Thursday, some of Gilbert's documents (obtained from UT professor Dr. Linda Bensel-Meyers) were published in the Knoxville News-Sentinel.
Immediately the powerful UT spin machine went into overdrive to try to discredit Gilbert, as it had done with Dr. Bensel-Meyers in 1999. Gilbert, a gritty veteran of the news business and a former reporter with the Associated Press, was vilified as a "tired hack" by UT fans on talk shows and message boards. The UT provost issued a press release saying that Gilbert had nothing that hadn't been brought out before.
Gilbert was unperturbed. "I'm a graduate of the University of Tennessee, and I worked there for 29 years," he said. "And I'm appalled by what I suspect strongly has been going on there for quite some time... There's a mountain of denial going on, and as a former member of that staff over there, I've just had a belly full of it."
The Finebaum show scored another bombshell interview Friday afternoon when Bensel-Meyers appeared live. Bensel-Meyers, a tenured professor in the UT English department, went so far as to intimate that SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer had been complicit in keeping Tennessee out of trouble with the NCAA.
"[The SEC and NCAA] have academic rules, but they have no way of enforcing them," said Dr. Bensel-Meyers. "As long as it accomplishes what Kramer wants-- it depends on a lot of bowl commitments and TV contracts, and the need to have good, competitive teams to keep the money rolling in-- the universities are going to be forced to capitulate more and more on their own academic integrity.
"It was clearly Dickey who orchestrated all of the internal investigations of academic fraud," Bensel-Meyers went on. "What he has to do with academics on a university campus, I have no idea... They had a system by which they could recruit and sign athletes who could not read and write when they came in, and could not read and write when they left, even with a degree."
Dr. Bensel-Meyers, who will publish a book soon, paints a picture of an out-of-control athletic program which wags an entire university... a Nixonesque cover-up of the academic fraud scandal... and a conference commissioner who looks the other way.
What to make of all this? The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Tony Barnhart writes, "...the concern in Big Orange Country should be the perception created by three major incidents involving rules compliance in less than a month. This could compel the NCAA Infractions Committee not to accept the report on Locke at face value and to take a thorough look at everything. Once that happens, anything is possible."
I'm getting the impression that some Vandy fans are jubilant at the prospects of the Vols' finally getting their come-uppance. As tempting as it is to rejoice at others' misfortune, think it through. It's one thing to hope they get caught-- it's another altogether to wish major sanctions on them.
First, there's that seemingly universal truth that what goes around comes around. (Watching 'Bama fans exult in Tennessee's misfortune is really somewhat sickening.)
Second, when one SEC school gets hit, all suffer. The SEC is already under an enormous cloud. Would you really want Vandy to win the SEC by default, because they were the only school not under major sanctions? Would you really want a season finale against "Open Date"?
On the other hand, if the impending Tutor-gate investigation ultimately helps to usher in meaningful, conference-wide reform whereby athletes' eligibility standards are tightened up, and the playing field leveled-- the Vanderbilt camp can do little but sit by and applaud.