I was hoping to have my thoughts on the first spring scrimmage up today, but something a little more urgent popped up this morning. I promise to finally get around to that before the SECOND scrimmage this weekend.
For now, let's discuss the news of the day...
Alabama football fans got a rude awakening this morning when AuburnSports.com owner Jeffrey Lee appeared on WNSP Sports Radio in Mobile and leveled serious allegations against the Crimson Tide. During the station's Morning Sports Center program, Lee alleged that Alabama engaged in a pay-for-play scheme to secure the re-commitment of Russelville (AL) LB/RB prospect Brent Calloway.
For those not familiar with Calloway's story, he was a long-time Bama commit who shocked the state by abruptly switching his commitment to Auburn at the Army All-American game, only to switch back to Alabama on Signing Day. The firestorm of controversy surrounding his recruitment was perhaps second only to that of Cyrus Kouandjio (another surprising Bama/Auburn battle).
Immediately following the interview, Lee appeared on his website's premium message board and explicitly detailed his case against the Tide. I won't post the rundown in full due to it being behind a pay wall, but I'll sum it up as best I can:
Lee alleges that a "supporter" (his terminology, quotation marks and all) of Alabama football made cash payments to Calloway's adoptive father, Harland Winston. He specifically mentions Winston receiving $2,500 on "at least one occasion." He further alleges that Winston was behind on his mortgage but was suddenly able to catch up with cash payments and that Calloway was told he would receive $1,200 a month while at Alabama. Then it starts getting strange: He goes on to report Calloway received a new car, but it was "taken back by the end of the day" on the first day he drove it to school due to it raising so many questions. He also claims this "supporter" absconded out of state with Calloway until Signing Day, for which the high schooler allegedly received excused absences from the school superintendent, whom Lee reports has a family member in the Alabama athletic department.
That's it in a nutshell. Needless to say, none of this information is sourced. I'm going to preface my thoughts on the situation with a few things worth considering when it comes to the source of the allegation itself...
AuburnSports.com is a part of the Rivals Network. Like all Rivals sites, it is independently owned and operated with minimal oversight. And like all Rivals sites, some degree of "homerism" is to be expected on the editorial end. They're mostly, if not completely, owned by people with at least an interest, if not an outright emotional attachment, to the teams they cover, after all. But some are worse than others, and in this regard, Jeffrey Lee's site is among the worst of the worst, in my opinion. He is essentially a glorified fanboy with corporate sponsorship.
For an example of just how far Lee will go to attack those he sees as threatening Auburn, I refer you back to last fall when the news broke about Cam Newton's (alleged) academic problems at Florida. Prior to that story hitting nationally, apparently a member of Florida State's Rivals site, WarChant.com, posted that the story was coming well beforehand. Lee found out about this and used his access to the Rivals network to track down this guy's identity and then posted his PERSONAL INFORMATION on AuburnSports.com in an effort to expose a perceived conspiracy against his beloved Tigers' star player. It goes without saying that this individual was subsequently harassed by Auburn fans. That's how twisted Lee can be.
I don't mean to disparage all Auburn fans here, most of whom are sane people. But that fan base has a lunatic fringe unlike any other. It's almost cult-like with it's bizarre notions of "family'" and obsessions with bringing down Alabama. There is without question a sentiment that "If we're going down, Bama is coming with us" among them.. And Lee is absolutely on that fringe. Unfortunately, a part of that fringe is also running show in Auburn these days, but that's another matter all together...I'm just saying, it wasn't a coincidence that Auburn came out with the Toomer's Corner poisoning the day Fox Sports broke the story of the NCAA investigating AU's recruitment of Trovon Reed and Greg Robinson in Louisiana (check the timeline on that story and see if the timing makes sense to you), and it's not a coincidence that Lee has whipped up this story about a pay-for-play scheme at Alabama a week after Auburn was blasted with similar allegations by HBO.
(And if there's any humor to be found in this situation, it's that many Auburn fans who've spent the past 4 months decrying the lack of verifiable facts in similar allegations made against them now stand ready to wholeheartedly embrace a sourceless, fact-less account of Alabama's misdeeds from a fan site with about 1/1,000 of the credibility of ESPN, HBO, Fox Sports, and the New York Times combined.)
I say all that just to give you some context. But here is my general stance when it comes to allegations of wrong-doing, in two parts:
1. Just because someone is out to get you, it doesn't mean what they get on you isn't true.
2. Just because the person making the allegations is a shady character, it doesn't mean they're lying.
If either of those things disqualified someone's word, our legal system wouldn't be able to effectively prosecute about 50% of criminals. I've spent the last couple of weeks reminding Auburn fans of this. And today, I guess I need to remind Alabama fans. Jeffrey Lee may be the most hopelessly biased, unprofessional writer in the entire Rivals network, but that doesn't mean his allegations are false.
Now that I've danced around it long enough, do I think the allegations are true? I don't want to go too far out on a limb here, because I don't have any inside info right now, but my instincts say "no." However, if something did happen, I'm absolutely confident that the violation was not systemic in nature. Sure, part of that is my fandom talking, but part of it is also Nick Saban's sterling record speaking for itself: no school has ever been nailed for a major recruiting violation occurring under his watch.
To get an idea of how Saban runs things, I refer to Ronnie Sanders, owner of AuburnUndercover.com on the 247 Sports network. Sanders is an Auburn grad who also worked on the football staff there. He also worked for Saban at LSU. Shortly after transcripts of Stanley McClover's HBO interview went public, Sanders appeared on Paul Finebaum's radio show. When asked about his time at LSU, Sanders said Saban told his staff that (paraphrasing) "If he caught them cheating, he would fire them." That's coming from an Auburn grad who was on staff at Auburn and now runs an Auburn fan site.
As far as this being a case of a booster "going rogue," well, my thoughts on that would be similar to what I've been telling people about the booster allegations against Auburn made on HBO: Even the cleanest, most compliant coaching staff and athletic department in all of college football (whoever that might be) can't account for the actions of every booster at every moment of the day. Just can't. Not even the all-powerful Nick Saban himself holds that much control. You just have to cross your fingers and hope they all choose to do the right thing. If all you have to deal with are the hundred dollar handshakes, you're in pretty good shape.
So I'm just going to keep crossing my fingers. If there's any certainty to be found, it's in this: Since Saban took control of the program, Alabama has developed a reputation for having one of the most proactive compliance departments in the country. They will investigate this quickly and quietly. If there's anything to the allegations, they'll deal with it appropriately. If not, this will go the way of Gadsden and other Auburn myths, slowly drifting out of the state's sports consciousness, only reemerging for the sake of trivia or an inside joke. "Hey, remember when crazy Auburn people thought (fill in the blank)?"
We'll see. But here's something to chew on: Lee specifically refers to the individual at the center of this pay-for-play scheme as a "supporter" of Alabama football (including quotation marks) and explicitly states he is not a booster or an alumnus of the university. We can also assume this person is not on staff with the team. So if this person isn't a coach, staffer, booster, or alumnus...then what is he? Could the NCAA even make a case against someone who, apparently, has no affiliation with the university, if there's a case to be made to begin with? In my opinion, this may be a case of Mr. Lee playing semantics so that if/when nothing comes of this, he can go back to his followers and say, "Bama cheated, they just couldn't prove it!"
Food for thought. I'm sure we'll be checking back in on this as it develops.