Following Stage 1 ("Hey! Big Cat Weekend!") and Stage 2 ("Hey! Secondary violations!"), we've now entered Stage 3 of the Big Cat Weekend fallout: "Hey! Those violations don't mean a damn thing!" And in practical terms, assuming Auburn doesn't run right out and hold Toomer's Rolling II: The Rollening next weekend, the fallout is correct: they don't. Just this week we've discovered that Ohio St. has averaged--averaged!--41 violations per year this decade, with the Buckeyes having paid for their reckless, lawless ways by ... well, not by having suffered any punishment it's worth my time to tell you about. The Georgia booster who violated NCAA rules by making telephone contact with a recruit can tell you all about it, once he's done having borne the horrible indignity of ... being told not to do it again.
So when the price of breaking the NCAA's bylaws ("bylaws"? they're even named like the sort of rules you can ignore, that just sort of mill around quietly near the back of the room) is nothing, and the benefit of Big Cat Weekend is a mountain of publicity and a half-dozen recruits naming Auburn their leader ... I mean, the logic of the cost-reward analysis is inescapable. From the standpoint of making Auburn's football team the best football team it can be, Auburn's coaches would have been making a sizable mistake if they hadn't gone through with their idea. As the Good Doctor writes:
If Auburn knew going into the weekend that effectively staging a media event and introducing players on stage would cost it a few hours of extra paperwork and (maybe, at worst) a round of minimal public embarrassment in exchange for landing a commitment from a future star like Seastrunk, does anyone think the Tigers would have pulled in the reins? If Ohio State knew it could ply a recruit and his friends with game tickets, a discounted hotel and free food with no consequence whatsoever, as long as the recruit (or someone on his behalf) paid the money back long after his commitment, why wouldn't it cut that corner?There is no correct answer to that question, no sane reason why anyone would not. The next step in this sequence of thought, then, is to exonerate Auburn's coaches for their supposed misdeeds, as the Advertiser's Josh Moon does in a recommended, on-point column:
Why wouldn't anyone?
(D)o you think it was an accident when Lane Kiffin talked about a recruit by name?It's true that if you're going to pick one target to bash in this situation, it should be the game itself, or the sluggish NCAA bureaucrats that have enabled it to come into existence. The NCAA has an obvious, vested interest in keeping scenes like the Toomer's rolling from happening ... and yet their own toothlessness have created an atmosphere in which Auburn feels not only safe in putting together a recruiting pep rally, they feel driven to to keep up with all the other rule-bending Joneses in the SEC. I don't know if the proposal by Bruce Feldman's anonymous, justifiably peeved-off college administrator to cut off a school's access to a player after multiple secondary violations is the answer, but the NCAA needs to find something, and they need to find it fast. I said Monday I'm not comfortable with enlisting the nation's student bodies and broader fan bases in the recruiting wars, and if the NCAA does take steps to ensure there's no Toomer's rolling sequel--at Auburn or elsewhere--I'll happily cheer them on.
Do you think it was an accident that Nick Saban has "bumped" into a few prospects?
Do you think it was an accident when Houston Nutt all but gave out commits' Social Security numbers, but not their names, while raving about the positive impact those players might have on his Ole Miss team? ...
All of it is part of the new recruiting game being played out all across the country.
So, don't bash the Auburn coaches for what happened last weekend ... They're just playing the game.
For all of that, though, I'm not ready to say Auburn's coaches are blameless saints. I applaud their ingenuity, I applaud their dedication and enthusiasm and competitiveness and all the other good qualities that led to Saturday night at the Corner. But when Aubie and a cadre of police officers show up, it's safe to say that this wasn't an unplanned, impromptu gathering that just happened to "leak" to the public. This was by design, a design it strains believability to think Auburn's coaches didn't know was against the rules.
And that's what gnaws at me a bit. It's one thing for our coaches to accidentally violate one the NCAA's gazillion pointless minor statutes, or buck against them when it's necessary to do right by one of Auburn's players. (Rick Majerus once got in trouble for buying one his players lunch after his mother had died, or something similar.) It's another thing to look at a perfectly justifiable rule--no public appearances or media for unofficial visitors--and choose to not merely bend it a bit, but break it with just about as much gusto as possible. Do Auburn's coaches really want to re-establish Auburn as the sort of program that views NCAA regulations as useful suggestions rather than rules to be followed? Do they really want to send the message to our players that rules can be ignored as long as you can get away with it? When the NCAA inevitably cracks down, do we really want the Toomer's Corner Rule to join the Houston Nutt Rule and the Saban Rule as testaments to recruiting excess?
That's not to say I'm "disappointed" or "angry" or even "upset" with Auburn's coaches. This is a first-time offense, only the second time (after the Durst situation) I've been anything less than thrilled over this staff's decision-making. And, of course, until the NCAA starts swinging the hammer, its rules are going to be trampled by any team in the sort of situation Auburn is in.
As I've mentioned many times before, after the Season of DEATH that situation is one where Auburn has to take chances, be aggressive, take the road less traveled. My wish is that that road could double as the proverbial high road, and that Auburn could somehow take both both at once. Is that pie-in-the-sky dreaming? Yeah, which is why I'm not exactly calling for anyone's head here. But it's not going to keep me from hoping that Auburn finds a better way forward next time--and that the NCAA gives both our team and the rest of the country a strong nudge in that direction in the very near future.