June 2, 2003 ATLANTA What promised to be a difficult year for the Georgia Tech football program got downright ugly in May, and the temperature under coach Chan Gailey and athletic director Dave Braine increased significantly. It's now safe to say that both are on the hot seat. After months spent laughing at archrival Georgia for a myriad of problems from drug busts to selling championship rings, the Yellow Jackets got into trouble of their own. By the time the smoke had cleared, Tech's troubles appeared to be a challenge to the school's reputation and its chances for the 2003 football season, while the Bulldogs brushed off some negative publicity and continued to speak optimistically about this fall.
Ten Georgia Tech players, including star tailback Tony Hollings and promising defensive end Tony Hargrove, were declared academically ineligible for the upcoming season. Tailback Michael Sampson, linebacker Kingi McNair and linebacker Anthony Lawston were among the eight others. The unidentified five did not consent to have their names released by the school. According to sources, at least one of those is a starter as well.
I'm disappointed for our football team, Gailey said in a statement, but we will move forward.
All 10 players were dismissed from school, lost re-instatement appeals to the school's undergraduate curriculum committee and cannot return until spring 2004 at the earliest. Also in May, backup offensive lineman Zeb McHargue and backup quarterback Al Pena, a true freshman who had enrolled in school early, quit the team.
But it's the academic problems that could threaten the job security of many, and there's no promise that everyone now eligible will remain so through the fall. Tech has a number of players, Gailey said, who will have to sweat out summer school to remain eligible.
The biggest question in the aftermath was why, or more specifically how, it all happened. A wonderful game of point-the-finger broke out when the news came to light.
Earlier Policy Change Backfired
Braine, while admitting that he is ultimately responsible for the goings-on, defended Gailey but essentially laid it on the student-athletes and the academic types at Tech for forcing a change in the way coaches looked after their players. An athletic department policy instituted after the 2001 season prevented coaches from participating in class scheduling matters and also built a wall of sorts between the coaches and the academic support staff.
The policy is designed in part to minimize the opportunity for a coach to pressure (a professor or instructor) to change a player's grades, a Tech source said. It was put into place with very good intentions, and obviously even if it solved some problems it caused some others. A lot of other schools have adopted similar policies, with the same goals in mind. Sometimes new things don't work out exactly the way you hope they will.
Gailey, after being unavailable to the media for nearly a week, pleaded innocence, claiming he was taken out of the loop (seven of the 10 dismissals surprised him) and that he had placed his full confidence in those assigned to handle the task of keeping players eligible. Indeed, Tech's coaches had at times requested permission to contact players' professors about their academic progress, only to be told that the new policy prevented such interaction.
The academic types chiefly Dr. Carole Moore, the head of academic advising for the football team generally reinforced the line that Tech is a proud academic institution and no one can avoid its tough academics. (We don't have majors where we can hide at-risk student-athletes, the Tech source said. Most schools do. We don't. It's a challenge, but we're proud of that. We can't avoid it, and we don't want to avoid it.) The academics also covered themselves by reminding all of many wasted opportunities for tutoring and study halls.
It was a fascinating game of cover-your-behinds, but it did little to address the problem.
When George O'Leary ran the Tech football program, he ruled with an iron fist. He rode everybody, from players to those on the academic side. He made sure players didn't fall through the cracks. He assigned people to check grades and class attendance, and they all reported back to him. All in all, his system worked. There were some cases, including star tailback Joe Burns, that didn't, but O'Leary never had a grades debacle anything like this one.
O'Leary knew he needed players eligible if he was to compete in the ACC, so he did everything he could to keep them that way. His hard-charging style wore on people, though, and when he left for Notre Dame some of those people particularly the academics quickly rebelled, pressing Braine to turn over the academic advising to them. Braine, he said later, did so reluctantly.
By the time Gailey was hired, the system already was being changed. Gailey, returning to college coaching after a long stint in the NFL, felt no need to try to change it back. Thus, he said later, he was unaware of the magnitude of the problems until the grades were announced. It was hard to imagine O'Leary being blind-sided like that.
Coach Gailey is more of a coach that is going to treat you like an adult. Coach O'Leary was more of a domineering figure, one former Tech player said. Some guys can handle being treated like men and some guys can't. And I guess we found out that there are some guys who don't deserve the treatment (Gailey) gave them. That's sad because that's not Coach Gailey's fault.
It certainly wasn't entirely Gailey's fault, but these are not 28-year-old professionals who collect a paycheck on the first of the month. These are 19-year-old kids, and some will be more interested in PlayStation than classes if left on their own too much. Without a coach steering them in the right direction, at least 10 Tech players obviously fell off the track.
Roster Numbers Dangerously Low
For a program already in some trouble the Yellow Jackets were hammered by Georgia (51-7) last season, then lost to a depleted Fresno State squad (30-21) in their bowl game and with an expensive stadium renovation complete, the loss of 12 players couldn't have come at a worse time.
Tech dropped down to about 50 scholarship players, not counting the incoming freshmen, and that's a ridiculously low number for a major college football program. The losses of Hollings and Sampson, the team's top two running backs, were devastating to an offense with troubles at quarterback. The coaching staff had pinned many of its hopes for the 2003 season on a return to form by Hollings, the nation's leading rusher before being injured in the fourth game of 2002.
Hargrove, the team's biggest-impact player on defense, also was capable of creating game-changing plays. He will be missed, especially if veteran Greg Gathers can't return from the kidney ailment that sidelined him for much of last season. McNair and Sampson both were expected to be solid contributors this season, and both were members of Gailey's first recruiting class.
Braine and Gailey promise changes are coming. Gailey said he will be more involved. Braine said the whole system will be examined for flaws. For now, senior AD for football Larry New, a former Tech assistant coach, will have a role in looking after football players academically. Meetings took place in the days after the announcement and will continue throughout the summer to avoid a repeat.
Obviously, the former player said, they're going to have to change something.
If another academic avalanche hits the program after the summer, those changes might not be enough to save some jobs.
Gailey never has been a favorite of Tech fans, and his mediocre results last season only intensified those feelings. A middling recruiting class, defections and now academic problems have turned the boil into a cauldron. Tech's brutal early season schedule, which kicks off with BYU, Auburn and Florida State, could lead to death-watch scenarios if the Yellow Jackets struggle out of the gate.
Braine, ironically, has been chastised in the past by Tech fans for being too hands-on. He often is referred to as Coach Braine. In this case, he clearly was too hands-off, unknowingly tying his head coach's hands even before he was hired. If Gailey, his hand-picked coach, lands in serious trouble this fall, Braine surely will as well.