September 6, 2004 ATLANTA In the aftermath of 10 football players failing out of school last summer, Georgia Tech began a review to determine exactly how it happened. The result of that review, which studied the eligibility of 864 student-athletes dating back to 2000-01, surprisingly concluded (among other things) that 17 student-athletes, including 10 football players, had been incorrectly certified to compete for the Yellow Jackets.
The 17 cases involved a number of different reasons. No one cause was responsible for all situations. Names were not included in the school's recent report. Fifteen of the involved players are no longer in school, and two are current student-athletes. A football player already has been cleared to play this year, and a track athlete is expected to be cleared as well.
Tech self-reported the violations, which the school believes to be secondary violations, to the NCAA at the end of August. The school also proposed penalties, including the forfeiture of four football scholarships in each of the next two years, the loss of track scholarships over the next two years, payment of a $5,000 fine, and letters of reprimand for the staff members involved in the situation.
The loss of four football scholarships in each of the next two years may sound like a stiff penalty, but given the Yellow Jackets' recruiting philosophy and their current situation, the losses should not make much of an impact. The proposed scholarship losses would come off the 25 permitted in a single class, not the 85 overall that Division I-A programs are allowed to have at any time, and the Jackets rarely sign 25 prospects anyway.
Keep in mind that those are proposed penalties, and the NCAA still must rule on the case. The NCAA can accept the proposals, increase them or decrease them. Tech athletic director Dave Braine said 94 schools have been in a "similar situation" in years past, and just six of them were determined to be anything but secondary violations.
Tech coach Chan Gailey has brought in three recruiting classes, and none contained the full complement of 25 incoming players. In the last two seasons, when Gailey had a full year to recruit, Tech signed 20 and 23 players, respectively. The recent transfer of Louisville tight end Wayne Riles moved Tech to 24 for the 2004 class. That's a net loss of six scholarships, not far from the eight the Yellow Jackets are proposing to surrender.
The Tech football program has 19 seniors this season, 15 on scholarship. The Yellow Jackets have 17 juniors this season, 14 on scholarship. Replacing those numbers, even without those four grants in each of the next two years, should not be a problem.
Long before the news of the proposed scholarship limits broke, Gailey endorsed a strategy of recruiting to the 85 total limit and not the 25 yearly limit. As a school with a proud tradition of recruiting strong students (especially in recent years) and retaining players, Tech should be less affected by the proposed penalties than most others would be.
The school, and the football coaching staff, may not know the outcome of the case before national signing day in February. Expect the Yellow Jackets to sign less than a full class, probably by five or six, in case the NCAA accepts the proposed penalties. Excluding Riles, who will count toward the 2004 numbers for purposes of the 25-per-year limit, the Jackets had seven Class of 2005 commitments entering September.
Academic Miscues Embarrassing
Tech's report to the NCAA outlined several reasons as to how the incorrect certifications took place. One of the "mitigating circumstances," Tech explained, was the turnover in the academic office.
Several academic advisors left in the interim between George O'Leary and Gailey, when the control of the advising program shifted away from the athletic department. After the failings of the 10 players last year, the staff underwent massive changes again.
The report to the NCAA claimed that the former registrar, the person responsible for certifying student-athletes, does not believe that he had been certifying athletes incorrectly. He has trained the current registrar. The report also said the entire process has been streamlined as many as 12 people were involved in the process before and those involved in certifying athletes have been re-trained. Finally, the school went out of its way to point out that just 1.9 percent of the 864 student-athletes in the study group were incorrectly certified.
Meanwhile, Tech officials said the suspensions of defensive tackle Travis Parker and wide receiver Damarius Bilbo for the season opener against Samford were not related to this NCAA issue.
Almost every school self-reports secondary violations to the NCAA. More than 2,000 were reported in the year 2001 alone. The mistakes, by all accounts, seem like minor transgressions, especially when considering some of the more severe recent troubles of other programs around the country.
But for a school that prides itself on its academic reputation, the appearance of impropriety in academics certainly doesn't look good. Tech officials still cringe any time they hear questions about the now-infamous loss of the 10 football players last year.
Running back Michael Sampson, the lone player of the 10 who returned to the team, was unable to get into good enough academic standing to remain in the program.
Linebacker Situation Solid, Scary
Against Samford, at least, Gerris Wilkinson and Chris Reis showed the Yellow Jackets may be fine at linebacker this season.
With standout linebackers Keyaron Fox and Daryl Smith now playing on Sundays, and fellow senior starter Ather Brown also moving on at the end of last season, the Yellow Jackets shifted Wilkinson back to his natural position from defensive end and moved Reis from safety to linebacker.
The moves are working so far, in part because of defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta's creative schemes. Reis and Wilkinson can play in the Yellow Jackets' base defense, as well as in nickel and dime packages. Both are capable blitzers off the edge, and both especially Reis are comfortable dropping into pass coverage.
Tech finally has rebuilt its defensive line, going two deep at each spot along the front. The secondary is talented and experienced, but linebacker had been the big concern. Since so few of the Yellow Jackets' opponents operate out of a traditional, run-based offense, Tenuta simply tries to put his best players on the field at all times.
In the nickel defense, Tech lines up with four ends, Wilkinson and Reis at linebacker and five defensive backs. Cornerbacks Dennis Davis, Kenny Scott and Reuben Houston join standout safeties Dawan Landry and James Butler. Working off the nickel defense, in the dime, safety Nathan Burton replaces a lineman. Again working off the nickel lineup, in the base defense, linebacker KaMichael Hall replaces Davis or Scott.
The versatility of the linebackers allows Tech to keep similar personnel on the field at all times. At a position where Tech is very thin this fall, keeping Wilkinson and Reis healthy will be vitally important. Behind the starters Wilkinson, Reis and Hall, who played very little linebacker as a true freshman last year the Yellow Jackets have just seldom-used senior Tabugbo Anyansi and true freshmen Gary Guyton and Travis Chambers.
The position has been hard to keep stocked for Tech. Sophomore Nick Moore left the team this fall. Kyle Pupello left the team over the summer. Kingi McNair was among the 10 players to fail out last year. Among the seven commitments, the Jackets have two from linebackers, and they're definitely looking for more.