December 7, 2005
ATLANTA -- November was a month of victories for Georgia Tech's football program.
Coach Chan Gailey received a new five-year contract, suspended cornerback Reuben Houston won a court injunction allowing him to resume his football career, and the Yellow Jackets scored one of the biggest upsets in school history, knocking off then-No. 3 Miami at the Orange Bowl.
Leave it to the NCAA to spoil it all.
College athletics' governing body finally ruled on Tech's infractions case on Nov. 17, more than two years after the school launched an internal investigation into the eligibility of several student-athletes. The probe revealed that the school's registrar's office inadvertently had cleared 17 ineligible student-athletes -- including 11 football players -- to compete over a seven-year period.
The football program lost big in the ruling. The NCAA expanded on the team's self-imposed scholarship reductions, which could handicap the Yellow Jackets in the latter years of Gailey's new deal, which runs through 2010.
Tech's self-imposed punishment involved cutting six initial scholarship signees in two recruiting classes. Gailey followed the guideline in February, signing 19 recruits instead of 25.
Georgia Tech assumed that penalty would be stiff enough. The school implemented it with the blessing of the NCAA's enforcement staff, which worked hand-in-hand with Tech in drawing up the penalties. The infractions committee deemed the punishment too soft, however, once it realized that the Jackets still had 83 players on scholarship this season.
"They cut six and still had 83, just two below the limit," said Gene Marsh, the Alabama law professor who chairs the committee. "We thought it best to apply the loss of six overall, from 85 to 79."
The decision sounds just until you consider that Gailey had rewarded a handful of walk-ons, including superb senior punter Ben Arndt, with scholarships over the summer, skewing the numbers. Had the enforcement staff indicated a potential problem with the scholarship reductions, Tech likely would have withheld those grants-in-aid, and the infractions committee would not have had an argument.
Unless Georgia Tech wins an appeal -- the school has until Feb. 1 to file -- the Yellow Jackets will play the next two seasons with just 79 scholarship players. That will limit Gailey's next signing class to no more than 17 recruits and will not allow him to meet his top recruiting goal of signing a player for every defensive position every year. It also gives the coach and his staff no room for error.
"We just can't afford to make mistakes," Gailey said. "We have to make sure a guy can contribute somewhere. He might not contribute at the position that he's recruited at, but he has to be able to contribute somewhere, somehow."
PROGRAM STEPS FORWARD, HIT HARD
The NCAA ruling came just as the Tech program showed signs of getting closer to the ACC's elite.
Mediocrity marked Gailey's first three years on The Flats, as he dealt with the program's embarrassment over the George O'Leary resume scandal and the loss of 10 players to academic issues (which led to the NCAA investigation) in the summer of 2003.
Georgia Tech finished 7-4 during the regular season and earned its first national ranking of the Gailey era, rising as high as No. 15 early in the year. The Jackets will head to a bowl game ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since 2000.
Even more encouraging to fans is what this season means for the future. Tech's schedule is expected be much friendlier next season. Coastal Division rivals Virginia and Miami will visit Atlanta. So will Notre Dame, which took Auburn's spot on the non-conference schedule.
Several key players will be back. The offense will return quarterback Reggie Ball, wide receiver Calvin Johnson, tailback Tashard Choice and four starting offensive linemen in 2006. Five starters on defense will depart, including star end Eric Henderson and middle linebacker Gerris Wilkinson, but the Jackets may have the depth to offset those losses.
As long as defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta returns -- he wants a head coaching job and is in the final year of his current contract, under which he's the highest-paid assistant in the ACC -- Tech's defense likely will remain among the nation's stingiest.
The Yellow Jackets may need a break-out season next fall to offset the recruiting damage done by the scholarship restrictions.
Dave Braine, Georgia Tech's athletic director, likely added to Gailey's recruiting difficulties by stating his now-infamous line: "Georgia Tech can win nine or 10 games (in a season), but they will never do it consistently. That's my belief."
It's a logical stance. Braine is probably right. Few programs in the country can expect to win 10 or 11 games every season, or even almost every season. Southern California, Texas, Virginia Tech and Ohio State might be the only ones.
But saying so publicly can be recruiting suicide, especially when it's said during a press conference in which the primary purpose was to announce the new coaching contract, which should help in recruiting.
David Cutcliffe, Tennessee's new offensive coordinator and the former head coach at Mississippi, said that those competing against Georgia Tech for recruits now will use Braine's quote (rather than Gailey's contract status) against the Yellow Jackets. That leaves Gailey to do the only thing he can.
"I tell kids we're here to win championships," Gailey said. "That's always our goal."
RECRUITING HARD ENOUGH ALREADY
Braine called the Georgia Tech football coaching job the third-hardest in the country, behind only Notre Dame and Army. The main reason is the school's academic structure, which makes it difficult for borderline high school students to qualify for admission and even harder for them to stay in school and eligible for athletic competition.
The athletic department's academic standards dwarf those mandated by the NCAA. Tech recruits must have at least a 2.55 grade-point average in 16 core classes -- four math, four English, three science, three social science and two foreign language. The NCAA requirements, which involve a sliding scale based on GPAs and SAT scores, include a minimum of only a 2.0 GPA in just 14 core classes.
Georgia Tech's freshman class averages a 3.74 GPA and a 1,340 SAT score. That includes all freshmen, not just football players. Even if the athletes are on the lower half of the scale, and most football players are, those standards still are daunting.
Once a player gets into school, he must meet Tech's guidelines for making progress toward a degree. That involves calculus classes, a fact that rivals -- most notably late Georgia coach Wally Butts -- have been using against Tech for years.
Gailey takes the school's rigorous academics into account in recruiting. Whereas his peers across the country regularly ask their schools to admit players who fall short of already-lowered academic standards, he's asked for only three exceptions (to the typical Tech athletic department standards) in four years.
"If a guy isn't ready for this academically, he's going to fight for two years just to keep his head above water, and we're going to fight to help him keep his head above water," Gailey said. "At the end of those two years, everybody is going to be worn out, and he's going to be discouraged, disillusioned or leaving to go somewhere else."