USC revealed Thursday it had received an official letter of inquiry from the NCAA as a result of the investigation of its football program. The NCAA has been looking into the Gamecock program since mid-July. At first the focus was on tight end Weslye Saunders and his involvement with agents. That led to an investigation of the living arraingments for several players living at the Whitney Hotel.
Saunders remains suspended by head coach Steve Spurrier for a violation of team rules not related to the investigation. Offensive tackle Jarriel King and cornerback Chris Culliver were held out of last week’s game with Southern Miss apparently because their eligiblity had not been restored by the NCAA.
There were internet reports Thursday night that Culliver had been cleared by the NCAA. However, a source who would have knowlege of Culliver’s status for Saturday said Thursday night he had not been informed that Culliver had been cleared. And USC spokesman Steve Fink said he had not been told that Culliver had been cleared as of late Thursday night. There has been no reported change in King’s status for Saturday.
USC is the first school of the many reportedly being investigated by the NCAA since mid-July to recieve an official letter of inquiry. There have been no published reports of such letters being received at North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia or Florida at this point though Tennessee’s athletic director has said he is expecting to receive one.
A source with experience in dealing with NCAA investigations told us Thursday night that while receiving an official letter of inquiry does not mean a school is guilty of a major violation, it is a serious matter. The letter means the NCAA believes it has enough evidence to prove a major violation, or violations, in its case, and its up to the school to disprove what the NCAA thinks it knows.
The greatest concern for USC would be if the NCAA is prepared to accuse it of “a lack of institutional control.” That’s one of the most serious allegations the NCAA can make against a school. The fact that USC had several players with long time unpaid bills at the Whitney, with at least one topping $5000, and apparently had done nothing about it until the NCAA stepped in, could be construed as “lack of institutional control.” And the NCAA also might not look too kindly at the reduced rates the players reportedly were receiving from the hotel.
USC’s attorney, Terry Parham, has been handling the university’s investigation, not the compliance office, which reportedly had signed off on the players living at the Whitney and apparently assumed, incorrectly, their bills were being paid on time. Our source tells us Parham is about as good as it gets when it comes to handling these NCAA cases for a school. He has plenty of experience. He worked the last letter of inquiry case the NCAA brought against USC. That was during the second half of the Lou Holtz era, and according to our source, Parham was able to “lawyer” the penalties down to practically nothing. It remains to be seen if that will be necessary in this case.
It is, of course, a shame Gamecock fans have to go thru this right now. Coming off the baseball national championship, optimism in the athletic program was at an all time high. The football team had had a quiet offseason with no arrests and few, if any, academic issues.
The Georgia game is one of the biggest of Steve Spurrier’s carreer at USC. A win legitimizes the belief this USC team can win an SEC Championship. But the spector of an NCAA inquiry looms over everything USC does now. There will be constant questions, few answers, and plenty of rumors floating around while the inquiry is on.
One thing is certain. History shows the NCAA is not playing around when it sends a school an official letter of inquiry. The letter means the NCAA has serious concerns about a program. The school had better have some serious answers, or the consequences could be severe.