Of ‘amateur’ college athletes and other tall tales

Willis Webb

Every so often the media carries a story concerning “amateurism” in college athletics. Usually, it’s someone pointing a finger at an institution implying recruiting infractions.

Two recent unrelated stories dredged up questions about amateurism. One had to do with some Ohio State football players taking memorabilia—trophies, awards, etc.—and swapping them for tattoos at some parlor in Columbus. It was the final domino that sent OSU Coach Jim Tressel’s rickety wall tumbling.

Ah, we’re cleaning up college football. Uh-huh.

As the story goes, some Buckeye players were frequenting the tattoo parlor and gaining favors from the owner.

Five OSU players, including star quarterback Terrelle Pryor, were allowed to play in OSU’s Sugar Bowl win over Arkansas but are suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season. After the tattoo parlor story broke, pressure on Tressel increased until he resigned. Tressel had 106 wins and 22 losses in his nine years at OSU. Hmmm.

A second story was resurrected with the death of former Texas governor Bill Clements, who attended the University of Texas and Southern Methodist University (SMU) and played football at both in the 1940s. The story recounted SMU receiving the “death penalty” and having to cancel its 1987 season schedule. Since Clements was governor and an SMU alum, lots of inferences were made about him and the recruiting infractions that caused the NCA A to enforce its most drastic punishment. However, he was never tied to the scandal.

SMU recruited two of the more renowned high school running backs in Texas histor y—Eric Dickerson and Craig James—in the period investigated by the NCAA. Both became great players in the NFL. James now does color commentary for college football telecasts.

As a college student in the 1950s, I had a brief brush with the business side of college athletics. For two years I served as $45-a-month sports information director at then- Sam Houston State Teachers College. In the first year, Sam Houston went a respectable 6-3 in football, had a losing season in basketball, was a big winner (as always) in baseball and did well in track.

At the beginning of the second year, I went to Huntsville for football two-a-days in August. On the first day of practice, I noted a lot of new faces. I approached head coach Paul “Red” Pierce and asked about the newcomers.

“I’m too busy to talk. You know the returning players,” Pierce said, “so just go to the new kids and get their names.”

So, I did and sent out a press release to the three Houston daily newspapers, the Huntsville paper and radio and the usual long media list. The next day, as I walked on the practice field, Pierce, a Houston paper clinched in his fist, accosted me. “Migodboy! You shouldn’t have said how many junior college transfers we have! We can get in trouble if we have too many!”

Ind ig na nt 19 - yea r- old- me swelled up and sa id, “ Well, Coach, I guess you’ll have to talk to me and give me the info I need.” “Yeah, I guess I will,” Pierce said.

Sam Houston went 9-0, won the Lone Star Conference and was invited to the Refrigerator Bowl ( yep, that’s the name) in Evansville, Ind. Upon arriving, we looked at the local papers and Sam Houston was a 13-point underdog to Middle Tennessee State (MTS).

I got in trouble with coach again. All the local press wanted to know about “ Texas” as they called our team. So, I gave ‘em all our great statistics and information. The next morning the papers came out and “ Texas” was a seven-point favorite. Pierce wasn’t happy about that. He relished being the underdog.

However, I don’t think he was as upset as he was about the JC transfers. Sam Houston dismantled a good MTS team 27- 13 to close out the only Bearkat undefeated season to this day.

I don’t know if Pierce and Sam Houston broke the scholarship rules or not but no one challenged it and the rest, as they say, is history.

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2011-09-22 digital edition

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