College football is beloved by many as a bastion of amateurism, a reminder of when sports were less crass and more… okay, I can’t keep this up. We all know that is insane nonsense, especially when you consider how many schools get busted for a variety of offenses that seem more like the rap sheet of that one dude in Blazing Saddles who was getting ready to ride on Rock Ridge.
But amidst the casual cheating, the rampant boosterism and shady nonsense that goes on at virtually every major school, there are a handful of college football scandals that stand out, that make even the most hardened college football fan/cynic shake his head and say “Well, goddamn.” And as we celebrate the start of the college football season, let us remember them, the 11 worst college football scandals of them all.
11. Ohio State – Tattoogate
There were lots of dark whispers around Jim Tressel’s program, but the thing that finally brought it down was players selling various Buckeye merchandise and trading them for tattoos, which let’s face it, is both totally harmless and totally dumb. But that’s the way these things happen – the darker whispers get ignored, while the dumb stuff lights a signal fire for the NCAA to follow on home. It was enough to bury a beloved championship winning coach in Tressel and forced the hilariously dim Terrelle Pryor, the Buckeyes Heisman candidate quarterback, to jump early to the NFL. But hey, at least Tressel didn’t punch an opposing player or anything. Now that would have been shameful.
10. Auburn – Eric Ramsey Brings Down Pat Dye
Auburn player Eric Ramsey decided that Auburn coach Pat Dye was a racist and so he did the standup thing and, uh, secretly taped conversations between Dye and a booster, which proved that Auburn was paying players. Dye resigned and Auburn was put on probation, but it’s the way it all went down that makes this one unique. Aside from the silly cloak and dagger stuff and the good ol’ fashioned southern racism, things got so out of hand that Ramsey and his wife were forced to wear bulletproof vests to their own graduation ceremony so that crazed rednecks wouldn’t assassinate them. Now that’s how you do a scandal. SEC! SEC! SEC!
9. USC – Reggie Bush Gets Stripped of His Heisman
This is another one of those players getting paid scandals that seems pretty dumb and run of the mill, but what puts it on this list is the magnitude of the consequences. First, and most infamously, Reggie Bush became the first player ever to be stripped of the Heisman trophy when the NCAA determined that he was never eligible in the first place, which is pretty crazy considering that fellow USC Heisman winner and noted stabber (ahem, I mean alleged noted stabber) OJ Simpson didn’t even have his taken away. But the issues in LA were so pervasive that head coach Pete Carroll saw the writing on the wall and bolted to the NFL before the NCAA could nail him with the ban hammer. The program was put on probation and is still digging its way out of a hole, and even worse, they were stuck with Lane Kiffin as their new coach. Now that’s a punishment.
8. Florida – Charlie Pell Runs Wild
This one is on here for the sheer scope of the scandal. It was mostly petty nonsense, but during Charlie Pell’s short reign as head coach, Florida rang up an alleged 107 major NCAA violations. I mean… holy shit! Go big or go home, I guess. Of course, the lesson for all the kids out there is that Pell’s outrageous and flagrant cheating ended up making Florida’s program a burgeoning powerhouse, and the probation that followed did little to slow them down. All that cheating caused them to go from 0-10-1 in Pell’s first season to the Steve Spurrier led Florida Gators we all remember within a decade. As my father always told me when I was a kid, you’ve gotta cheat to win.
7. Miami – Loss of Institutional Control
“Loss of Institutional Control” is one of those technical terms that actually makes it sound like a gang of pirates took over the school, which is actually pretty much what happened. Miami’s alleged scandals were so numerous that Sports Illustrated eventually demanded on the cover of the magazine that the program get the death penalty. It never quite got that far – it came close, though – as Miami was finally hammered for a Pell Grant scandal that saw them funnel over $250,000 of grant money to football players, which was a nice bonus to the cash they got from boosters for delivering the most vicious hits on the field. Miami gonna Miami, yo. And to illustrate that point, a decade or so later, Miami rose back to the top of the football world – and then came crashing down all over again when a booster named Nevin Shapiro basically did all of the same things. Hey, what do you expect from a city whose biggest hero is Tony Montana?
6. Colorado – Gary Barnett Goes the Extra Mile in Recruiting
Gary Barnett’s reign as Colorado head coach came to a pathetic end in a confluence of salacious events. First, he was exposed for luring recruits with stripper sex and drugs, and then he proceeded to make an ass out of himself by making fun of Katie Hnida, who was allegedly raped by one of his players. Uh, yeah, that’ll piss people off. Colorado’s program was left in shambles and Barnett was disgraced. I mean, there’s cheating, and then there’s this. Kinda makes simply paying dudes seem kind of harmless and quaint, huh?
5. Army – Massive Cheating Scandal
In 1951, 37 football players at Army were expelled for cheating. Cheating scandals happen all the time, but never quite at this scope. I mean, 37 players is a lot of dudes, you know? And then there’s the fact that it happened at Army. These weren’t just dipshit football players, these were the backbone of the future officer corps of the US Army! That’s, uh, that’s kind of disquieting, right? Army had been a football power, but they were never the same after the cheating scandal. I blame Obama, even though he was negative 10 years old at the time.
4. Oklahoma – Pretty Much Everything
In the dying days of the Barry Switzer years, Oklahoma was busted for pretty much everything. You name it, and it happened. Paying players, cheating… all the old clichés. But there were also rape allegations, players shooting each other (no, really!), failed drug tests (remember the Boz?) and quarterback Charles Thompson was arrested for selling cocaine to an undercover cop, which resulted in the infamous Sports Illustrated cover of Thompson in an orange jumpsuit being led away in handcuffs. In the wake of all that insanity, the NCAA banned athlete only dorms, since most of the debauchery had allegedly happened within the walls of the Oklahoma football dorm. But really, it was a fitting end for the legendary outlaw, Switzer. After all, this was a man who titled his autobiography Bootlegger’s Boy.
3. SMU – Death Penalty
SMU’s scandal wasn’t nearly as salacious as some of the others on this list, but they are the only major program to have been given the death penalty, so I’d day they’ve earned their place. What happened is they were busted for playing players and put on probation. So they responded by paying even more players and being busted again. And then they just kept on cheating without shame until the NCAA finally said to hell with it and closed down the entire program for a few years. It ruined SMU football forever, and while these days they’d probably get off with a slap on the wrist (at most), back then the NCAA was at the height of its power and SMU was made forever the poster child of institutional corruption and football culture run amok.
2. Nebraska – Tom Osborne Decides to Hell with Discipline
Tom Osborne is a legend who most people consider one of the paragons of college football “values,” and, well, given how out of control those “values” seem to have gotten, I guess that’s appropriate. The reality is that the stoic Osborne was a coach who got sick of losing the big one and so in the early ‘90s, he decided that “values” were nice in theory, but damn it, he had football games to win.
The result was a gang of assholes like Scott Baldwin, who beat a woman so bad she still had trouble with basic motor skills 6 months later, or Christian Peter, who piled up multiple convictions (and was arrested 8 times! 8!), including for assault, and was alleged to have raped multiple women, with his teammates keeping a lookout each time. He was never kicked off the team and went on to be an All-Conference player as a senior and the heart of the Nebraska defense. And then there’s star running back Lawrence Phillips, who terrorized his girlfriend, beating the hell out of her and running up his own string of convictions without consequence. And those are just the most infamous. There are many more.
It was an amazing record of lawlessness, and shamefully, Osborne and Nebraska never suffered a single sanction from the NCAA. That doesn’t make it any less of a scandal, though. If anything, it makes it even more scandalous.
1. Penn State – Jerry Sandusky
Look, I have a rule – any time your program is found negligent and culpable in the systematic raping of little boys over a span of literally decades you’re going to wind up number one on this list. Call me crazy. There’s no point in recounting the actual details because, well, we all remember them. That’s because this transcended football completely, shocked a nation, and shone an ugly, ugly light on what happens when the culture of football and the veneration of old legends like Joe Paterno becomes so huge that it skews reality and becomes more important to people than the lives of innocent children. Scandal isn’t even an appropriate word here. This was a tragedy.