There’s no tempest like an SEC tempest, the scope of which can be breathtaking. Only in this conference could Alabama’s signing of a lineman from Memphis lead to Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer being served with a subpoena at the league’s Media Days. Only here could a night out in Pensacola, Fla., lead to Mike Price being fired by Alabama before coaching a game. Only the SEC could spawn the feel-good-gone-bad tale of Cameron Jerrell Newton.
He’s a quarterback from College Park who played at Westlake High. He signed with Florida, where he served as understudy for the sainted Tim Tebow. Newton left to attend a junior college in Texas, where he played for Brad Franchione, whose father Dennis used to coach Alabama and whose abrupt departure for Texas A&M led the Tide to hire, albeit briefly, Mike Price. (Nobody does connections like the SEC.)
Newton wound up enrolling at Auburn, where he’s considered the leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy. His team ranks second in both the Associated Press poll and the BCS standings and can clinch the SEC West by beating Georgia on Saturday. All of this is, however, subject to change.
Last week ESPN and the New York Times reported that former Mississippi State quarterback John Bond had been informed it would cost $180,000 for Newton to commit to MSU. (This John Bond, not to be confused with Georgia State offensive coordinator John Bond, was the quarterback at Valdosta High after Buck Belue and John Lastinger, both of whom went on to greater glory at Georgia. At MSU, the Valdosta product was known as “One-Hop Bond” for his aerial accuracy.)
Bond has dropped from sight — the celebrity Web site TMZ reports that the FBI wishes to speak with him — but not before granting an on-air audience to Belue, his fellow Valdosta alum, on 680 The Fan in which he undercut his own story by suggesting he hadn’t spoken with the intermediary named in the initial reports. (To which we say: Huh?)
Auburn was quick to assert that Newton was fully eligible to play for the Tigers, whom he led to a 62-24 victory over Chattanooga last weekend. Afterward he told reporters: “When God be blessin’, the devil be messin’.” (Newton’s father Cecil is the pastor of the Holy Zion Center of Deliverance in Newnan, which, as the New York Times helpfully informed us, has only recently been restored to city building codes.)
We pause here for breath, for our tangled tale has only begun. This week FoxSports.com reported Newton had been accused of cheating while at Florida. (While a student in Gainesville, Newton was also charged with three felony counts involving a stolen laptop that was subsequently tossed out a window. The charges were dropped after he underwent pretrial diversion.)
This cheating revelation, attributed to an unnamed source, immediately led Florida coach Urban Meyer to issue a statement saying nobody connected with the Gators had done the leaking. On cue, Auburn coach Gene Chizik dismissed all allegations as “pure garbage” and wondered, in what seemed a clear reference to Meyer and Dan Mullen, the former Florida assistant who’s now head coach at Mississippi State: “Is there a wizard behind the curtain? Is there one? Is there two?”
In all of this, the overarching question has been: If it was going to take $180,000 for Newton to play for Mississippi State, did he really enroll at Auburn for free? On Tuesday ESPN became the first outlet to address that issue, reporting that two unnamed Mississippi State recruiters were informed in separate phone conversations with Cam and Cecil Newton that the player’s services were indeed for sale.
One recruiter, according to ESPN, maintained the elder Newton said it would take “more than a scholarship” to land his son. Another source said Cam Newton expressed regret after his father chose Auburn for him, saying, “The money was too much.”
And that’s where we are, our story nowhere near its conclusion. If Auburn has reason to believe there’s a chance Newton’s recruitment wasn’t aboveboard, will it bench him for the Georgia game and risk losing the division title it’s so close to winning? (Chizik asserted on a teleconference Wednesday that Newton would start against the Bulldogs.) Does the SEC, shuddering over the possibility of its championship game matching Auburn and Chizik against Florida and Meyer, intercede? Does the NCAA? The FBI?
And what of Georgia, which needs one victory in its final two games to become bowl-eligible? Could the underwhelming Bulldogs face Georgia Tech without quarterback Joshua Nesbitt, who broke his arm against Virginia Tech, and Auburn without Newton? If so, wouldn’t that make Mark Richt the luckiest man alive?
And what of us? What does it say when we pay so much attention to games purportedly played by amateurs after being reminded so often that college football is as pure as the driven sludge? Does that make us hypocrites? Or merely fools?
Feel free to answer, but I’m not sure I want to know.