The Southeastern Conference annually unveils its media guide in conjunction with its football Media Days. It is a useful informational tool, but the SEC also used this year's guide to make a statement, depicting a generic football jersey with the numeral "5" squarely on the front. The number referred to the league's five consecutive BCS Championships, and is a bold challenge to other leagues. It is also, as the SEC may soon find out, an easy target for parody.
That is because the SEC is gradually building up its count in another department: major NCAA violations in its football programs. Just over two years ago, the stated goal of league commissioner Mike Slive - to have zero SEC schools on probation - seemed within reach. Now, the trend is in the other direction. As of Tuesday, two SEC schools - Alabama and LSU - are on probation for football violations. A third, Tennessee, will join them in a few months for violations in football and basketball, already confessed although not yet weighed by the NCAA.
What lies beyond that? It is a source of boundless speculation. No one can say for sure that other schools will be touched, but Slive acknowledged in an Associated Press interview Tuesday that there is "a growing perception that things aren't exactly as they ought to be in some ways."
There is also a growing perception that the SEC's success is tied in some ways to its violations. With Tuesday's announcement of the LSU findings, all of the league's 12 schools - with one exception - have had major violations cases since 1990. The exception is Vanderbilt. That makes them the white sheep of the SEC flock, and a cynic might point out the thin line between being the white sheep and the sacrificial lamb.
Before this deteriorates into another SEC-is-bad bashfest, there are a couple of points to remember. First, the current SEC count - two schools on probation, and a third in the on-deck circle - is no different than the ACC total. (Florida State and Georgia Tech are on probation for football violations, and North Carolina will follow soon.) The two cases which have put SEC schools on probation recently - Alabama's textbook case and LSU's one-recruit, one-assistant case - aren't really the kind of pay-for-play recruiting scandals that are the stuff of headlines. In both cases, the institution was praised for its cooperation with the NCAA process.
There are other big-name programs in other leagues, like USC, Texas Tech and Ohio State, that have recently been sanctioned, or will be soon. But the trend in the SEC - and the atmosphere - seems unhealthy.
What can clear the air?
Will it take a blast like the one in January 2002 when Alabama (and, although it is often forgotten, Kentucky) were scorched by sanctions that required years of repair? For better or worse, things seemed to get better - relatively speaking - in the wake of those harsh NCAA verdicts. It didn't take long, though, for the financial rewards to get bigger and for the SEC office to act as a defense lawyer for those in trouble. One thing Slive needs to recognize is that "looking for loopholes" is not exactly the way to practice infraction prevention.
The SEC is still the nation's best league. It has earned the right to beat its chest this weekend. But it ultimately doesn't mean much if it is doing so with dirty hands. Things are not out of control, but Slive's No. 1 task - even more than assuring the steady flow of BCS titles - is to stop the probation count from continuing to rise.
Cecil Hurt is sports editor of The Tuscaloosa News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0225.