All-Access: Is there any integrity left in college athletics?

What would you do if Art Briles asked you if you were a man of integrity?

It happened to me, and his words have made my skin crawl ever since.

It was just last year during a football coaching clinic at the Birmingham-Jefferson County Civic Center. The clinic was for high school coaches, mostly, but it was hosted by the coaching staff at UAB.

Briles was a guest speaker, and he presented a session on the intricacies of his high-flying offensive schemes. Despite Baylor’s scandal, and Briles’ role, according to his former employer, of covering up a gang rape by his football players, high school coaches from Alabama not only attended the slideshow seminar, but some even waited afterwards to shake Briles’ hand and chat him up.

A few took pictures.

Briles’ rise through the ranks of football, after all, represents the dreams of many high school coaches. He started as a coach in high school and worked and worked and worked until he was the head coach at a Power 5 school. Briles’ fall from that lofty perch, however, represents the evil side of college athletics — its power to corrupt.

The salaries.

The pressure.

The boosters.

The enrollment.

The TV contracts.

Five-star recruits.

College presidents and their various boards of trustees and regents have allowed college football and college basketball to mutate into this oozing, cancerous, inherently corruptible blob of slug. It’s too big to fail.

Even when young women and boys are raped it is too big to fail.

That’s college athletics right now.

So, I waited, along with the high school coaches, to ask Briles an important question: why does college football make good men do bad things?

Briles asked me a question instead: Are you a man of integrity?

So, I’m asking you. What would you do if Art Briles asked you that question? More than likely, you would have punched him in the face. I resisted the urge.

College athletics needs some good sense knocked into its arrogant head, though. Penn State, Baylor and now, it has been reported, Michigan State have all tried to cover up sexual assaults by their athletes. This culture of corruption isn’t limited to those schools, of course. Florida State started a quarterback accused of rape. He went on to win the Heisman Trophy and a national championship.

Even UAB has an ugly history of trying to cover of up sexual abuse by its football players. That was years ago now, and before the program was shut down and then restarted, but doesn’t it say something about the culture of college football that UAB’s coaches wouldn’t even think twice about inviting Briles to speak at a coaching clinic?

Let me be clear. I’m not making this point because I think UAB’s coaches are bad people. UAB coach Bill Clark is a great man. I can write this because I have gotten to know him well over the last few years.

Clark is a great man just like Nick Saban is a great man just like Gus Malzahn is a great man.

This isn’t about picking out one or two coaches and pointing the finger. There are a lot of great men in college football, but that didn’t stop the American Coaches Association from recently scheduling Briles to speak at its national convention.

It was only canceled at the last moment because of negative publicity.

Are you a man of integrity? Briles didn’t answer my question — he said he couldn’t legally — but those words told me everything I needed to know, and it informed my perception of the reality of college athletics. Because here’s the thing. You don’t ask someone if they are righteous unless you believe yourself to be righteous as well.

Briles, after all this, still thinks he is a man of such a virtuous moral code.

And here is where we find college athletics at this dark hour.

NCAA president Mark Emmert said last Tuesday that the governing body of collegiate athletics is launching an investigation of Michigan State’s potential role in the Larry Nassar case. Excellent reporting by local newspaper the Lansing State Journal took down that monster, but this seems to be just the beginning for Michigan State and perhaps all of college athletics. A report by the Athletic on Saturday put new heat on Emmert himself, who knew about sexual assaults at Michigan State in 2010.

Football coach Mark Dantonio and basketball coach Tom Izzo have both denied involvement in any cover up or suppression of information, and Izzo says he wants to be a part of the healing process at Michigan State.

Izzo, presumably, thinks he’s a man of integrity. The NCAA believes itself to be an organization of integrity.

Is it?

On some level, I think it is. But morals are compromised every day in college athletics, and that’s just the price of doing business. If coaches don’t win, they lose their jobs. It’s as simple as that. When Urban Meyer took the job at Florida back in 2004, he famously said he was going to recruit the top one percent of the one percent.

Meyer recruited Aaron Hernandez, and then kept Hernandez on the team no matter what. In the end, when Meyer quit his job at UF, his team was unsalvageable. He bankrupted the program and walked away.

Now he’s at Ohio State and bigger than ever. Just win, baby.

Ole Miss is the latest SEC program to go down in flames. Here’s a transcript of a question I asked former Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze last summer at SEC Media Days:

Question: “Ole Miss isn’t the first program that’s been under investigation by the NCAA, and it’s not going to be the last. As the head coach of the football team, as the CEO of this business entity inside a university that’s too big to fail, how do you prevent corruption inside this program?”

Freeze’s answer: “You know, it’s — I’ve said all along that the whole scope of college athletics, particularly football in the South, is so big and very difficult to manage, all the tentacles that it has, I think, again, that you, as the CEO, the head coach, we’ve got to continue daily looking at ways that we can monitor our compliance system.

“I need help with that, and you got to have a great relationship with our compliance department. And obviously educating your boosters is huge. And we’ve constantly, throughout this four to five years, just constantly adding things to that to make sure that you’ve been very responsible as the CEO to make sure you’re doing everything within your power.

“Is it possible to always do everything? I don’t know. But it’s a difficult task. It’s a tall task because there’s so much stuff to manage and so many people that you’re not around or may not even know, but we’ve been challenged with the task as the head coach that we have got to set the tone and then monitor it properly.”

Not long after SEC Media Days, Freeze stepped down as the head coach of Ole Miss concerning a report that he used a company cell phone to call an escort service.

Freeze recently met with Saban at Alabama. Does Hugh Freeze think he’s a man of integrity?

Does it matter?

Joseph Goodman is a columnist for Alabama Media Group. He’s on Twitter @JoeGoodmanJr.

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