Auburn once again finds itself the subject of alleged NCAA violations after former Sports Illustrated reporter Selena Roberts quoted multiple former players accusing the school and Tigers coaches of an assortment of transgressions.
Writing at her current multimedia venture Roopstigo, Roberts details the current situation of former Tiger Mike McNeil, one of four players arrested and charged with armed robbery in March 2011. Roberts' story paints Auburn's treatment of McNeil as part of a larger pattern of institutional misconduct, which includes several allegations that would constitute NCAA violations.
- McNeil says he spoke to a "counselor with the athletic department" and subsequently had a grade in a computer science class changed from an F to a C. Former Auburn defensive tackle Mike Blanc also suggested grade-changing improprities, saying the school "found a way" for nine players whom the team had been told would be ineligible for the 2011 BCS Championship Game -- including eventual MVP Mike Dyer -- to play in the game.
- Former wideout Darvin Adams told Roberts that coaches had offered him "several thousand dollars" to return for his senior season rather than declaring for the draft. McNeil said that former Auburn defensive coordinator and current Florida coach Will Muschamp paid him $400 after a poor practice performance in 2007.
- McNeil also claimed that players acting as recruiting hosts were given far more than the NCAA-dictated $50 to spend on coveted recruits, such as former Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick.
A spokesman for the Auburn athletics department said on Wednesday night that the school "will not have a comment regarding the claims in the story." Currently an analyst for ESPN, Chizik issued a lengthy statement Thursday blasting Roberts and the report:
“Unfortunately, Ms. Roberts' story is long on accusation and inference, but short on facts and logic ... During my time as Auburn's head coach, I never authorized, instructed or directed anyone to change any player's grade or provide any type of illegal payment by any member of my coaching staff, support staff or anyone else.”
“As for logic, the notion that the conduct inferred by Ms. Roberts was occurring under the NCAA's nose, at the very same time the NCAA is conducting its thorough investigation [into the Cam Newton allegations], lacks merit ... During my time at Auburn, the administrators, professors and academic staff were of the highest integrity. Additionally, the inference that there was academic support staff that worked together with professors to change grades is absurd ...
“If there is a sad truth here, it is that there is no repercussions for bloggers who blast out widespread, venomous allegations and inferences in such an irresponsible manner. To make bold and outrageous conclusions on such thin support is a travesty.”
Muschamp told the Gainesville Sun Thursday that "[I] totally deny" McNeil's claim of offering him money.
“I don't know where this is coming from," he said.
Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs also issued a statement Thursday, saying that Auburn has "no reason to believe these allegations are either accurate or credible. However, as a matter of procedure, we are reviewing them carefully."
Jacobs added that Roberts failed to disclose in her request for comment that her story would include the NCAA allegations, or the school would have responded before publication.
Multiple players quoted by Roberts in the report have issued denials of her account either via Twitter or statements given to al.com.
"That's not me. I don't know where she's getting this stuff from," Blanc said. "That's definitely not me. Mike McNeil said a lot of things and when she asked me some things, I said, 'OK, I've heard that, but I don't know for sure.'"
"I spoke to Mike Blanc at length, and he was very clear about what he knew," Roberts told al.com in an e-mail.
For McNeil, whose case is set to go to trial April 8 and who could face up to 21 years in prison, the story is much bigger than any potential NCAA fallout. (Teammate Antonio Goodwin was convicted on his first-degree robbery charge in April 2012.) But whether the report has any impact on Auburn going forward could come down to whether the players named in it report that story to the NCAA; four former Auburn players told HBO's Real Sports in March 2011 they had received improper benefits while playing for the school, but they ultimately either did not speak to NCAA investigators or did not provide enough evidence for the case to move beyond the preliminary stages.
Whether the Roberts story ends with the same lack of NCAA interest or a substantial investigation remains to be seen. But what's certain is that between the recent hire of Gus Malzahn and the optimism of the Tigers' spring camp, Auburn appeared to be moving past both the miserable on-field and controversial off-field distractions of the Chizik era. No one on the Plains will be happy to have that era -- and the repeated allegations of impropriety that haunted it -- revisited again so soon.