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With eye on recruiting, Iowa goes on damage control


Iowa doesn't have a drug problem at the moment; it has a perception problem.

That's why it held a news conference Tuesday, to basically save recruiting. It didn't exactly come out that way because the main message was Iowa officials admitted to having a hole in the school's drug-testing procedure. More to the point, though, recent developments have put a smudge on Iowa's reputation. All-time leading receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos was kicked off the team last week after being charged with possession of marijuana and cocaine as well as running a drug house. Pretty much the sampler platter for being a drug dealer. Allegedly.

Understandably, the Internet lit up with rumors of mass suspensions at Iowa. Unfortunate as those were, the university had to hold a news conference to address those rumors. It didn't want current and future Hawkeyes parents thinking there are drug-crazed zombies running across campus.

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"When you win 11 games, everything is fine," coach Kirk Ferentz said. "When you win seven, it comes with a whole new level of scrutiny."

That sounds shallow and superficial when an All-Big Ten receiver has druggie written all over him. It sounds dismissive when one running back (Jewel Hampton) has left the team and the leading rusher (Adam Robinson) is suspended for the bowl game. It also cuts right to the heart of the matter. The Hawkeyes are 7-5 heading into the Insight Bowl later this month against Missouri. They were considered a Big Ten contender before the season, then lost those five games by a total of 18 points. Close but no hash pipe, you might say. The 2010 Hawkeyes were largely an underachieving team. Maybe one, it turns out, with questionable character.

The Johnson-Koulianos arrest dumped another load of manure on the program. A load that would have been lessened if, like Ferentz suggested, his team were 11-1. That's why what you witnessed Tuesday was spin control so profound, air sickness bags should have been provided.

No zombies. No drug problem. No way, Iowa said.

"I'm not a huge fan of social networks," Ferentz said. "Just so much misinformation." Iowa did admit to a breakdown in its drug-testing protocols, which draws attention away from the police department to the athletic department, away from an alleged drug house to in-house. AD Gary Barta flat out said, "We did find pretty strong evidence that our student-athletes probably have, and most likely have, gotten around the tests in some way."

No test cheating, Barta stressed, which is not the issue nor even a big deal. Even Iowa officials didn't entirely stay on message. Along with the Big 12, Big Ten players are the most tested athletes in the country.

"No question," said Frank Uryasz, president of the National Center for Drug-Free Sport.

Because both conferences have their own testing programs, those conferences' players go through three layers -- NCAA, conference and school. Most I-A schools have in-house testing, according to Uryasz. Iowa's is better than most because it is administered by a third party, University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. That removes a potential conflict of interest, as opposed to the athletic department doing the testing.

Years ago, the NCAA contracted with the Kansas City-based company to conduct its national drug-testing program. Uryasz used to work for the NCAA. He knows as much about this subject as anyone. Marijuana continues to produce the most positive tests, but the No. 1 drug of abuse continues to be booze.

"Most schools don't test for alcohol," Uryasz said.

Why? Mostly because alcohol is socially acceptable despite studies that show binge drinking on campus is a chronic problem. It's also legal to possess. Test for it and you might not have a football team.

Marijuana is against that law. It's also this generation's beer. It hardly registers with me anymore when some player or another is busted for pot. It certainly isn't a performance enhancer. As long as he or she doesn't drive a car while high, well, these are the times we live in.

Everything else being equal, then, Iowa held a news conference Tuesday to assure recruits (and their parents) they should continue to flock to Iowa City. The campus isn't awash with a bunch of pot heads and cocaine freaks. To that extent, they succeeded for the moment.

But the issue is not whether the school's procedures are flawed, it's whether it matters if they are flawed. Kids are going to continue to drink beer and smoke pot, no matter what happened Tuesday. A 3-year-old study said that half of the nation's 5.4 million full-time students abuse drugs or binge drink at least once a month.

There were 92 Iowa football players drug tested this fall, according to Ferentz.

"That's as high a number as you'll find in the country," the coach said.

The numbers also suggest that 46 of them drank or took drugs to excess in the past month. Two points there: 1) That makes Iowa no different than any other school; 2) Whether conducted accurately or not, testing can't catch everything.

The best procedure is random, unannounced tests. But even then, not all athletes are tested. There's no way of knowing whether some of those Iowa players had been tipped off ahead of time on those tests. Maybe the collection of samples had not been properly, well, observed. There's a thing called "chain of command" in the drug-testing procedure. It essentially assures anonymity for the test subjects. Even a tiny misstep can invalidate a sample.

Mistakes, though, can be made. A former Montana player, Steve Premock, won a court injunction to play in 1991 when he contested the handling of a urine sample that the NCAA said proved he had tested positive for steroids.

(To be fair, the NCAA had another opinion of the case, that Premock benefited from home-field advantage with a local judge.)

It's the embarrassment factor that matters and, like any school in this situation, Iowa cannot afford embarrassment.

Ferentz has been here before. A rash of arrests a few years ago raised questions about his ability to control his players. All of it coming during a downturn on the field that made the questions easier to raise and Ferentz easier to criticize.

The coach is right. Sometimes the difference between a perception of a band of drug-crazed players and an isolated arrest is four. Win 11 and everything is OK. Win seven and all hell has broken loose.

That's why Iowa held a news conference Tuesday. Kids are going to drink and smoke, but Mr. and Mrs. Hawkeye were watching. They needed to be told there weren't those zombies among us.

As far as Iowa knows.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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