When Alabama was in legitimate danger of receiving the death penalty

Alabama was in definite danger of the death penalty.*

There’s an asterisk there because the guy who said it -- who had some power to apply it -- has some qualifiers.

Thirteen years ago, Tom Yeager uttered one of the most chilling phrases in NCAA infractions history. Alabama football, he said, was “absolutely staring down the barrel of a gun,” in the infamous Albert Means case. He did not have to elaborate.

If not for the extraordinary efforts of others, he said, Crimson Tide football would have gotten The Big Haircut back in 2002 -- the death penalty. Think about that scenario. Yeager already has, several times. Now more than ever.

Yeager, 64, announced his retirement the week before last. By the time he steps down next year as commissioner of the Colonial Athletic Conference, he will have spent 30 years on the job. That’s more than any Division I commissioner. That’s probably more time than anyone currently at the NCAA has spent on the job.

That’s right: A quiet, respected, knowledgeable soul who runs an FCS conference out of Richmond, Va., knows at least as much about the current NCAA landscape as the NCAA. Yeager can not only tell you where the skeletons are buried, he knows who picked over the bones. Before the CAA, he spent nine years as an NCAA director of legislative services.

But back in 2002, eager Yeager was donating his time as the NCAA infractions committee chairman digging down on one of the most heinous cases in college history.

Alabama was in the midst of having its name on four major cases in 14 years. It was a “repeat violator,” NCAA code for being eligible for the death penalty. It was Yeager and that committee that stepped back from the brink of nuking one of the top brands in sports.

The penalties that were applied were bad enough: Five years probation, scholarship reductions and a two-year bowl ban.

Alabama melted down. You can imagine what it would have done armed with the social media of today.

“It was trying to deliver a message to all the good fans that you’re the ones sitting next to these guys in stadiums, cocktail parties,” Yeager told CBSSports.com. “If you don’t self-police [rogue boosters], if there is not enough self-interest to knock out these renegade guys, the university has no chance.

“It wasn’t quite seen that way. I’m still persona non grata down there. For a while, the NCAA lawyers wouldn’t let me go to Alabama, not that I wanted to. Any kind of business, personal whatever.”

Yeager didn’t mention any physical threats. Alabama’s fervor for football is known well enough. Imagine the world today had Bama been shut down in 2002. A nuclear winter would have descended upon Tuscaloosa. College football’s entire landscape would have experienced a Butterfly Effect.

Having been damaged by a death penalty, Alabama probably wouldn’t have been as attractive to Nick Saban. If Saban doesn’t go to Tuscaloosa, those three national championships in four years are doubtful. Does the SEC even come close to winning seven consecutive titles?

What happens to Saban himself? With no Alabama job waiting after his run with the Miami Dolphins run, would he have stayed in the NFL longer? Is he still the college icon he is today?

Long before Miami or Ohio State or Penn State, Alabama became sort of a referendum on the enforcement process. In the wake of the penalties, the school appealed. The NCAA was sued. Court proceedings dragged on for years.

"God forbid, there's ever another appearance -- ever," Yeager scolded Alabama at the time. "Should there be one -- particularly within the five-year period -- I don't know what's left.”

We found out. The school was nailed again in a 2009 textbook scandal. Both Saban and Mike Shula had to vacate wins. There have been more episodes since then.

The indignation in Alabama over the enforcement department’s methods -- it’s safe to say – has spread. You either believe the NCAA has gone soft on a repeat violator like Alabama or way overstepped its boundaries. Either way, persons like Yeager are willing to absorb the criticism.

“There’s always going to be a need [for enforcement],” Yeager said. “Just like now, there’s an upheaval in law enforcement procedures. No one is saying we have to get rid of police.”

It makes you wonder, though, what penalties are really meaningful? USC never really cratered following the Reggie Bush scandal. Urban Meyer went undefeated in the same year the program couldn’t go to a bowl. North Carolina is awaiting a verdict in its academic fraud case.

Don’t we all agree there will never be another SMU?

You might have noticed Alabama has thrived since looking over the brink. Tide football may be at the peak of its financial, athletic and marketing powers. Yeager reiterated the death penalty would have been applied if not for the efforts of Gene Marsh and Marie Robbins.

Marsh is a well-known attorney and Alabama law professor who back then was the school’s faculty athletics rep. Robbins was the school’s compliance director.

“Gene and Marie did everything they could, short of patrolling the campus with semi-automatic weapons,” Yeager said. “That, at the end of the day, is what saved them.”

“They were [in line for the death penalty] … to put it real bluntly and try to say that as forcefully as we could.”

For that last statement, no asterisk is needed.

Alabama's flag may not be flying at major games if it had been penalized harshly by the NCAA. (USATSI)
Alabama's flag may not be flying at major games if it had been penalized harshly by the NCAA. (USATSI)
CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

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