Count me among the few people who could be described as a fan of NCAA investigators, a faceless lot whose image, I know, could not be worse. At best, they are seen as killjoys, as rigid as they are righteous. Just as often, they are regarded as a bunch of stealthy thugs, driven by greed or vendetta.
But I see them as the ultimate underdogs in college sports. They have no subpoena power and no legal recourse when witnesses lie to them, and barely a dozen of them have to monitor about 1,000 universities. Yet they are expected to root out corruption in a money-addicted system that invites abuse. Takes an awful lot of idealism to do that job.
It's a minor miracle when they make any major case stick, as they did with Alabama.
But the way they went about building that case is now casting concern about the credibility of the NCAA's enforcement arm. You can't help but wonder if the NCAA lost more than it gained by secretly using a coach of a rival institution under investigation as a major source on the Alabama case.
Thomas Gallion, a Montgomery, Ala., attorney who represents disgraced former Tide assistant coaches Ronnie Cottrell and Ivy Williams, has for months been telling anyone who would listen that the NCAA sacrificed its principles and ignored violations at Tennessee in a desperate attempt to nail Alabama. Outside of SEC country, his rants were widely ignored.
Then in January, he opened his file. Among the documents he had gathered were interview summaries by NCAA investigator Rich Johanningmeier, who was using Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer as an informant against Alabama at the same time Tennessee was under NCAA scrutiny for alleged academic fraud.
Fulmer was an investigator's dream. In his first interview with Johanningmeier, he fingered Memphis businessman Logan Young as someone who had been paying for players dating back to the era of Paul "Bear" Bryant. He provided leads and phone numbers. He invited to the meeting three of his assistant coaches, who offered even more leads.
That interview was on March 9, 2000.
On March 20, less than two weeks later, the NCAA announced that Tennessee had been cleared in its academic probe.
"They dropped the investigation on Tennessee at that point," Gallion said. "They never did anything else to them and I'm saying it's a quid pro quo. I'm saying they cut a deal. You let us out of jail, we'll give you Alabama."
In the ensuing months, on May 23 and Aug. 10, Fulmer continued to offer key information about Alabama to Johanningmeier, who at the top of each interview summary typed in all caps, "FULMER SHOULD BE REGARDED AS A CONFIDENTIAL SOURCE OF INFORMATION AND THIS MEMORANDUM SHOULD NOT BE INCLUDED IN ANY CUSTODIAL ARRANGEMENTS THAT COULD BE MADE IN THE FUTURE WITH THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA, TUSCALOOSA." (Click here to see documents.)
The Crimson Tide ultimately lost access to 21 scholarships and bowl games for two seasons for, among other things, alleged booster payments by Young, who is now facing a three-count federal indictment for conspiracy, crossing state lines to commit racketeering and arranging bank withdrawals to cover up a crime. Cottrell and Williams were central figures in the NCAA scandal, although no violations were ultimately linked to Williams. Cottrell and Williams are currently suing the NCAA for $60 million for defamation.
NCAA officials are livid that Fulmer was revealed -- via documents pried loose through discovery during Young's criminal trial -- as a key informant. And they deny that the Alabama case had any impact on decisions made in the Tennessee case.
"How on earth does anybody believe that you would get away with trying to make a deal with one school?" NCAA spokesman Wally Renfro told ESPN. "We'd be run out of business immediately if we tried to do that. It's ridiculous."
Give Renfro the benefit of the doubt that no agreement was made to go light on Tennessee. But it is also hard to imagine that NCAA officials aggressively investigated Fulmer's program while he was aiding them on another high profile case. Do you continue to get his cooperation by hanging out in Knoxville and asking hard questions about tutors and curious grade changes?
Kenny Smith Jr., once a highly recruited defensive lineman out of small Tennessee town on the Alabama border, tells Outside the Lines (Sunday, 9:30 a.m. ET) in his first interview since the scandal broke that he benefited from academic fraud while at Tennessee. He said that when he was a sophomore, during the 1998 national championship season, a tutor wrote about 70 percent of an English paper that he turned in for credit, but Fulmer took no action other than to tell him not to let it happen again.
Fulmer has declined to comment on any aspect of the Alabama lawsuit.
"Nothing ever came up about the plagiarism," Smith said. "Nothing was really said about it, done about it or anything and I'd openly admitted to it."
Renfro said the NCAA never interviewed Smith but that investigators explored the claim -- made in the past by Smith's father -- with other sources. They found no NCAA violations.
The NCAA made a similar determination with respect to several other allegations made of overzealous tutoring for players during that championship season. Lots of smoke, but no rules broken, it said. Trust us, the NCAA says.
Now that Fulmer's role in the scorched-earth probe of Alabama has been revealed, trust is in short supply in Alabama. After all, the NCAA used Smith to make its case against the Crimson Tide. Smith, who originally signed with Alabama, admits to taking $20,000 from a hometown businessman, money that the NCAA contends -- and Smith denies -- was related to his recruitment by the Crimson Tide.
Meanwhile, since the academic fraud inquiry, the NCAA has closed two other cases involving Tennessee. The university was cleared of responsibility for alleged payments made by a Volunteer fan to quarterback Tee Martin, and the NCAA accepted the school's self-imposed slap on the wrist -- the loss of two scholarships -- for a recruiting violation involving receiver Eric Locke.
"I want to know [whether] Tennessee was like a street informant like you see on TV, the drug guy that gets busted every week but doesn't go to jail because he gives up somebody else," said Cottrell, who claims he can't get a job in college football now because of the Alabama sanctions.
It's hard to argue that the NCAA didn't show poor judgment in reaching out to Fulmer when his own program was under a cloud of allegations. At the time, former English professor Linda Bensel-Meyers and others inside and outside the athletic department had lodged concerns about academic misconduct involving football players regarding tutorial help, grade changes and dubious majors. An ESPN.com study of the transcripts for 24 UT football starters from the 1998 season found that they were 16 times more likely than non-athletes to be granted a grade of "incomplete," a temporary mark that gives students extra time to finish the coursework.
It is appears that the NCAA investigated Tennessee with much less ferocity than Alabama. Ron Barker, the enforcement rep assigned to the Tennessee case, said he talked to Bensel-Meyers and several others on campus. But, he said, he "honestly doesn't remember" many other details about the probe -- such as whether anyone pulled the hard drives of computers in the tutoring area, as university investigators did in documenting academic fraud at Minnesota.
But the NCAA's probe may have less to do with Fulmer than freedom. As in "academic freedom," the classroom concept. Professors and colleges religiously guard their right to do what they want with students. Consequently, the NCAA, despite all its bluster as an educational entity and all of its bylaws about unethical conduct, often defers to a university in matters of what constitutes improper tutor assistance or grade changes.
"Academic fraud cases are difficult because of the academic freedom issue," said Barker, now the assistant commissioner for enforcement at the Pacific-10 Conference. "Who is the NCAA to tell a professor how difficult his class should be to pass? You have to take a back seat in situations like that."
Tennessee, in the driver's seat, was in no mood to hammer itself for potential violations during its national title season. The university president at the time, J. Wade Gilley, signaled as much in the earliest stages of the school's investigation, declaring even before key witnesses had been interviewed that no NCAA violations would be found.
So maybe the NCAA didn't look away from Tennessee because of Fulmer.
Maybe the NCAA looked away because it involved education.
The real question is which scenario is more damning.
Tom Farrey is a senior writer with ESPN.com. ESPN reporter John Barr also contributed to this story.