AUBURN, Ala. -- The one-on-one coursework an Auburn professor provided to dozens of students, including a number of football players during the Tigers' unbeaten 2004 season, is typically granted only under special circumstances, a professor said.
The university is investigating claims that the athletes were able to maintain eligibility and help boost the program's academic rankings by taking what are known as "directed-reading" classes by Dr. Thomas Petee, interim director of Auburn's sociology department.
"A student may need a class for graduation that may not be offered at a time that fits into their schedule," Auburn sociology professor Paul Starr told the Opelika-Auburn News in a story Friday. "So if the professor agrees, they can meet with the student on an individual basis and assign work and reading.
"A professor normally doesn't take on many of these because of the demand on your time and workload," he said.
But Petee offered the directed-reading format to 250 students in 2004-2005, including 18 members of the 2004 football team, along with other athletes, according to a report in Friday's New York Times.
The 18 players took a combined 97 hours of the criminology and sociology courses with Petee during their careers, the newspaper reported. The Tigers went 13-0 and finished the 2004 season ranked No. 2 nationally.
The Times cited records compiled by professor James Gundlach, the director of the Auburn sociology department who reports to Petee. Neither professor immediately returned e-mails or calls Friday from The Associated Press.
Coach Tommy Tuberville and athletic director Jay Jacobs were also unavailable for comment.
Auburn interim President Ed Richardson said in a statement Thursday that the university would deal with the issue "directly and openly" and release the investigation's findings.
Two players who took the courses under Petee, tailback Carnell Williams and defensive end Doug Langenfeld, said they did nothing wrong and didn't get special treatment.
Williams took two courses during the spring of his senior year in 2005 while spending much of his time on the road meeting with NFL teams. He had already completed his playing career at the time.
"I didn't do nothing illegal or anything like that," Williams, now a tailback with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, told the Times. "My work was good. It was definitely real work."
Langenfeld was battling to remain academically eligible for Auburn's Sugar Bowl game when he dropped one course and picked up a nine-week criminology class. He said he took the class at the advice of his academic counselor and that it wasn't comprised only of athletes.
"I don't know if any teachers give away free grades," Langenfeld told The Huntsville Times. "If they do, they're not at Auburn."
Tuberville's program has drawn praise for more than its play on the field. The Tigers scored 981 on the NCAA's Academic Program Rate released in March, trailing only Stanford, Navy and Boston College among Division I-A football programs.
Under the NCAA's academic reforms, programs that fail to meet the NCAA's minimum academic progress rate -- determined by a points formula that rewards long-term eligibility and retention of student-athletes -- can lose scholarships.
Auburn football players received an average GPA of 3.31 in Petee's directed-reading courses, according to statistics compiled by Gundlach. Their average was 2.14 in all other credit hours, he said.
Gundlach said he found that more than a quarter of the students in Petee's directed-reading classes were athletes.
He also told the Opelika-Auburn News that Petee started doing the directed-reading in small numbers just in criminology courses but the numbers grew and included sociology, which Gundlach teaches.
"I didn't think it was appropriate for him to take over teaching the sociology major entirely on his own in a directed-reading format. It was an insult to me and what I do," Gundlach said.