DALLAS — R.C. Slocum, Texas A&M's football coach, stood huddled against the chill of a late December morning at a Dallas high school stadium. He was watching his team practice and stating his university's case.
"I had a deal a couple of weeks ago--a young man I was recruiting," he said. "It was our official contact date, which means you can see a kid at his school, his home, wherever you want.
"Well, I went to his home. That night, there was a banquet. We were both going to be there. I told him, 'I can legally talk to you at the banquet. But if I do that, there will be some in the room who won't know it's our official contact day. They would misunderstand what was going on. I don't want there to be any question, so I won't speak to you.'
"Now that young man, he's going to sign with us. He can read in the paper that we have a problem. But he knows the approach we've taken on rules compliance. The program will survive because of that."
So goes the Aggies' preparation for the Cotton Bowl game, yet another seminar in college football crisis management.
Texas A&M, 12-0 and ranked No. 4, will face fifth-ranked Notre Dame on New Year's Day without standout running back Greg Hill and three reserves, all of whom were declared ineligible because of NCAA rules violations.
The university took action against the players Friday, five days after the Dallas Morning News had reported that a prominent Aggie booster provided at least five players, including Hill, with thousands of dollars in year-round payments that were written off as maintenance fees for federally subsidized housing projects in Dallas.
The newspaper also reported that some A&M players were given summer jobs requiring little or no work at a housing project operated by the booster, Dallas developer Warren A. Gilbert Jr.
Both arrangements described by the newspaper would violate the NCAA's "extra benefit" rule, which prohibits university representatives from giving athletes benefits not available to the student body in general.
Gilbert, a director of the A&M Letterman Assn., told the Morning News he had employed dozens of Aggie football players, but had done so legitimately in the summer and during school breaks.
According to the newspaper, federal authorities are investigating the operations of Gilbert, one of the largest Dallas operators of U.S. Housing and Urban Development-subsidized housing for the poor, and have served subpoenas on his properties seeking access to business records.
As a result of the Morning News story, A&M launched its own inquiry, which resulted in the suspension of Hill and the three other players.
In a four-paragraph news release issued late Friday, A&M President William Mobley said the university's investigation raised questions about the amount of work performed by the four players. According to Mobley, the school's investigation found no evidence of year-round payments to players or "institutional impropriety" on the part of A&M.
The Aggies are, to be sure, not the only bowl team currently dealing with allegations of NCAA infractions. But A&M's predicament offers several special problems.
Replacing Hill, who has rushed for 1,339 yards and 15 touchdowns this season, is one. But it could turn out to be the least of the Aggies' worries. With Hill sidelined, they need only turn to sophomore Rodney Thomas, who has rushed for 856 yards and 13 touchdowns this season.
Said nose guard Lance Teichelman: "Rodney's just as good as Greg. I don't think there will be any drop-off."
Of far greater concern for A&M is how the university will be perceived by the NCAA.
Already on NCAA probation for rules violations in its basketball program, A&M is subject to the NCAA's so-called "death penalty" for repeat violators. Theoretically, the NCAA can suspend any A&M athletic program if a major violation is found to have occurred in that program during a five-year period beginning with the official announcement of the basketball probation.
The NCAA has publicly reprimanded A&M five times, including two years' probation for the football program in September of 1988.
In its report on the '88 football case, the NCAA Committee on Infractions cited Jackie Sherrill, then A&M's football coach and athletic director, for failing to detect and self-report violations, including an arrangement in which a booster paid star quarterback Kevin Murray more than $4,000 for work Murray did not fully perform.
Sherrill later resigned after a former A&M player publicly claimed that Sherrill had provided him with "hush money" during the NCAA's investigation.
Mobley, who became A&M president in August of 1988, has, by all accounts, proved to be a forthright and aggressive leader in dealing with the school's athletic problems, a stance that has earned him a spot on the NCAA's policy-making Presidents Commission.