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Learn a Lesson, Lose the Wins

THERE WAS no grace in defeat. Florida State president T.K. Wetherell shook with fury last week as he smack-talked the NCAA during a 40-minute press conference. The First Fan of the Seminoles called the Committee on Infractions "simply wrong" and "flat wrong" and "excessive" after it hit his university with a vacation-of-wins penalty across 10 sports for academic fraud. As everyone knows, this could trip Bobby Bowden in his sack race with Joe Paterno for title of winningest Division I football coach.

There may never be a final score between JoePa and Bobby. (Both men fear the Bear Bryant syndrome—retirement as a surefire escalator to God's skybox—so neither is in a rush to exit.) Bowden, still coaching at 79 in his straw hat, has 382 victories, and Penn State's Paterno, still standing at 82 in his white tube socks, has 383. If the NCAA penalty is carried out in full, it could cost Bowden his 14 wins from the 2006 and '07 seasons.

"I think they tried to kill a flea with a hammer," Bowden said on March 18 but assured everyone that "this thang ain't about me." Wetherell also claimed his outrage was about "a bigger issue" than the coach. In Bowden-speak, that's just dadgum crazy talk. No one is grander than Bowden in Tallahassee, where I lived through the Before and the After. Pre--Bowden's arrival: I sat with 19,000 other bell-bottom-wearing fans in an erector-set stadium on a campus best known as Burt Reynolds's old stomping ground. Post--Bowden's arrival: I needed eBay to land a ticket for one of 84,000 seats at Bobby Bowden Field at Doak S. Campbell Stadium, where the brick veneer is reminiscent of an English castle and the coach is king.

In his fight against the NCAA, Wetherell is using the passion of the Bowden faithful, which includes Gov. Charlie Crist, as a cover. The president isn't going to battle over the athletic department's 19½ lost scholarships and four years' probation, but he has launched an appeal to save the Seminoles' wins. I didn't have to hear it from Wetherell—he didn't return calls—but this amounts to an emotional blackmail strategy that is as costly as it is self-serving. As Florida State's faculty frets over looming budget cuts that could push 200 staffers out the door, Wetherell is throwing money at lawyers to preserve football victories.

"Florida has been very hard hit by the mortgage crisis and recession—surely that impacts on the state funding that FSU receives for education," says Murray Sperber, a professor emeritus at Indiana, who wrote Beer & Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education. "Shouldn't the FSU president be working on solving that problem? Now, he might argue that Bowden's victory total is what keeps legislators and taxpayers happy, and so he has to get that up front. If he is right, why call it a university, especially when you overlook egregious cheating?"

Florida State self-reported the violations of 61 athletes (including a reported 23 football players) who couldn't name that tune for an online music course without the crib sheets supplied by employees in the Athletic Academic Support Services office. But blowing the whistle on yourself doesn't buy as much nobility—and leniency with the NCAA—as it once did. "Cooperation is expected now," says Mark Jones, who worked at the NCAA for 18 years, mostly in enforcement, before joining the firm of Ice Miller, which counsels universities on NCAA compliance. As Jones explains, "academic fraud is up there" with booster payouts as an NCAA target, usually resulting in the forfeiture of wins.

Wetherell acted surprised, though. He said the penalty "affected over 500 athletes [who] had nothing to do with this" and also "affected coaches who had nothing to do with it." He didn't get the connection: Academic fraud has everything to do with wins and losses. "The whole point about athletes cheating academically is that it destroys the level academic playing field," Sperber says. "Other students might try to cheat but they don't receive institutional help.... Cheating incidents like [this] make regular students very cynical, and college sports, rather than bring about a sense of community as the NCAA wants us to believe, often breeds cynicism in the student body."

The university has been shamed by the football team's Foot Locker scandal in 1993, quarterback Adrian McPherson's gambling saga in 2002 and other miscreant moments, then soothed by Bowden's hug-it-out methodology. But the Seminoles have never lost a season's worth of wins, let alone two. Bowden, in truth, doesn't need them. His legend doesn't require a beat-down of JoePa at the finish line. This is about a university president's record. The losses stain Wetherell. His legacy is not so secure.

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In fighting the NCAA, Florida State president T.K. Wetherell is using the passion of the Bowden faithful as a cover. It's a strategy that's as costly as it is self-serving.