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Written by Dan Wismar

Dan Wismar

AuburnCampus3Definitive news on the Auburn University-Cam Newton story has been somewhat hard to come by since the 2010 football season ended with a national championship for the Tigers. After all, it’s been barely a month since the confetti flew...a millisecond in the world of NCAA investigations, and they don’t comment publicly on what they’re up to in any event.

That doesn’t mean however, that new information won’t soon become available to the public that could shed light on the situation. There are reporters and bloggers digging for details, and events are taking place over the next couple of months that have the potential to reignite what has been a smoldering scandal since late November.

To begin with, there is a report this week by a prominent web journalist that Kenny Rogers, the man said to be Cecil Newton’s go-between in marketing his son’s football talents, has agreed to an interview with Bryant Gumbel of HBO’s Real Sports show. The website, which has been active in covering the Newton case, reports that the interview with Rogers is to be taped March 1 and broadcast at a later date yet to be determined.

With the NCAA investigation reportedly focusing on so-called “street agents” that steer recruits to college programs for a fee, Rogers would be the street agent of interest to those looking into Newton’s recruitment by Auburn. If Mississippi State was not the only school approached with a pay-for-play proposal by Cecil Newton, Rogers figures to be the one most likely to know about it.

Then there’s the pending trial of Auburn booster and Alabama gambling entrepreneur Milton McGregor and several co-defendants, which is set to begin on April 4. The charges are bribery,  conspiracy and fraud among other things, in what was allegedly a vote-buying scheme to influence pro-gambling legislation in Alabama.

There are links to Auburn athletics and its Tigers Unlimited Foundation on the part of several of the defendants in that case, including lobbyist Robert Geddie, whose lobbying firm handles the university athletic department’s business. McGregor allegedly funneled cash through the lobbying firm, on to a variety of political action committees, and from there into the pockets of Alabama state politicians.

In what is admittedly a speculative longshot, some observers think that the statements to investigators of McGregor, Geddie and others, as well as transcripts of FBI wiretap recordings in the case have the potential to bring new information into the public eye, some of which could bear on the ways Auburn athletic foundation funds are dispensed by Geddie’s firm.

Both events could pass without adding anything to the public’s understanding of Cam Newton’s recruitment, and of course there may be no more to learn than what we already know. But suffice to say, the people who doubt that everything was on the up and up will be paying attention.  More on all of that a bit later, but first, a review of how we got here...


It’s Getting Lowder

Back when the Newton questions started percolating last fall, I got interested in what looked to me like the bigger story at Auburn. That was one Bobby Lowder, the Auburn alumnus, member of the university Board of Trustees and Tiger football fanatic who had pretty much run Auburn athletics as his personal fiefdom for the better part of three decades. Even when looked at independently of what was going on with Newton, Lowder’s personal story, and his imminent fall from power, was to me an irresistible draw.

Long story short, the end result of my curiosity was the publication here on December 5th of “The Fall of Bobby Lowder and the Fallout at Auburn”, and then a brief follow-up piece six days later. With the help of Twitter, a few strategic emails, and possibly the good luck of timing it with conclusion of Auburn’s amazing football season, the thing went viral for us.

The next thing I learn about the Google search algorithm will be the first thing I know, but somehow, in the two months since it hit the web, that article is, at the moment, coming back as the second hit from the top on a “Bobby Lowder” search, right after his Wikipedia page. So that’s pretty cool, I guess, because it means fresh eyes will keep seeing it, at least for a while.

I wanted to get those links in here before going much further, because all of what you’ve read above, and what follows below might be better understood after reading the background on Lowder, his associates, the collapse of his bank, and his all-encompassing control of the Auburn football program. Besides, we could use the page views. Seriously, it’s a complicated story, which I think is one reason that it hasn’t been told very much. Another is the low-profile modus operandi of the reclusive Lowder, who prefers to operate through surrogates, and refuses to speak to the media.

But back to how the NCAA saved their 2010 season....


The NCAA Scrambles to Keep Cam Eligible

The NCAA had to pull off a Houdini act to make a budding scandal disappear, at least temporarily,  just in time for their newest superstar and their marquee team to finish off a dream season in the BCS title game. And pull it off they did.

For now, the daily drumbeat of media speculation has subsided, and one can understand how the NCAA might prefer to leave well enough alone. But there are so many loose threads hanging off of this story that it looks like fringe, and the NCAA investigators aren’t the only ones tugging on those threads to see where they lead.

Three months ago, when the story of Cecil Newton’s 2009 solicitation of a $180,000 payment from Mississippi State was first reported in the media, it quickly became the conventional wisdom that even if Newton and the Tigers were able to bring the BCS trophy back to Auburn, its stay there would probably be a temporary one.

There was no publicly available proof at the time that Auburn had said yes to a similar proposal from Cecil Newton after MSU said “no thanks”....and there still isn’t any. But the college football world had taken notice, and the fans and media wanted answers. They took note of Auburn’s checkered past in scandals of this sort, they saw Newton playing for Auburn, and many of them jumped to the easy conclusion that was staring them in the face. That the Auburn Tiger hadn’t changed its stripes.

Surely it would just be a matter of time, fans assumed, before the NCAA sleuths uncovered payments from Auburn to Newton. They were betting that if the national championship and the Heisman Trophy were to be won by Newton and the Tigers, both would eventually be vacated, Reggie Bush-style, once the inevitable NCAA hammer came down on the Auburn program.

Auburn supporters, many of whom responded to my article, howled with righteous outrage that this was “trial by media” and that Newton was not being afforded the presumption of innocence to which he was entitled.  And they were partly right. There was to be no “trial” of jury of his peers to be tainted with pre-trial publicity. This was never a criminal matter where Cam is concerned. Newton played on.

But much of the public had assumed things to be true that were not in evidence. They were adding up what they saw as two plus two, and they were pretty sure they had the right answer.  Time will tell.

Buying Time

Meanwhile, the NCAA twisted their own regulations into a knot to keep Newton eligible for both the SEC Championship and the BCS title game. This after Cecil Newton had admitted to soliciting the pay-for-play money from MSU, which is a serious NCAA violation even if no money actually changes hands. The NCAA’s image problem was obvious to everyone. We were talking about the best player and the best team in the country, about to play the showcase game on college football’s climactic night.

The NCAA was taking flak from all corners for appearing to excuse a serious violation by failing to suspend Newton. One writer joked that about that time, the NCAA was so mad at the Newtons’ antics that they suspended five OSU Buckeyes for five games. (Wish I’d said that.)

Forced to choose between enforcement and enrichment, the college football establishment punted on their own rules for the sake of TV ratings and cash. The “too big to fail” monster had reared its ugly head once again. In the end, the NCAA would hang their hat on the rather dubious assertion that Cam Newton wasn’t aware of what his father was doing. The nations’ eyes rolled, and the national championship game went on with #2 under center for Auburn.


NCAA Probe is Low Key

You’d hardly know it to watch the Family of Networks, but there are indications that the NCAA is indeed looking into the recruitment of Cam Newton and other recruiting practices at Auburn University. Just this week they were in Thidodaux, Louisiana, as reported by SportsbyBrooks, to speak with Tiger recruit Greg Robinson and his mom, as well as reputed street agent Sean Nelson, who has been responsible for steering several talented players from that area to Auburn.

Thayer Evans of Fox Sports looked into the curious circumstances surrounding Nelson and his activities on Auburn’s behalf in an article back in January just before the BCS title game. The widespread use of the so-called street agent is a growing paradigm in college football recruiting it seems, and Auburn appears to be using the tactic as fruitfully as anyone.

Part of the reason for the growth of the practice is the proliferation of summer football camps sponsored by many of the major college programs. Getting the players they have identified as recruiting targets on campus for these camps is big step toward getting eventual commitments from them. Often the kids lack transportation, but if a “friend of the family” is able to drive them to the camp for what qualifies as an “unofficial visit”, this can be worth money to a program willing to violate NCAA regulations. (yes, they’re out there) The Evans article linked above describes Nelson driving Louisiana recruits on multiple six-hour trips to Auburn in the same summer camp season, all the while claiming he was doing it for nothing

I spoke with recruiting analyst and writer Bill Greene this week about the trend, and he says the practice seems to have been spiking over the last 3-5 years. Use of these kinds of paid “go-betweens” has been more common in college basketball, where off-season camps have existed longer, but football is catching up. Greene steers clear of naming names, but says the identities of some of the the programs using the illegal practices today aren’t too hard to figure out.

Greene describes the common street agent scenario as one in which the recruit and his family often do not benefit financially from the arrangement with the violating program, and in many cases may never even be aware that a deal has been struck to steer the player to a particular school. Payments typically range from $3,000 to $5,000 to a street agent for getting the targeted recruit to a camp, with bonuses of perhaps $5,000 to $10,000 or much more at times, if the player signs with the school. Greene’s assessment of the growing street agent phenomenon is backed up in this article by an anonymous Texas Longhorn supporter, which is worth a look for some more detail.

Some of the War Eagle fans that contacted me in December thought I was singling out Auburn as if they were the only school involved in shady recruiting practices. Far from it. This look at some specific street agents makes clear that the smart ones spread the talent around to avoid the perception that they're too loyal to any one "customer". That particular writer feels free to name names of specific schools (maybe because he's writing anonymously) and while they're not all in the SEC, he says "you won't get anywhere in the street agent game without connections in the SEC", calling that conference "the street agent's playground".

Excuse that little detour off the topic of Auburn.

To say that Auburn’s recruiting practices have drawn suspicion over the course of many years is about as controversial as saying that Alabama and Auburn fans don’t get along. It might seem like overkill at this point, but this 2005 New York Times piece by Selena Roberts is another  example of media documenting some of the reasons for the suspicion. In this case the subject is team chaplain Rev. Chette Williams, who is not an employee of the university, but whose non-profit showed its address as the Auburn Athletic Department.

I have no doubt the reverend does good work counseling Auburn players. But the fact that he has accepted five-figure checks from Lowder’s family foundation through his non-profit organization, and then serves as a “financial advisor” to the program’s football players does nothing to dispel questions about the program’s integrity.

U.S. vs McGregor et al

Let me say at the outset that links between Milton McGregor or his trial co-defendants and the recruitment of Newton or any other Auburn player are not in evidence at all at this time. The significance of the trial as relates to Auburn recruiting may be exactly zero when it’s all said and done. In fact, that seems to be the likely outcome.

It is dealt with here only because several of the defendants in this criminal case are tied to Auburn and/or Lowder...and because both issues have to do with the possibility that Auburn boosters were secretly funnelling money to people who weren’t supposed to get it ...and because there’s a chance information will come out at trial to show that that’s something more than a coincidence.

Besides, there are some very interesting angles to consider.

McGregor, who was the second largest shareholder in Lowder’s Colonial Bank,  and Robert Geddie, a principal at the Fine-Geddie lobbying firm were arrested in October along with four sitting Alabama state senators, and it was revealed that McGregor had been the subject of FBI wiretaps during the investigation.

It appears that the government will attempt to prove that McGregor channelled money through Geddie’s lobbying firm, and subsequently through various political action committees (PACS), and finally to the politicians whose votes he needed on the gambling legislation he favored.

Some of the people who are watching this trial closely are simply suggesting that if NCAA investigators are interested in ways that a known Auburn sports booster might have been able to direct largely untraceable amounts of cash to some other recipients, they might want to take note of the methods this Auburn sports booster allegedly used to buy off politicians. Something tells me they’ve already thought of that.

Paul Davis, an Alabama newspaper editor, has reported that the Tigers Unlimited Foundation (TUF), a fund set up to advance the interests of Auburn athletics, has paid over $1 million to Fine-Geddie, and continues to maintain their athletic department’s business relationship with the firm, even after Geddie’s arrest for fraud, bribery and conspiracy.

Interesting too is the fact that the man who was in charge of running the TUF fund for Auburn from its inception, and who entered into the business relationship with Geddie, was one Jay Jacobs, who is currently the Auburn University Athletic Director. Interesting...but one can see how he might have been considered a likely candidate for that job. He would have already been well known to Bobby Lowder, and well versed in the advancement of the interests of Auburn athletics.

Sam Franklin is a well-known and highly regarded Alabama attorney and founding partner in the prestigious firm of Lightfoot, Franklin and White. Franklin represents Bobby Lowder in his current dealings with the federal government related to the seizure of Colonial Bank, and I understand he is the lead counsel resenting Auburn University in all of their dealings with the NCAA, presumably to include the ongoing investigation of the Cam Newton recruitment.

You might say those are the two most challenging legal representation assignments in the state of Alabama at the moment. The guy is obviously big time. Which is why eyebrows were raised recently when Franklin took over as lead counsel for Robert Geddie in the US vs McGregor case. Not exactly his level, you’d think. Unless Geddie’s activities are connected with his other legal representation challenges at the moment.

This website for  “U.S. vs McGregor et al” case has a records of the dozens of motions, court orders and briefs in the case. (Not for the faint of heart.)

Deep in the hearts of ‘Bama fans posting on Internet sports message boards, there remains the fond hope that McGregor, who they contend has long been rumored to be a “money man” connected to Auburn pay-for-play deals, will surface on FBI wiretap recordings saying something that will prove that payments to recruits were arranged. And then that the information will be shared with NCAA investigators.

In other words, that they’ll get the proof they crave, by accident. Like I said at the top, it’s a longshot.


Did Bobby Lowder Fall Yet?

So what’s up with Bobby Lowder? He was all smiles at the BCS title game, his lifetime achievement award, you might say. One major theme of my original article was the irony of the ascent of Newton and the Auburn program as seen against the decline of Lowder and his influence. Even as he was achieving his fondest dream, his nightmare was approaching.

But as Brooks details in this post, if this is decline, then pour me a nice hot cup of it. Lowder’s seat on the Auburn board doesn’t expire till later this year. He has both a hand-picked football coach and a sympatico athletic director in place, and a cut-glass football in the trophy case.  Even the latest university president is someone personally approved by the man who still controls the purse strings and major hiring decisions for the university.

Yes, he’s reportedly some $160 million light personally after the collapse of his bank and its seizure by the feds, and legal problems remain, but for the moment, the rumors of his demise seem to have been greatly exaggerated.

His term as trustee at Auburn is scheduled to end this year, but the last time it was set to expire, Lowder financed his own candidate for Governor, got him elected, and then had the new man in the statehouse immediately grant him a new 12-year extension. They don’t call him the most powerful man in Alabama for nothing. Underestimating his staying power might be a foolish mistake.

For thousands of Auburn alumni, fans and friends of the university though, Lowder is an ongoing embarrassment to the school they love, the $20 million in donations and the national championship notwithstanding.  I have communicated with many of them personally by email since the first article posted. To them he is the Belushi character from the old SNL skit...sitting on their couch, eating their chips, watching their TV. He’s “The Thing That Wouldn’t Leave”. The time when Auburn will finally be rid of him can’t come soon enough to suit them.


"I want to thank the Board of Trustees for giving us the latitude to do what was necessary to win a championship."  - Jay Jacobs,  Auburn University Athletic Director, at the national championship celebration at Jordan-Hare Stadium.


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