Michigan Football Controversy Spurs Uproar
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And to college football now. The start of a new season marks an exciting time at the football-crazy University of Michigan. Tomorrow, more than 100,000 people are expected to pack Michigan Stadium for the Wolverines' first game. But things are also tense in Ann Arbor. It's bad enough that the maze and blue are trying to bounce back from their worst season ever. As Pat Batcheller of member station WDET reports, the team is also trying to recover from charges of NCAA violations.
PAT BATCHELLER: The headline on the front page of last Sunday's Detroit Free Press was jarring: U of M Football Program Broke Rules. The newspaper cited anonymous, current and former players who said coaches violated the NCAA's time limits on mandatory football-related activities - no more than 20 hours a week during the season and eight hours a week in the off season.
Players can put in more time, but it must be voluntary. One ex-Wolverine, who did go on the record was Toney Clemons, a wide receiver who transferred to Colorado in the spring. He said players were required to attend extra workouts and practices, and those who didn't were punished with more work.
At a news conference the next day, Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez denied the allegations.
Mr. RICH RODRIGUEZ (Head Football Coach, University of Michigan): We know the rules. We go by the rules. And all we're trying to do every day is make everyone - all of our great fans, the people that support our program - and we have many great fans - all we're trying to do every day is make them proud.
BATCHELLER: But making Michigan fans proud has been a significant challenge for Rodriguez since he came to Ann Arbor almost two years ago. A controversial hiring process, the defection of several experienced players and a rocky transition to his spread-option offense, led to the worst season in the school's history last year - three wins and nine losses.
As Rich Rodriguez enters his second season at Michigan, he now faces the specter of possible NCAA sanctions.
Moving into his dormitory, U of M sophomore V. Shan Damsanyah(ph) says he's skeptical of the allegations.
Mr. V. SHAN DAMSANYAH: I don't think it's a big a deal at all. I mean, even if they say that that's, you know, they put in too much time, I don't how they're going to be able to prove that it was mandatory time.
BATCHELLER: Damsanyah also thinks that other top-tier college football programs bend the rules, but admits that doesn't excuse Michigan. Freshman Conrad Brown agrees that the university should play by the rules and says these allegations should not be ignored.
Mr. CONRAD BROWN: It just makes me think that if the allegations are being made, something must be up because they wouldn't spring out of nowhere.
BATCHELLER: If the allegations are valid, they would tarnish a program with a reputation for integrity.
While some sports talk radio callers say Rich Rodriguez was the wrong choice for Michigan, others like this on Ann Arbor's WTKA, say they smell something fishy.
Unidentified Man #1: I feel that this was a witch hunt. And why would they wait until the week of the football game to bring this mess up?
Unidentified Man #2: Well, that was deliberate.
Unidentified Man #1: How convenient.
BATCHELLER: Some fans also fear the situation could distract a football team trying to restore its winning ways.
Senior offensive lineman Mark Ortmann admits that the practice schedule is demanding, but he doesn't think it's illegal.
Mr. MARK ORTMANN: Personally, and in talking to the other players on team, we don't fully understand the allegations. They're saying that we're working too much. And personally, I don't think we're working hard enough.
BATCHELLER: Ortmann says he and his teammates now need to focus on tomorrow's game. Their first opponent is Western Michigan. They say it's up to the university and the NCAA's investigators to determine if, in preparing for the season, their coach broke any rules.
For NPR News, I'm Pat Batcheller in Detroit.
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