And Bucknam has nothing to do with football. He is Arkansas’ men’s track coach and as such is the leader of the only SEC program on probation. The punishment is a result of actions during the tenure of former head coach John McDonnell, who retired in April, but it still bugs SEC commissioner Mike Slive.
“I would have liked to have said today that it was nobody,” Slive said.
If he had been able to say that, it would have fulfilled a bold goal Slive laid out five years ago. Just months into his tenure as the conference’s boss, Slive said he wanted the league to be probation-free in five years.
“I absolutely believed it (was possible),” he said. “I could tell by looking at (the media) when I said it that you wanted to commit me somewhere, but I absolutely believed it.”
The SEC was going through one of its Wild West phases at the time. Two schools – Alabama and Kentucky – had a football team on probation. Six more had a football or basketball team that had been investigated by the NCAA in the previous two years.
Georgia was staring into the teeth of what would be NCAA probation stemming from the Jim Harrick era, not to mention having nine football players declared ineligible for selling SEC championship rings.
Mississippi State head coach Sylvester Croom has SEC experience dating back to his days as a player at Alabama in the early ‘70s, which gives him a unique understanding of how difficult a task Slive had proposed.
“I was glad he was making a commitment to make sure that happened,” Croom said. The atmosphere “has definitely changed. We’re the best conference in the country, and in order for us to maintain that, we can’t have teams on probation. If there is a commitment from the top, I think anything can get done.”
The SEC has been able to eliminate its rogue reputation without sacrificing qualify. Last year, it became the first league to win back-to-back BCS titles, and it has won three of the last six. It’s the only conference in the country with five coaches who have won national titles. It had the most players on NFL opening day rosters last season, and its seven bowl wins last year are an NCAA record.
Slive was delighted Wednesday that all the talk was about players like Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow and teams like defending national champion LSU instead of on bad behavior.
“The proof is in the pudding,” he said. “The most satisfying accomplishment for me is that we are essentially probation free, and we are probably as competitive good as we’ve ever been. We’ve put to rest the old chestnut that if you didn’t (cheat) you couldn’t win.”
Slive doesn’t know the last time the conference was completely probation free, “but it’s been a while,” he said. He will say he doesn’t expect a return to the free-for-all days.
“This signifies a cultural shift,” he said. “Those days are in our rearview mirror.”