By THOMAS MURPHY
Sports Reporter Mobile Register
TUSCALOOSA -- University of Alabama officials and the university's legal team fumed Tuesday after the NCAA Infractions Appeals Committee upheld all sanctions placed on the Crimson Tide football program for recruiting violations.
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"Reading this decision is like watching a replay of a badly blown call on a key play after the game is lost and over," said Mobile attorney Robert Cunningham Jr., who served as lead counsel for Alabama's appeal.
Alabama has no further recourse within the NCAA to fight the sanctions, which include a two-year loss of bowl eligibility and a loss of an average of seven scholarships per year through the 2004 signing class. The university could sue the NCAA, but that is unlikely, some university officials indicated.
"We worked our plan based on last February's (original) ruling and we will stay the course," head coach Dennis Franchione said in a statement.
Tuesday's announcement closed -- for now -- a nationally watched case in which NCAA investigators found substantial violations in football recruiting and booster involvement. Three boosters were banned from contact with university athletics after the NCAA alleged schemes to steer cash and gifts to prospective players or their high school coaches.
Senior offensive lineman Alonzo Ephraim said his attention remains on the University of Southern Mississippi, Alabama's next opponent.
"The NCAA is not on our schedule," he said.
Some Alabama officials had said they felt confident their appeal would bring a measure of relief from the sanctions.
"Obviously we disagree and are disappointed with the findings of the Infractions Appeals Committee," interim president J. Barry Mason said in a written release. "Our arguments for appeal of the severity of the sanctions were grounded in fact and well presented, both in writing and in our meeting with the appeals committee last month."
Peter Lowe, a member of the university's board of trustees, said it's clear to him that the penalty far exceeds any violations. "Regardless of how we're projected in the news media, I think we run a very clean program," he said.
The four-member appeals committee, chaired by Clemson University director of athletics Terry Don Phillips, pointed out what it called "exemplary" efforts by Alabama's compliance personnel to investigate the case, but nevertheless agreed with the severe sanctions handed down by the Committee on Infractions in its Feb. 1 report.
"This case is very much about institutional cooperation," Phillips said during a Tuesday morning teleconference. "But for the unequivocal cooperation of the university, it was very clear that the death penalty most probably would have been imposed in this particular case."
Only one school, Southern Methodist University in 1987, has ever received the "death penalty," which requires that an individual sports program shut down all operations for at least one year.
Later in the conference, Phillips addressed what appeared to be the crux of the NCAA's case against Alabama.
"You have to understand there is a pattern of abuse by boosters that had to be dealt with," Phillips said. "And the Committee on Infractions dealt with that, but they dealt with it in such a way that they balanced the university's actions since 1995 and subsequently their actions in seeking out the facts behind these allegations."
Alabama argued the use of unidentified witnesses in the case went against NCAA bylaws.
"There was ample evidence beyond what this particular witness provided that supported the findings," Phillips said. "If you take the confidential witness out of the picture, there's still evidence that supports what the COI found."
Alabama maintained the allegations involving the 1995 recruitment of prospect Kenny Smith of Stevenson fell outside the statute of limitations, but the NCAA found what it called a "pattern of conduct" that extended the normal four-year statute of limitations.
Alabama questioned the application of the repeat-violator status to the university based on its handling of the 1999 case involving men's basketball.
Phillips countered that the university still would have been considered a repeat offender because of the 1995 case in which football player Antonio Langham was found to have received money from a booster.
Alabama argued the NCAA enforcement staff failed to turn over information regarding booster involvement in recruiting it knew about as early as 1996, which might have prevented further problems.
"The enforcement staff failing to provide that information to the university is very regrettable," Phillips said. "In the future that needs to be a mitigating factor."
Alabama officials and players said they hope the program will now move forward.
"My feeling is to just put it behind us and just go on," Lowe said.
"I think the only time they caught us by surprise was back in February, and since then it's just been business as usual," said senior quarterback Tyler Watts. "After you come to your senses and realize there's nothing you can do about it, you don't put a whole lot of time and effort into worrying."