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September 10, 2010A bright breezy day at the South Carolina practice fields turned cloudy, and it had nothing to do with the weather.
Steve Spurrier confirmed on Thursday that USC has received a letter of inquiry from the NCAA, which is beginning an investigation into the football program. Although the coach seemed flippant and unconcerned with the process on Thursday, the sport's governing body will be further probing the issues that have risen over the past two months, as well as anything else that may be discovered.
"At this time, the possible violations primarily involve the matters that the institution and the enforcement staff are reviewing in the football program," reads a paragraph in the letter, which was distributed by USC sports information. "However, please note that new information often is developed during an investigation that leads to expanded inquiries. In the event such information is developed, you will be kept informed."
The letter also says that it is the enforcement staff's intent to conclude the investigation by the end of the calendar year.
"I'm concerned about trying to do whatever I can to help our team beat Georgia, that's what I'm concerned about and that's all our players are concerned about right now," Spurrier said.
The investigation into the actions of tight end Weslye Saunders and his possible dealings with a sports agent during a trip to Florida began the process. When it was discovered that Saunders was living at The Whitney hotel along with nine other players, the investigation began to snowball.
Saunders has been suspended since Aug. 23 but eight of the other nine were cleared of their Whitney involvement minutes before last week's season-opening win over Southern Miss. The remaining one, left tackle Jarriel King, was still ineligible on Thursday although he was at practice.
Another issue involving cornerback Chris Culliver also reared before the USM game, involving an insurance policy that covers him in case of injury. The questions of who paid for it had not been resolved as of Thursday night either, although Culliver was also at practice.
Spurrier said there is no update on the status of the two for this week's game hosting No. 22 Georgia, so the resolution may come down to another game-time decision. As for Saunders, he did not practice, but he was spotted leaving the practice field on Thursday, around 20 minutes before the conclusion, in street clothes. It is not known what Saunders was doing at practice.
The NCAA investigation will look at two factors of USC's program -- player eligibility and whether or not the school is responsible. So while the players in question may still be cleared for the Georgia game or future games, that doesn't mean the investigation will be concluded.
The letter, addressed to USC President Harris Pastides, was postmarked as received on Thursday. It informs the president that the NCAA has begun an investigation, that the organization will report its findings to USC every six months and advises all parties involved with the case to remain quiet except for consultation with the NCAA and/or legal counsel.
It also says that USC may request a meeting to discuss the decision of why the NCAA feels the need to investigate, but considering that institutional representatives are already very familiar with the case due to the past two months, a potential meeting seems unnecessary at this time.
"I assure our fans and community that we will do what is right for the university," Pastides said in a statement that was also distributed by USC sports information. "Winning and playing by the rules go hand in hand. We will continue to cooperate with the NCAA investigation as we have in the past regarding possible rules violations. While we are working in full cooperation with the NCAA, our expectations have always been that our student-athletes and staff maintain highest NCAA standards."
While Spurrier has never been implicated in an NCAA probe, it is the second time he has had to deal with an NCAA investigation into USC's program. When he took the job in November 2004, USC was already embroiled in a nearly three-year investigation of the program under predecessor Lou Holtz. The Gamecocks never received an official letter of inquiry during that investigation, instead proposing self-punishment to the NCAA for its actions.
USC submitted penalties of two years of probation, the loss of 12 recruiting visits and four scholarships over two years. The NCAA agreed with the punishment, although it extended the probationary period to three years.
The Gamecocks began the season with high expectations and walloped USM 41-13 despite the clearance question lasting almost until kickoff. USC was honored with a No. 24 national ranking on Tuesday.
As the NCAA investigation has hovered, players have said they have not thought about it, that off-the-field issues do not affect their preparation. No players were available on Thursday to discuss the latest development.
Spurrier, who had to leave for his radio call-in show, approached the subject the same way as he did questions about his starting running backs. He didn't shy away from it and answered what he knew.
The coach previously said he would abide by whatever punishment the NCAA deems fit, with no appeal. On Thursday, he was only concerned with Georgia.
"We'll find out Saturday if we can block these guys," Spurrier said. "They're good, fast quick, good linebackers and all that. It'll be a good challenge.
"We'll see what happens here at high noon Saturday."
NOTES: Defensive head Ellis Johnson confirmed that starting spur Antonio Allen (hamstring) would dress for Georgia, but would only be an emergency option. Damario Jeffery will start while Blake Baxley and potentially Dion LeCorn will back him up. "If Jeffery doesn't get hurt, he'll probably play 65 snaps again, I guess," Johnson said. ... Ladi Ajiboye will play, although he probably won't start, with his left hand in a cast. Thursday was the first day Ajiboye had his fingers sticking out of the cast.
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