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April 22, 2013- -
AUBURN | There was a moment on April 3, the day Selena Roberts' story broke on her eclectic website, when I thought this could be a bad thing for Auburn.
That was before I read it.
My first thought after completion? Who edited this thing? It was supposed to be about the sad story of disgraced former safety Mike McNeil and instead turned into a patchworked array of incongruent and often unrelated allegations against the football program.
It didn't take long for major cracks to show.
Mike Blanc, an important source for the story, told AuburnSports.com a few hours after publication that many of his quotes were fabricated or taken out of context. Other facts were demonstrably false -- like the baseless assertions that McNeil's family wasn't contacted by Auburn and that tailback Mike Dyer was academically ineligible for the BCS Championship game.
Those aren't subjective assessments. Auburn had the ability to disprove everything, which led me to a series of telephone conversations with people in position to make the university's position crystal clear.
They assured me a thorough response was forthcoming.
They weren't kidding.
Auburn on Monday came though with the most vigorous, public rebuttal to a story in the history of public rebuttals. In an open letter to university supporters, athletic director Jay Jacobs systematically refuted every meaningful allegation with hard evidence to support every rebuttal.
Auburn didn't call Mike McNeil's home? Auburn called four times.
Auburn didn't talk with anyone from McNeil's family? What about an 80-minute phone conversation with team chaplain Chette Williams?
Auburn improperly changed McNeil's grades to keep him eligible? The grade was changed because most of his missed classes were excused -- a fact not understood initially.
Auburn had 40 players test positive for recreational drug use after the BCS game? The number was 10. Minor miscalculation.
This kind of thing is nothing new on the Plains, of course, which has been home to a series of odd, often baseless scandals during the past few years.
No Auburn fan will forget the hubbub surrounding Cam Newton during his lone season at Auburn, which many believed would be derailed by an alleged scheme hatched by his father to net $180,000.
Tangible fallout? None.
The NCAA focused all available resources on Auburn for six months and spent another 12-18 months investigating claims at a standard level of involvement. They didn't find a single violation. Nothing.
"It started out as a Mississippi State problem and then somehow for 13 months became an Auburn problem," Chizik said Monday.
Then it became nobody's problem.
Chizik, who's remained out of the spotlight since being fired in November, reappeared Monday as part of Auburn's surprising offensive. He showed a sympathetic side when discussing McNeil and the other players involved with the 2011 armed robbery, saying he feels "very, very bad for the family and these young men," but clearly doesn't feel the same way about people who have attempted to impugn his compliance record.
"(The NCAA) spent the better part of two years at Auburn, so would it not be common sense that when they came in there to look at Auburn about payment of players they found nothing," Chizik said. "I was absolutely adamant and sure that they weren't going to find anything with Auburn. My point is the NCAA leaves and you get a one-sentence response to 13 months of getting drug through the mud and what did they find? They said they found nothing."
The tales don't stop there.
Remember the so-called "HBO Four" -- former players who also levied accusations? The NCAA peered into that and found nothing. Another trumped-up fallacy marketed as a scoop.
Yet nothing can top the recent stories from ESPN regarding the "spice" epidemic that allegedly engulfed half the football team. The report was humorously off base in several areas, most notably the assertion that no player or parent was notified of a positive test for synthetic marijuana.
AuburnSports.com was on the phone within 30 minutes talking with the father of one former player who said he was notified both by telephone and mail. Another parent told us that while his son hadn't tested positive, he'd spoken with several other parents who had received word from Auburn regarding their sons' test results.
Players were kicked off the team for violating Chizik's edict that players refrain from using synthetic marijuana. The ESPN report said nobody was disciplined.
ESPN relied heavily on information gleaned from Dakota Mosley, his father and the mother of another suspect in the armed robbery, Shaun Kitchens. The use of synthetic marijuana is a central theme to their legal defenses.
Coincidence? Probably not.
"Don't want to judge them, haven't been in their shoes, but what unfortunately has happened is that this story of two young men has turned into an indictment for a whole football team that's backed up by no facts," Chizik said. "An indictment of me and the way I ran the program. An indictment of our coaches. An indictment of our athletic department. And it's not right. Because the facts are simply this: The data that we use doesn't support the word 'epidemic' or even what their allegations are. It's just simply not supported by data."
What happened today represents an important change in how Auburn does business. These gotcha stories, generally lacking the kind of factual basis needed to support such serious allegations, ultimately have been redemptive.
They've galvanized Auburn by prompting administrators to tackle wayward claims with prejudice. Lobbing baseless salvos won't work anymore.
Criticize at your own risk.