Dr. Bill Lee Atchley has been president of Clemson University since 1979. Clemson, which won its first national football championship last fall, is under investigation by the NCAA for possible violations of recruiting rules. Atchley, a former minor league baseball player, was interviewed in his office on campus last week by Washington Post staff writer Paul Attner. These are excerpts from that interview.
Question: Are you going to be cleared by the NCAA?
Answer: I really don't know. The reason I don't know anything about it is because we haven't been charged with anything. And I guess that is one of the concerns I had about ABC's story on the investigation and all the other things that came out (last fall). And you may ask why haven't I come out and said some things to counter it. Well, first of all, I don't like to try to defend something I haven't been charged with. Second, we have a kind of rule on our board of trustees that says if the NCAA thinks it is important to keep this thing in a preliminary investigation without trying to talk about it, we should, too. It's not anything I'm trying to hide.
But I do think the NCAA has an area of weakness which I intend to try to work on sometime down the line in a very constructive manner. I think there should be in every one of their violations a maximum or minimum penalty for that violation. Today, you can go in on certain charges, and right or wrong, if they couldn't prove one area which is a major violation but they had some minor ones and they wanted to get to you, they could give you any kind of major penalty. All I'm saying is, let's be fair on both sides of this thing.
Q: Your football program was reprimanded and your basketball program was put on probation after a 1975 investigation. Now you are being investigated again. Does it concern you that your school has been investigated twice in that time?
A: First of all, just being investigated and actually being accused and charged is entirely different. They can investigate you any time. If John Brown over here in X university doesn't like Bill Atchley or doesn't like somebody else, they can make all kinds of accusations that don't mean you are guilty of anything. If you want to know if we are charged twice, does that concern me, I'd say yes, it concerns me. But it wouldn't concern me as much right now as it would the next time some of my administration was charged, because I didn't have anything to do with the first one, and I don't even know what went on the first time.
Q: What if the NCAA can prove violations. Would you take major steps to correct those violations?
A: I think we've taken the steps already. We try to emphasize that they (coaches and recruiters) represent this university and we aren't going to tolerate such and such a thing to happen. And if they do happen, it's just like an academic dean or anybody else, they are going to account for their actions. And all that depends on what kind of violations there are. I don't know how you actually go about getting people to understand the rules, because the rule book is so complicated it takes someone with a lawyer's degree to interpret everything.
Q: Aren't you concerned that the image of the university and the football program is being damaged by these investigations?
A: Whatever we can do to keep that image as clean and clear, I want to do. I have the greatest amount of faith in Coach Dan Ford. Now, I just know him as an individual. But I don't think he would do something that would be injurious to a young person or the university.
I guess anybody can cheat, but that's the other thing: I think there is so much jealousy, so much competition, that they look for the first thing to turn somebody in. I am sure there are things we could find, but I'm a little hesitant to turn in X university for some violation you may or may not be cognizant of.
The NCAA will let things build up. To me a violation is a violation, but they'll let the whole thing pile up until all of a sudden you have a major case. That's like taking a penny here and a penny there, and all of a sudden you have $1,000 and they accuse you of stealing $1,000. It's stupid. One of those things I think you have to use some common sense (with). People have come to me and said, 'Clemson University really has been on the rise as far as athletics are concerned,' but it really hasn't happened overnight. It's been building. Now all of a sudden, somebody out there happens to see that we are winners, and they think we are in violation (of rules) and are cheating and doing everything wrong.
Q: Why were you and the university so upset with ABC television for reporting that you were being investigated by the NCAA?
A: It was not a bona fide news story anymore by the time they reported it. But if they wanted to report it, then have it on as sports news in their regular news shows, not as a halftime report in a game. But it already had been reported numerous times. Why do something just on us? Why not use as general examples teams already found in violation? Ours is a preliminary investigation; we haven't been found guilty of anything. Yet they chose to make the report on us and barely mention the other examples until the end of the report. They never made it very clear that it was a preliminary investigation. Then they use Tates Locke (former Clemson basketball coach), a fellow that had nothing to do with the current program. He was talking about things that happened years ago. What relevance did that have? They said they held off reporting the story to develop more detail. I didn't think what they finally presented showed more detail . . . It damaged this university. It projected an image in the minds of viewers that wasn't justified by the circumstances . . . It leaves the impression of being guilty and then having us prove our innocence. And I don't believe that is the way our system works.
Q: Danny Ford and Bill McLellan (athletic director) both have said they would have tried to prevent Clemson from playing the North Carolina game if ABC had decided to run its NCAA investigation report at halftime. Would you have allowed them to cancel the game?
A: You are asking me to judge, in hindsight, what would have happened in an emotional moment. But I would have been consulted and I'm sure the decision would have been made to play the game. Too many people had come too far and the game was far too important not to play it. But I think we were correct about being upset that ABC would consider running a report at halftime.
Q: What effect has winning the national title had on Clemson?
A: If you are having a winning year and if you win the national championship, it gives us all a spotlight. People see the national championship, they think that is fantastic, they want to know more about the university.
I think it's also been recognized over the years that when you have winning years, whether it be the national championship or not, you not only see the financial support pick up in support of athletics, but you also see the institution picking up support in alumni and some of the other areas, so it does have a spinoff. An athletic program exists primarily because of an educational institution--regardless of what some people sometimes like to think, that the institution is there just for the athletic program. At Clemson, I think we have a proper perspective. We realize that our young people need the education, and I think that's exemplified when we look (at the fact that) about 85 percent of our athletes graduate and even some that go in the pro ranks come back and graduate. We are very proud of that.
Q: Do you run the risk as a university of overemphasizing athletics?
A: I don't really think so. We are very fortunate at this university. There are no state dollars that go into supporting the athletic program, it all comes through our IPTAY, our fund raising arm. Through that, many of those dollars spill over and help keep the parking lots, the intramural programs, a lot of those things going that work into the whole system. We don't overemphasize athletics . . .
We've taken a lot of pride in trying to be honest and straightforward. That's where I guess it hurts me more when I come back to the NCAA (investigation). I honestly believe there is no university anywhere in the country, I don't care who they are, which hasn't violated something. But I do not believe that Clemson University has in any way gone out, at least as far as I know--and we are still under a preliminary investigation and I have heard no official word--and maliciously taken advantage of young people to get them to come to Clemson University to play football. I think that is wrong to do that.
Q: Texas A&M recently hired Jackie Sherrill away from Pittsburgh to coach its football team with a five-year, $1.2 million dollar contract. Many educators have been disturbed by Sherrill's contract. What are your feelings?
A: I don't think any coach is worth that kind of money, nor do I think a college professor or a college president is worth that much. It may cause us to reassess the sanctity of the contract. I believe it's a two-way street. I was glad to see some of the money Sherrill receives was going to paying off the remainder of his Pittsburgh contract. A few schools probably can afford to pay a coach that much money--schools like Texas and Texas A&M--because of their oil money endowments. But I'm not saying that even if we could afford it, we should. I think it's wrong.
Q: Can a coach who is known for his teaching retain a job even though his teams may have a couple of losing seasons?
A: One of the problems people have is that they don't have enough patience. A coach has a bad season and right away, there is talk that he should be replaced. Dan Ford was a 6-5 coach two years ago, and people were talking about the future of the program. Now he is coach of the year and we have a national championship. I think you have to look at a whole range of things when you evaluate a coach. But you also have to remember why you hired him. I hire a researcher to produce successful research. I hire a coach to produce successful, winning teams. He can do all of the other things and that has to be taken into consideration.