It has been a year of living precariously for Marshall Criser, the president of the University of Florida.
He arrived on campus last summer, after 31 years of practicing law in Palm Beach and a decade on the Florida Board of Regents, as newspapers throughout the state were speculating about a 21-month NCAA investigation into allegations of numerous recruiting and rules violations. He fired the popular football coach, Charley Pell; offered "to cooperate fully" with the NCAA, and even suggested the Gators forfeit victories from the 1980 and '81 seasons.
"I didn't come up here to be a cheerleader for a football program," he says.
So what was he doing proclaiming 1984 "the year of the Gator" and threatening to pull out of the Southeastern Conference, rather than give back the Gators' football championship? Making a point, says Criser.
"Nobody wants to be identified with something that's tainted, but there has to be an end," he says.
For Criser, that end came April 3, when the conference's executive committee voted to allow the Gators to keep their championship despite two years of NCAA probation and 59 rules violatons. When the conference's presidents met May 29 and reversed that decision, it was too much and, technically, he says, much too late.
Nevertheless, Florida will remain in the conference, Criser says. When he called off a study into the possibility of pulling out of the league, Criser said, "The conclusions of such a study, if change were indicated, would probably be suspect regardless of its stated rationale."
The stated rationale for Criser never was anything other than strict adherence to the SEC charter in such matters. Morally? "Morally?" he says, repeating the question softly and letting it dangle.
"The only consideration once the anger is gone, and the anger is now gone, is competing without the conference," he says. "Probably football could survive. Maybe basketball. The other sports are the question."
Many questions linger for Criser, a reformer in a school paying the penalties for some of the most serious violations ever cited by the NCAA. Among the charges during the NCAA investigation were allegations that Pell maintained a slush fund to supplement part-time assistants' salaries and pay for secret scouting of opponents; that he instructed his staff to falsify travel vouchers so they could buy T-shirts, workout clothing and souvenirs for recruits, and that he arranged for athletes to receive nearly $1,000 for work they didn't perform in 1979.
"Lord knows we've admitted extraordinarily serious violations," he says. "We'll take our medicine and get on about our business."
It won't be business as before, though, especially in the athletic department, where before "nobody reported to anybody," Criser says. He has said before that this lack of a chain of command was at the root of many of the Gators' problems.
Although he doesn't deny the Gators did wrong, Criser said he still thinks the severity of the NCAA sanctions -- including a cap on scholarships -- is due in part to Florida being "at the wrong place at the wrong time."
The time was right before one of the biggest reform movements ever hit the NCAA, which called a special ethics convention in New Orleans last month and instituted sweeping changes designed to make the penalty for repeat rules violators so severe that the programs of cheaters will be in severe jeopardy. Institutions that have committed major infractions in the past could have their programs suspended for up to two years for repeat violations in the next five years.
"You ever been to a religious revival?" he asks. "Fever and fervor were there (in New Orleans)."
But Criser feels "there's room for reform on both sides," in institutions and in the NCAA. He realizes this isn't what's expected from the president of a school on probation -- "It's like, 'You cheated and you got caught. Don't raise your head,' " he says -- so he won't criticize the NCAA, but he does have a few suggestions.
Criser would like to see tougher admission requirements and the repeal of freshman eligibility. "It's got to be awfully disconcerting to come to a university and be involved in athletic competition before finding a classroom, maybe under those circumstances never finding a library," he says.
He supports the NCAA's Proposition 48 -- requiring a 2.0 average in a core curriculum in high school and minimum scores on admission tests -- "or some reasonable facsimile." Although some groups have said standardized testing can be unfair to minorities, he has no problem with Proposition 48 going into effect without revision.
"We are an institution of higher learning," he says. "We actively recruit minority students, but, frankly, we actively recruit good students who can compete."
The implication is clear: Students who score very low on admission tests often can't.
"There's a certain amount of academic elitism," Criser says. "You can't be all things to all people. Everybody in Florida doesn't have a God-given right to go to the University of Florida . . . I would never want to be a party to economic elitism but I'm not ashamed of academic elitism."
Another thing he'd like to see is NCAA approval for paying student-athletes. Not a real salary, but a small amount of "laundry money," possibly $15 or $20, or even the $25 a month he gives his own children in college. NCAA regulations permit athletes on scholarship their room, board, tuition and books and nothing else. And they aren't allowed to work during the school year.
"The only thing they can do is work in the summer," Criser says. "If you can imagine a poor 17-year-old working in the summer and saving and budgeting that money for a whole year ahead, you've got the exceptional kid of the world."
Instead, what you usually get, he says, is a situation where a poor athlete on scholarship has no money for movies, gas, drinks and the other seeming necessities of college life. "It cries out for abuse," he says. And, indeed, one of the violations reported in the Florida case last year involved a loan to a player for a weekend trip home.
"Rules have to be realistic," Criser says.
So do college presidents. So Criser isn't ready to disband a program, as has been done with basketball after scandals at the University of San Francisco and Tulane.
"It's a vital link," he says of sports. "If you're a Harvard, you can raise money by waiting for people to die. If you're anybody else, you have to establish links."
So Criser walks the line between reformer and realist.
The reformer says, "The necessity, not the ability, to win is at the center of what's wrong with athletics today. Probably we need to deemphasize the necessity of winning and we need to reestablish academics."
The realist says, "I don't think I'd want to be a coach today. The pressures are too intense."