AUBURN, ALA., SEPT. 3 -- Jeff Burger has partaken in the annual and semi-sacred Auburn haircutting tradition, so he is indistinguishable from several other newly shaven young men, unless you notice that label on his back that says "Cheat." But, as Auburn Coach Pat Dye said, "Does he look like a bad guy?"
Having survived accusations of academic dishonesty and an NCAA declaration that he was ineligible, Burger somewhat miraculously will be Auburn's starting quarterback when the Tigers open their season against Texas Saturday. Barely a month ago, it seemed Burger's Auburn career had ended, so beset was he by accusations that now appear less serious than first thought.
His fifth-year eligibility was threatened by the school's Academic Honesty Committee, which recommended he be suspended for plagiarizing a term paper last spring on a charge of inadvertently misusing source material. In the midst of that, the NCAA temporarily declared him ineligible when it was revealed Auburn assistant coach Pat Sullivan signed a $700 property bond to have him released following Burger's arrest resulting from a fight in a parking lot.
After numerous hearings, appeals and arguments over two months this summer, the academic honesty board suspension was overruled by vice president of academic affairs Warren Brandt; Burger, a C student in Vocational Adult Education, was allowed back in school. Finally, the NCAA restored his eligibility on appeal a few days before fall practice began, citing a policy of leniency in cases in which coaches act as parents.
Since his haircut, what is left is a smattering of reddish-blond tousle and an amiable jaw that makes Burger look far younger than 22. Raised in rural Cedartown, Ga., a quiet hunter, fisher and son of a grocer, he appears the last person who would have been involved in such a turn of events.
"I made mistakes. But nothing I did was wrong or dishonest," Burger said.
Yet, somehow, Burger became embroiled in a quagmire of campus debates. Some said he was persecuted unfairly because he is an athlete, others that he was unfairly allowed back because he is an athlete. There is little disagreement that Burger, who completed 126 of 222 passes last season for 1,671 yards and nine touchdowns, is a chief reason Auburn is expected to be a top 20 team.
The issues raised by Burger's case are particularly sensitive at Auburn, where Dye has often stated his controversial position that a degree is not the most realistic aim for some college athletes, and has demonstrated dogged loyalty to his players. Last season Dye came under criticism for allowing star running back Brent Fullwood to play in the Citrus Bowl after learning that he had not attended class for two months. So Burger may in part have been a victim of Auburn's extremely successful and controversial football reputation.
"That's the world we live in," Dye said. "No football player is an ordinary student. If you get special consideration it's because you're an athlete. If you are antagonized, it's because you're an athlete. But ultimately in Jeff's case, he was treated like a regular student because the system worked."
The nature of Burger's offense was this: in four sections of a paper entitled "Executive Stress," he used material without using quotation marks. However, he footnoted each quote, identifying the source of the material. Technically, perhaps he was guilty; morally, perhaps not.
His professor forwarded the paper to the board, recommending only that Burger receive an F on the paper. But the committee was far more harsh. Burger did not attend the initial hearing, assuming the matter wasn't serious. He was sickened to learn he was suspended for three quarters, would fail the course and have his transcript stamped with Academic Dishonesty.
"I never could accept the fact that I wasn't going to get to play," Burger said. "I said, 'What in the world am I going to do about this?' I thought once they heard my side they'd see I didn't do anything wrong."
Burger got an attorney from Montgomery and prepared for a second hearing in August. But his case was not helped when it was revealed that in July he had been arrested for carrying a concealed weapon and public intoxication when he was involved in a fight outside a local fast-food joint.
Burger has a hunting and fishing camp outside of Auburn. He said he had taken four friends there, and on their return to town in the early hours of a July day, they stopped for food. He said two other customers began heckling him, and they took it outside. "Let's put it this way, I was not harmed," Burger said. "There were no marks on me."
When police arrived, they searched Burger's truck and found a pistol beneath the seat. It was unlicensed, and he was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon. Burger said it belonged to one of his friends, but pled guilty in exchange for the public intoxication charge being dropped.
"I made an all-American mistake, and I admitted to it," Burger said. "I got into a scuffle; they started it, we had had it out, and that was it. All of a sudden there was all this stuff about a gun. It was in the truck, I never laid a hand on it. But it came out like I was trying to kill someone."
The more serious implication was that Sullivan had violated the NCAA rule on extra benefits by getting him released. Sullivan, the former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, said he was not aware he broke a rule when he signed for Burger's bond. Dye said that although he knew of Burger's arrest, Sullivan never told him what he had signed. All were aghast at the result.
"We're very close, and his conversation to me was, 'Coach, I'm in trouble and I need help,' " Sullivan said. "All I knew was that one of my players had a problem. I didn't know it was wrong, and no money ever changed hands. I was just signing a piece of paper."
Then the academic honesty committee, spearheaded by geography professor Greg Jeane, upheld the original decision to suspend him. Burger was distraught, but his attorneys hinted at lawsuits and took the next step in appealing to Brandt. Dye stuck by Burger. The quarterback spent most of his time depressed and silent at his camp.
"I made it plain to Jeff throughout the turmoil, I said, 'You are the quarterback at Auburn until I'm told you can no longer play here,' " Dye said. "I could not believe they'd take his career away just for this."
He was right. Finally, Brandt ruled Burger had indeed committed a violation, but that the suspension was too harsh. Shortly afterward, the NCAA declared Burger eligible.
Although the affair was over, discussion of it, and whether he received preferential treatment, was not. Jeane bitterly disagrees with the decision and intends to bring it up again at a meeting of the faculty senate Oct. 6. He cites six cases of plagiarism in his two years as head of the academic committee. In all cases, some of which were inadvertent, the offenders received suspensions ranging from one to three quarters.
"If you know anything about southern universities and the way the whole thing is structured, that might lead one to believe there was some outside interference in this case," Jeane said. "The speculation is that it comes from influential alumni and the Board of Trustees."
Brandt's explanation for his decision is that the other six suspended students were allowed anonymity; Burger's reputation has been damaged publically and perhaps irreparably. He argues that is comparable punishment to a suspension, the offense being inadvertent.
Part of Burger's penalty is to take two extra courses, an English class and the psychology class again. The "Academic Dishonesty" label will remain on his record until he passes them.
"I'm wondering if I'm going to be singled out," he said. "How are my professors going to act when I walk into their classes this fall?"
Clearly, the beginning of the season will be a mercy to Burger, who has spent as much time explaining the extenuating circumstances of his summer as he has practicing for the Texas game. The huddle has become a haven.
"Everyone talks about pressure on the quarterback, and pressure on me because of what's happened," Burger said. "Well, a month ago I was looking at never playing again. Every time I go in the huddle now, it takes pressure off me. It's like, hey, I'm back where I'm supposed to be."