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Probation period runs out the clock

What began six years ago as a tempest of allegations of extra benefits and academic malfeasance will conclude quietly Friday when the NCAA probation period ends for South Carolina's football team.

A letter from USC president Andrew Sorensen to the NCAA's Indianapolis office, certifying the university is in compliance with NCAA rules, will end an unpleasant chapter in the Gamecocks' history book that cost one athletics department official his job and increased to three the number of schools former USC coach Lou Holtz left on NCAA probation.

The penalty phase of USC's three-year probation ended last year, allowing the Gamecocks to award their full allotment of 85 scholarships after two years at 83 and restoring their total of paid, official visits to the maximum 56, up from 50.

The probation followed a three-year investigation that started with questions concerning the recruitment and matriculation of star tailback Derek Watson and focused largely on former associate athletics director Tom Perry, who was mentioned in all but one of the five major violations.

By the time the NCAA released its findings in the summer of 2005, Holtz had retired, Perry had been fired and was teaching high school English in Colorado, and Watson had been gone from USC for nearly four years.

Russ Pate, USC's NCAA faculty athletics representative during the investigation, did not realize the probation was ending this week until contacted by a reporter.

"It's not a process that anyone would sign up for. Nobody wants to go through that," Pate said. "If you find yourself as an institution in that situation, all you can do is work as hard as you can to be responsive, and at the same time try to ensure the university is fairly represented in the process.

"Even though it did take a long time, I think in the end the outcome was a fair one and the university accepted it and moved on."

USC was cited for lack of institutional control and failing to monitor its program during the summer of 2001 and the 2001-02 academic year for:

providing tutoring to junior-college transfers Shaun Smith and Chavez Donnings before they enrolled at USC; improperly readmitting kicker Daniel Weaver following his second academic suspension at about the time of the 2002 Outback Bowl.USC also was sanctioned for providing transportation to Watson so the former Palmetto High player could attend classes, doctor's appointments, practices and weightlifting and tutoring sessions.

The NCAA placed a four-year "show cause" order on Perry, requiring him and any NCAA school wishing to hire him before August 2009 to appear before the NCAA's infractions committee.

Holtz, who was not named in any of the 11 violations, said three years ago he was not responsible for any of the hires in the academic support office that Perry oversaw.

Attempts to reach Perry, who received a $215,000 settlement from USC in 2005, were unsuccessful. Mike McGee, USC's athletics director at the time of the violations, declined to comment when reached at his Colorado horse ranch.

USC senior associate athletics director Val Sheley, who runs the compliance office, said the probation ends when the NCAA ratifies Sorensen's letter. After that, USC will have to steer clear of major infractions for two years to avoid being hit with harsher penalties as a repeat offender.

But Sheley does not expect that to be a problem, pointing out that USC has more than doubled its compliance staff in the three years since landing on probation.

"We're glad it's over and we've done what we had to do," Sheley said. "A lot of times in these things there's a silver lining. It made us make the compliance office the way it should be."

SEC commissioner Mike Slive set a goal six years ago of having the conference probation-free by this summer. But the three-year probation imposed on Arkansas' men's track program in the fall will ensure the SEC will not reach the objective.

But officials believe there is a different attitude in regard to NCAA compliance throughout the conference, including at USC, where football coach Steve Spurrier has a clean history with the NCAA.

USC marketing professor Bill Bearden, who succeeded Pate as the NCAA faculty rep, is confident the Gamecocks' coaches and administrators are working within the rules.

"The number of secondary violations that occur is kind of in the middle of the conference — not too many, not too few. They seem to very conscientious," Bearden said. "Everything I've found, I'm convinced they're trying to do the right thing."

Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.