Texas Southern disaster is a problem for all of the Southwestern Athletic Conference

As news broke that Texas Southern football players may have received grades for a class they never took, the school asked coach Johnnie Cole to step down. When he didn’t, Cole — coach of the reigning Southwestern Athletic Conference championship football team — was fired.

Out marches the athletic director, but there’s not much to be said. This is a disaster. For him, for the program, for the school, for the conference.

“We anticipate major NCAA violations toward our football program,” TSU’s Charles McClelland was saying, “with regard to recruiting, unethical conduct and academic inconsistencies — among other things.”

Among other things? It couldn’t get much worse, not for Texas Southern and not for the SWAC. Or could it?

TSU was notified in October that the school’s athletics department was being investigated. TSU subsequently sat starting quarterback Arvell Nelson at the SWAC Championship Game in December. Back then, McClelland said the school had “issues regarding TSU quarterback Arvell Nelson and his ability to participate in the SWAC title match. Because of concerns, the university has decided not to allow Nelson to play in the game.”

Is the championship game voided? Was the title-winner’s starting quarterback involved in this scandal? You can already hear the AP wires humming, see the tickers whizzing by on cable news, hear the jokes at the barbershop.

Cole, of course, was last seen hoisting the trophy on an ESPN network. For a moment, questions about previous NCAA investigations at Tennessee State, Alabama State and then at Lane College that had dogged him for years seemed to be fading. Not for long.

“The first time I talked to Cole after he had taken the job,” said Jerome Soloman of The (Houston) Chronicle, “he gave me a hard time about the Chronicle’s bringing up past NCAA violations every time we wrote about him. I told him to do something else and we’d write about the something else. He did something else: He made TSU a champion. He brought winning to the TSU Tigers. That’s all we have written about for a while. Now we’re back to writing about NCAA violations. That is why Cole was fired.”

Cole’s departure caps an offseason of dizzying change for the SWAC, as 40 percent of its head coaches have bolted. Earnest Collins exited Alcorn State for Northern Colorado, Henry Frazier III left Prairie View A&M for North Carolina Central and Rod Broadway moved from Grambling State to North Carolina A&T. (That makes Alabama A&M’s Anthony Jones the league’s longest tenured coach — if you don’t count Doug Williams, who returned to Grambling after a stint from 1998-2003.)

Of course, the Cole firing has broader resonance. It’s not just an embarrassment around the Third Ward, Lone Star State, or even around the Southwestern Athletic Conference. It’s a national disgrace. Folks are already piling on: “Texas Southern,” writes Holly Anderson of SB Nation, “is the ‘Where The Red Fern Grows’ of NCAA football.” And why shouldn’t they?

Cole, who played quarterback at TSU from 1982-85, leaves Texas Southern with a 19-16 record in three seasons, including a 9-3 mark in 2010 and the program’s first-ever outright SWAC title. The Tigers, who went 0-11 the season before Cole arrived, hadn’t even shared a championship since 1968. None of it matters now.

“We have graduated students, our APR is higher than it’s ever been, we have had good academic success, we have won a championship, and I’ve done things the right way,” Johnnie Cole countered. “I have not resigned. I have been relieved of my position at TSU.”

School officials have said the bulk of the violations apparently took place over the 2004-07 seasons, before Cole or McClelland were hired. But rumors of a fake exam have surrounded the program for some time. Somebody on campus must have determined that there was something to that rumor.

Look for a lawsuit from Cole. It’s almost standard these days. Regardless of how that unfolds, however, the damage is done. To Cole, to Texas Southern — and to the SWAC.

All of this happens, as Texas Southern is in the midst of spring practices, generally the height of offseason optimism. The team still has a handful of practices and another scrimmage remaining on its schedule, to be led by interim coach Kevin Ramsey, former defensive coordinator. TSU officials have already said they would put off a coaching search until after the 2011 campaign, perhaps setting the stage for a lost season if Ramsey can’t quickly right things.

The annual Maroon and Gray Game is set for April 16 at Durley Stadium, then the team is expected to receive its 2010 Southwestern Athletic Conference championship rings at an April 17 banquet. Ramsey has said he expects the banquet to proceed as planned.

It’s a celebration, I’m guessing, that will somehow feel like a funeral.

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