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The Empire Strikes Back: Is the Corruption Back in the SEC?

It lasted almost eight years. The last major-sport coach at an SEC school to lose his job in the wake of a significant NCAA scandal was either Georgia basketball coach Jim Harrick or Mississippi State football coach Jackie Sherrill, depending on how you define the terms. While no one expected the notoriously competitive SEC to stay relatively scandal-free forever, Commissioner Mike Slive's campaign to get all the conference's programs off probation went from looking like a laughably naive idea to being a perfectly reasonable goal.

Not that there weren't questionable actions over the same time frame. South Carolina was hit with sanctions for some Lou Holtz-era issues. Few people need to be reminded of the traveling circus that was the Lane Kiffin Quasi-Era at Tennessee. Oversigning became an issue practically conference-wide. And, fair or not, John Calipari was always coaching in Kentucky if anyone needed a reason to take a shot at the conference.

But the firing of Bruce Pearl and the looming revelations about Auburn still feel a little bit like the end of an era. Lying to the NCAA and allegedly paying players -- that sounds a lot more like the SEC in the days when recruits almost tripped over $100 bills and the rules were seen as guidelines for the weak. The corruption was almost certainly still underway at some level and for some teams, but it was far enough out of sight and constrained enough for the first time that it was possible to focus more on the football than the off-field dramas.

Not that the problem was confined to the SEC in the old days -- the Southwest Conference was easily just as corrupt as the SEC ever dreamed of being. And not that the new corruption is confined to the Southeast -- all you need to do is look at the Reggie Bush drama at Southern Cal or the origins of Agentgate at UNC to realize that breaking the rules is a sports problem, not an SEC problem or even a college football problem.

Still, you can't help but wonder if the bad days are back, and if it's really inevitable after all. The stakes are so high now and the spotlight on the nation's most prominent conference is so bright, there is a confluence of money and motivation and scrutiny that seems almost bound to produce scandal. If being the most-hyped conference is really a blessing, it is also certainly a mixed blessing.

Maybe it's just a coincidence. Maybe Bruce Pearl's lies were just something that happened. And maybe the cloud that has hovered over Auburn since the first Cam Newton reports broke were just another episode. Perhaps any attempts to tie the two together is nothing more than our human instinct to find common threads between disparate events. It could be that any search for context is just a way to pass the time before the football season begins.

The next scandal-free period might not last eight years; it might not even last eight months. But, at least looking at the questions swirling around the sports and all that we're having to talk about that has nothing to do with fields or courts, it's hard to think that it can start soon enough.