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NCAA reviews University of Tennessee student group called Orange Pride for possible football recruiting violations

6:40 PM, Dec 10, 2009   |    comments
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University confirms review in progress:

The University of Tennessee confirms an NCAA review is underway. That's the step before an official investigation.

It involves a student admissions group called Orange Pride, so both the Athletics department and University Admissions are cooperating with the NCAA.

A high school football player in South Carolina told the New York Times hostesses from Tennessee attended one of his games in September.

Marcus Lattimore said they held up signs, including one that read "Come to Tennessee."

The Greenville News reports the high school coach found out about it after the game, called his players to tell them to stay away from the UT girls, and also called UT coach David Reaves to tell him about the incident.

Orange Pride is a group of about 75 students who are selected after an application and interview process.

The application asks for honors, work experience, and references. It spells out the scheduling obligations: home football games, official visit weekends, spring fling, the Orange and White Game, recruiting programs, and weekly meetings.

An online photo of Orange Pride shows a group of smiling students in orange blazers.

The group used to be all women and went by a different name: Vol Hostess Program.

But that changed in 2004 when the group became Orange Pride, added men, and broadened responsibilities.

At events on campus, they interact with prospective students, athletes, and their families.

A former member from the Peyton Manning era said they were never encouraged to contact players away from campus.

 

"I never was approached by anybody at UT to do anything I thought was inappropriate. We just hung out with the guys and with their parents and really just talked a whole lot about the University and a lot of us just really liked football and wanted UT to succeed and just enjoyed what we were doing," Liza Hutchison said.

The father of another football player on that South Carolina team spoke with the Greenville News today.

Gary Willis said the Orange Pride members came to the high school game on their own.

The University of Tennessee released a statement saying it's concerned about the alleged activities of some Orange Pride members.

According to the University, NCAA guidelines are part of their orientation and training and appropriate action will be taken if those guidelines were violated.

Orange Pride members are paid minimum wage.

Previous story:

The University of Tennessee has confirmed the NCAA is investigating the Vols' recruiting practices, but the NCAA won't even say that much.

UT confirmed a review of recruiting; under NCAA parlance, that's distinct from an NCAA investigation. When the NCAA completes a review of recruiting, it may send a letter to the university, notifying the university it is opening a formal investigation.

"Thank you for your message. It is NCAA policy to not comment on current, pending or potential investigations," Stacey Osburn, Associate Director for Public and Media Relations, said in an e-mail.

The New York Times broke the story Wednesday morning, saying the inquiry focuses largely on the Vols' 'hostess' program--female students who meet with prospective students, including athletes.

The University of Tennessee has the Orange Pride as a formal student group, focused on showcasing the university's strong points to campus visitors and potential students. The group includes both male and female students. That group falls under the authority of Admissions.

The Times reports the NCAA has already interviewed four prospective recruits and plans to talk with two more this week. Specifically, the paper reports the investigation focuses on hostesses visiting prospective recruits at their high schools. If the NCAA rules they were university representatives, it could be a recruiting violation.

Wednesday afternoon, the university released a statement:

The University of Tennessee confirms that there is an NCAA review under way. University Administration and Athletics are cooperating fully.

We are concerned about the alleged activities of some members of the Orange Pride. Both university and NCAA guidelines are a part of the Orange Pride's orientation and training. If those guidelines were violated, we will take appropriate action. Because of federal student privacy regulations, we can't comment further.

Orange Pride is one of three student admissions groups that serve as ambassadors for the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Orange Pride's responsibilities include staffing university-wide admissions programs, providing campus tours, and hosting prospective athletes and their families. There are 75 students, both men and women, in the group. These ambassadors interact with hundreds of students across the campus.

Recruit's father reacts

By Ed McGranahan, Greenville News emcgrana@greenvillenews.com

The father of a Byrnes High School football player committed to the University of Tennessee said he spoke to several young women at a Byrnes game whom his son met at a UT camp last summer.

Gary Willis, whose son Brandon Willis was a defensive lineman at Byrnes, said the women had promised to attend a Byrnes game.

A story in today's New York Times said the NCAA is "conducting a wide-ranging investigation" into UT football recruiting including the use of "hostesses."

Tennessee said in a statement today that it was cooperating with an NCAA review and was "concerned about the alleged activities of some members" of its ambassador program.

According to the Times, the women at the Byrnes game held up a sign during the game in September that said, "Come to Tennessee," and one of Willis' teammates said they were influential in his decision to commit to the Vols. Brandon Willis and teammate Corey Miller committed to Tennessee in September.

Byrnes head coach Chris Miller said that upon learning the women were at the game called the players and told them "to get away from them," then called UT assistant coach David Reaves.

Gary Willis said his son will graduate from Byrnes this month and will enroll in a college in January. Commitments are not binding until the players sign a National Letter of Intent in February.

"These girls had nothing to do with the impact when my son decided he would go to school at Tennessee," Willis said in a telephone interview. "They told the guys at summer camp that they were going to come to one of the games."

He said Tennessee "had nothing to do with that. They didn't even know that these kids were coming to the game."

Willis said he spoke to an NCAA representative that visited Byrnes and interviewed his son.

"I let him know first and foremost that I did not appreciate him that I didn't appreciate him getting my son out of class without his dad being there," Gary Willis said. "We have nothing to hide. Brandon is not signed to go to Tennessee. He is verbally committed to go to Tennessee. He could still go anywhere he wanted to go."

Coach Miller said he was aware an NCAA representative visited the school and interviewed three players, but he did not know the purpose of the interviews.

He said his son has received more than 40 major college scholarship offers including schools in California, two of which he visited recently. "There were girls at every school we went," he said.

"These are kids you're messing with. These are kids that don't deserve that," Willis said. "My son has a 4.28 GPA. He ain't the type of kid that looks for handouts."

Willis said he told the NCAA, "I have nothing to hide with you."

Willis said his son didn't mention it until days later. Corey Miller's mother said today she wasn't aware her son had been interviewed by the NCAA.

Running back Marcus Lattimore told the Times that the women were "real pretty, real nice and just real cool."

Lattimore, one of the nation's top prospects this year, said he visited Tennessee "unofficially."

"I haven't seen no other schools do that," he told the Times. "It's crazy."

Willis was incensed.

"You're talking about my son and something that he has worked hard for," he said. "It's not going to be based upon no girls, I promise you that." 

 

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