If you're a fan of the Florida Gators, the word is "whew."
Years of trouble, tension, turnover and turmoil in the athletic department finally appear to be ending. If the lessons have been learned that should have been learned the future looks bright. But that's a big "if" in Gatorland, where obsessive desire to win causes some to lose their moral compass.
The worst of the sanctions announced by the NCAA yesterday was the ban on a bowl appearance this season. That stings. The Gators, 2-0 and ranked 19th by The Associated Press, appear good enough to have qualified for at least a mid-level bowl and perhaps better.
But it was a mere slap on the snout compared to what the punishment could have been. Just two years ago, the Gator was an endangered species, facing the possibility of the death penalty in both football and basketball. Florida avoided that dire fate by convincing the NCAA, in word and deed, that it hadn't lost "institutional control" of its athletic department.
The word was encompassed in an exhaustive, exhausting 1,100-page defense, which detailed institutional safeguards such as coaches taking written tests on NCAA rules, and seminars for coaches and players on how to deal with agents. The deed was the forced resignations of football coach Galen Hall and basketball coach Norm Sloan. In essence, the Gators blamed their troubles on a couple of rogue coaches.
The NCAA bought it. Last month in Colorado, the charge of loss of institutional control was dropped. That assured Gator survival. Though Florida admitted guilt to nine other charges, they were relatively small potatoes.
Consequently, the NCAA came down easy. Basketball scholarships were reduced slightly, by two in 1991-92 and one in 1992-93; football scholarships were untouched. Television appearances were not restricted in either sport. Scholarships and TV loot are a program's vital organs.
It has been a sorry six years since the Gators were rocked with a then-record 107 charges against the football program and pleaded guilty to 59. That was Cheatin' Charley's legacy -- Pell grants. The Gators won their first Southeastern Conference championship in more than a half century under Hall, Pell's successor, but had it taken away because of the rampant cheating . . . cheating that had been inspired by an obsession for the title that rivaled Ahab's for the white whale. Much irony there.
The dark clouds never blew away. Hailed as Mr. Clean, savior of the program, Hall proved to be quite a bit less. Sloan took the basketball team to new heights, then that program got stuck in the mud, too. It was not only sordid, it was stupid. With their outstanding facilities, academic standing and loyal statewide following, the Gators would have no trouble fielding fine teams while obeying the rules. They don't have to cheat.
Having been twice burned, one hopes that has sunk in. Certainly the hiring of Steve Spurrier as football coach and Lon Kruger in basketball is a start in the right direction. Both have squeaky-clean reputations.
Spurrier is the Prodigal Son, unabashedly hero-worshiped by Florida fans. He says the Gators can win and do it the right way. One hopes the fans who adorned their cars with bumper stickers saying, "Damned right we cheat!" and the alums who chipped in for a $25,000 Lincoln to express their gratitude to Pell after he left in disgrace give Spurrier the chance to do it the right way.