BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA - The Southeastern Conference has a dubious distinction to go along with its money and national championships:
The SEC - the richest collegiate athletic league with $95 million in revenues in 2000 - has amassed the most major rules violations in Division I-A, the big league of NCAA sports.
SEC schools have been found guilty of major violations 42 times since 1953, when NCAA records begin. The Pac-10 is No. 2 with 36 major violations.
National comparisons are imprecise because the number of teams varies from league to league, and membership has changed within leagues over the years. But NCAA enforcement records paint a not-so-pretty picture of the SEC:
Member schools have been caught with major violations 15 times since the league announced its expansion to 12 universities in 1990, the most of any big-time conference in that period.
Each SEC member has been accused of a major rules infraction at least once since '90.
Of 64 NCAA schools with three or more major rules violations, eight are in the SEC. Auburn and Kentucky lead the conference's dishonor roll with six each.
Two of the 31 schools currently on probation are in the SEC: Alabama and Kentucky. The universities were recently slapped with penalties on consecutive days for football violations.
Cheating isn't limited to the SEC. The Southwest Conference had a reputation as an outlaw league by the time it disbanded in 1996, nine years after then-member Southern Methodist became the only school to receive the NCAA ``death penalty'' for repeated football violations.
The eight members of the SWC had 27 major violations combined when the league fell apart; SEC schools had 36 total violations at the same time, records show.
Thomas Yeager, chairman of the NCAA Infractions Committee, said it was only a coincidence that Alabama and Kentucky were sanctioned on back-to-back days.
But the timing raised questions about why SEC schools can't seem to stay on the right side of the law. The conference is gaining a reputation as a rogue league among some, but the NCAA's head enforcement official said it doesn't receive extra attention from investigators.
``We don't try to determine whether there's an area we should go after. We simply go to the area where we get information that we consider valid and pursue it,'' David Price, vice president for enforcement services for the NCAA, said in an interview Wednesday.
The SEC's size may be a factor. The league is large with 12 members, possibly making it more prone to incurring penalties than smaller conferences. NCAA records include all violations by schools even if they occurred before the university joined a certain league.
Regardless, something different is going on within the SEC, according to some who have held its top jobs. They say the Deep South's year-round obsession with college football has created a rule-breaking monster that doesn't exist anywhere else.
``Football is more than a passion in the South, it's a religion,'' said former Auburn coach Terry Bowden. ``When you let it become that big you get the old phrase, `Win at all costs.'''
NCAA records bear out Bowden. Of the 15 major violations incurred by the SEC since 1990, the largest number nine involved football.
Bowden said fans and coaching staffs constantly talk about the importance of winning, but rarely do university administrators confront SEC coaches with serious talk about always playing within the rules, regardless of wins and losses.
``Those words are not said,'' said Bowden, now an analyst with ABC Sports.
Bill Curry coached football at Alabama and Kentucky and played at Georgia Tech when it was still in the SEC. He said the importance of football ``got out of hand'' in the region during the civil rights movement as TV screens worldwide filled with images of Southern racial violence and hate.
SEC football was one area where no one could look down upon the South, he said. But a culture took hold that has resulted in uncontrollable boosters and, in some cases, the perception of a conference out of control.
``I'm not surprised the SEC has that dubious distinction,'' said Curry, a broadcaster like Bowden.
Through it all, though, the SEC also was known for producing winners. The league has won 72 national titles in the last decade, averaging more than seven a year in its 20 sports.
Curry said enforcement of NCAA rules has improved vastly since the 1980s, and the SEC's top cop said the increased focus on ferreting out rule-breakers may be the reason its number of infractions is so large.
A decade ago, faculty representatives had almost sole authority over policing athletic programs, said Jim McCullough, associate league commissioner for enforcement and compliance.
Today, McCullough said, most SEC schools have compliance staffs of at least three people, and the SEC itself has a staff of six working on rules enforcement.
McCullough rejected the idea that more rules violations are occurring than in past years, or that SEC members cheat more than other universities. The league's vast riches mostly from football TV contracts and the NCAA basketball tournament also aren't a major factor, McCullough said.
But he agreed with Bowden that the intense interest in SEC football can create problems, particularly during recruiting.
``I ran down three rumors today that I heard and reporters called me about,'' McCullough said on the eve of national signing day. ``They weren't true, but I had to check them.''
McCullough said the surge in popularity of talk radio and Internet chat rooms has created a new breeding ground for innuendo about potential violations. Bowden, however, blamed the biggest problem on a different source of rumors: coaches themselves.
A coach who gets beat for a top recruit might blame cheating by another school when none occurred, Bowden said. A booster takes the coach's word as gospel and decides to ``help'' his school by paying the next blue-chipper who comes along.
``That (is) the driving force that mucks this whole thing up,'' Bowden said.
Coaches may be behind the wheel, but the football-crazed faithful of the SEC are along for the ride. They get mad when their school is penalized, often regardless of the evidence.