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Published: Sunday, 7/20/2003

In the spotlight

BY RON MUSSELMAN
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Ohio State's Maurice Clarett sheds an Indiana defender on his way to a touchdown. He led the Buckeyes with 18 TDs. Ohio State's Maurice Clarett sheds an Indiana defender on his way to a touchdown. He led the Buckeyes with 18 TDs.
TERRY GILLIAM / AP Enlarge

COLUMBUS - Maurice Clarett has made news with his feet and with his mouth since becoming Ohio State's starting tailback as a freshman last season.

But neither played a factor in the latest controversy swirling around the Heisman Trophy candidate.

The New York Times reported seven days ago that Clarett received preferential treatment in passing a class last fall, shortly before helping lead the Buckeyes to their first national championship in 34 years.

That charge, along with other academic improprieties alleged by the newspaper, has upset many in this capital city of 700,000 residents, as well as millions more who worship the Buckeyes in this football-crazy state.

Clarett, who rarely is at loss for words, has remained tight-lipped since the charges came to light.

He issued a brief statement to the Columbus Dispatch last Sunday night through his legal counsel, saying he was “disappointed” in the Times story. A few days ago, Clarett declined an interview request from the Cleveland Plain Dealer after his daily workout at a health club near Cleveland, but told the newspaper: “I'll have something to say when the time is right.”

Until that time comes, others will have to do Clarett's talking for him.

Thom McDaniels, his former football coach at Warren (Ohio) Harding High School, is one of his Clarett's closest confidantes. They talk on a regular basis, but McDaniels told The Blade last week that he hadn't talked to Clarett since the Times story surfaced.

“We have a rule,” McDaniels said. “I don't call Maurice. He calls me when he wants to talk. He knows I'll be there any time he needs me. I haven't heard from him in 10 days or so, but I expect to hear from him soon.

“I'm sure all of this stuff is really bothering him. I don't know if he'll ever talk about it. I hope he doesn't. The worst thing he can do is not learn from this experience, and become a target again.”

The New York Times reported that Clarett passed African-American and African Studies 101 by taking two oral exams, although other students in the class took a written final.

Associate professor Paulette Pierce told the newspaper she worked directly with Clarett and administered the exams after he walked out of the course's midterm test without finishing it.

“I don't believe any of the allegations against Maurice,” McDaniels said. “I think it's much ado about nothing.”

The Times also reported that Pierce and an unidentified teaching assistant suspected that academic tutors sometimes did homework for some football players and other athletes at the school.

The charges leveled against Clarett and OSU prompted school president Karen Holbrook to order an internal investigation. Holbrook and athletic director Andy Geiger said the investigation will examine classroom performance, tutors who work with athletes and the relationship between athletes and faculty members.

“I don't think anybody's surprised or shocked by the allegations,” said ESPN college football analyst Beano Cook. “It's not just going on at Ohio State, it's going on everywhere around the country, except for maybe at Stanford. And it's not going to stop; it's not going to change.

“A number of players playing big-time college football these days - and I'm not saying Clarett is one of them - wouldn't have gotten into college 40 or 50 years ago. A high school degree then meant a lot more than it does now.”

McDaniels said Clarett's grades were never a problem at Harding. He enrolled at OSU in the winter of 2002 after graduating from high school early. The Dispatch reported that he had a 3.5 grade-point average, and a score of 1220 on his Scholastic Aptitude Test.

“It's very unusual when someone graduates from high school early,” McDaniels said. “You have to be a special kid for something like that to happen.”

In a matter unrelated to the Times story, the Dispatch also reported this past week that Clarett has met at least three times recently with NCAA investigators who were focusing on financial issues with friend and teen basketball phenom LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers' No. 1 draft pick.

James and his agent have denied any wrongdoing, but OSU coach Jim Tressel told the Plain Dealer he can't be certain Clarett didn't break NCAA rules because it's tough to constantly monitor players.

“Any time the NCAA comes in, you're concerned,” Tressel said.

This isn't the first time Clarett has gotten himself into hot water at Ohio State.

He created a stir last October when he told ESPN The Magazine that he was considering suing the NFL to try to overturn the rule that would allow him to be drafted and turn pro after his freshman season. Current NFL rules prevent players from declaring for the draft until they have been in college for at least three years.

When a photo of Clarett wearing his No. 13 OSU jersey and uniform appeared on the cover of magazine's Oct. 28 edition under the headline “One & Done?”, he received tons of hate mail. Many fans questioned his loyalty to the school.

Later, Clarett said he never had any intention of leaving school early, although his mother Michelle, the chief deputy clerk of Municipal Court in Youngstown, reportedly began researching the process of challenging the NFL in court.

Earlier in October, Clarett was caught by TV cameras on the sideline at Northwestern having a heated argument with running backs coach Tim Spencer after a pair of fumbles. However, Clarett was never punished for his actions.

Then, in late December, before the Buckeyes' 31-24, double-overtime win over Miami for the national championship in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 3, he criticized Ohio State administrators for not helping him fly back home to attend the funeral of a lifelong friend who was shot and killed.

Clarett said he and his mother filled out the proper paperwork that would have allowed him to receive special assistance from the school. OSU said he didn't. He responded by calling school officials “liars.”

“Admittedly, he's made some mistakes along the way,” McDaniels said. “But you can't hate him for that. He's just a young guy trying to feel his way through life, and there's going to be some mistakes.

“I remember telling coach Tressel [when he was recruiting Clarett] that his biggest transition would not be athletically or academically, but socially. He's a loner. He doesn't care about having a lot of friends. He only cares about being a great football player.”

Clarett, 6 feet and 230 pounds, rushed for 980 of his 1,237 yards in the first eight games last year and was named All-Big Ten, as well as the conference's freshman of the year. He had a team-high 18 touchdowns and set several OSU freshman records despite sitting out three full games and parts of others due to arthroscopic knee surgery and a shoulder stinger.

He also scored the winning touchdown on a five-yard run in the second overtime against Miami. Until that run, the biggest play Clarett made in the national championship game was when he ripped the ball out of Sean Taylor's hands to counter a Miami interception.

As Taylor ran up the sideline after intercepting quarterback Craig Krenzel's pass, Clarett sprinted toward him and wrestled the ball away from behind.

“Clarett may have been a problem last year, but without him Ohio State doesn't win the national championship,” Cook said. “He was definitely the difference-maker on that team.”

Kirk Herbstreit, a former Buckeyes quarterback and now an ESPN college football analyst, said on his radio sports talk show here that he thinks the New York Times and the public may be out to get Clarett.

“I think in general people don't like him, and when you don't like an athlete, you like to see him fail,” Herbstreit said.

Clarett, 19, was abandoned by his father as a toddler, which left his mother to raise him, his brother and 11 cousins in a three-bedroom home.

His older brother, Mike, had some brushes with the law. Gangs roamed Clarett's neighborhood in Youngstown, and gunfire was common.

Clarett enrolled at Austintown Fitch High School as a freshman, but transferred to Harding for his last three years. For his final two seasons he was coached by McDaniels, who had directed Canton McKinley to a mythical national championship and a state title in 1997.

However, it wasn't smooth sailing early on at Harding, and McDaniels said Clarett considered quitting the team.

McDaniels held Clarett out of one game his junior year for violating a team policy, then sat him for another because of how he reacted to the first time he was benched.

“It wasn't love at first sight,” McDaniels said. “I'm sort of a no-nonsense guy and not always a real fun guy, yet I think that's how you become successful. The fun is in winning, and he didn't embrace that right away.

“He can get upset and he can get excited. He has mood swings. And that kind of got in the way for a while.”

Clarett eventually got his act together and bought into the team-first philosophy. As a senior he rushed for 2,194 yards and 38 touchdowns, was selected Ohio's Mr. Football and was named USA Today's offensive player of the year.

He became the first true freshman to ever open the season as OSU's starting tailback. And, despite all the recent turmoil, he is considered one of the leading candidates to win the Heisman this season.

“He is an outstanding player,” Cook said. “I'm not going to predict he'll win two Heismans like Archie Griffin did, but if he stays there four years, which I don't think he will, he's going to win at least one. Heck, there's a good chance he might win it this year.

“I don't think there's any question he'll be starting for them. The alumni at Ohio State wouldn't stand for it if he's not playing.”

Geiger said he's confident Clarett is in good standing with the NCAA, though a final decision has not been made on whether Clarett will face any sanctions. OSU also could be penalized down the road as a result of the Times' report.

“I've always told Maurice, `You don't need to seek the spotlight, it will find you.' And, it has,” McDaniels said. “It's not easy being Maurice Clarett these days.”



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