STILLWATER — Sports Illustrated never interviewed Oklahoma State Associate Athletic Director/Academics Marilyn Middlebrook for the second installment of its five-part investigative series on the Cowboy program that alleges multiple examples of academic misconduct, from tutors completing coursework for athletes to professors awarding grades that were not deserved.
Never even contacted her to request an interview.
But Wednesday, Middlebrook became the first OSU official to speak publicly since the release of the series, spending more than an hour in a sit-down interview with The Oklahoman and the Tulsa World.
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act prevents Middlebrook from using specific names or debunking specific allegations. But she strongly defended the academic branch of the athletic department, and denies it is simply part of the “football factory” that SI portrays.
“Can I say with absolute 100 percent certainty that a tutor didn’t do something? No. Absolutely not,” Middlebrook said. “That doesn’t take rocket science to understand that can happen. I can’t control you. I can’t control your behavior.
“I can tell you that, in this unit, every day we teach choices, choices, choices. We teach them about better lifestyles, better decisions, making better decisions. It’s constant in this unit. From everybody that is employed here. Everybody ...
“That’s why this is so irritating, because it is so against what we stand for in this unit.”
In the story released online Wednesday, 13 former OSU players say they were part of some form of academic misconduct, while 16 others were named by teammates as participating in wrongdoing. Many of the notable names mentioned, such as Josh Fields, Tatum Bell, Darrent Williams and Vernon Grant, are similar to the ones that popped up on Tuesday’s installment called “The Money.”
Middlebrook stands by what she’s helped build since she took over her current post in 1997.
She said she would never bash former coach Les Miles, but admitted current coach Mike Gundy pays more attention to academics and works “exceptionally well” with her staff.
She highlighted the openness of the academic center inside Gallagher-Iba Arena, which posts a full-time staff member in every room, as a reason why it would be difficult for tutors to write papers for athletes.
She admitted to course clustering to help guide athletes — particularly ones who may not have been adequately prepared for college — but stressed her staff does not force them to take specific classes or choose a specific major.
And she tells professors that if an athlete in any sport deserves to fail, then fail them.
“You could probably find 100 instructors or faculty on this campus today that would be willing to stand up and say, ‘We have heard Marilyn say if they earn an ‘F,’ give it to them,’” she said. “That’s the way it is.
“We will have kids that will go to a professor (and) say, ‘Man, this is gonna make me ineligible,’ and the professor will call me. And I say, ‘Well, then that’s too bad. Then they’re just gonna be ineligible. Give them the grade that they deserve.’”
One current professor, Stephanie Wheatley, and one former professor, John H. Curry, contacted The Oklahoman via email Wednesday to echo Middlebrook’s stance.
“I taught the majority of the high-profile football players in that time,” said Curry, who is now a professor at Morehead State in Kentucky. “And I was never pressured to pass them. I never heard of another faculty member being pressured to pass an athlete. In fact, it was the exact opposite.
“If a player wasn’t performing in the classroom, I called the academic center and the advisers or position coaches, and in every single case I was told, ‘If they’re not doing the work, then fail them. They need to learn.’”
Wheatley was also a tutor for several sports, including football and men’s basketball, during the summer and fall of 2002 and noted the rules were strict. No socializing with athletes outside of the academic center. No rides around campus. No birthday cards.
And, of course, no doing the athlete’s work.
“I explained material, helped them think of paper topics, discussed strategies for studying for tests, taking notes, and going about library research,” Wheatley said. “But the work was all theirs. Furthermore, I never heard of or saw any other tutors doing work for student-athletes.
“A lot of tutoring went on in the common area of the (academic center). It would have been impossible for tutors to get away with doing work for students in that environment.”
Like Tuesday, several former OSU players refuted the allegations in Wednesday’s report.
Cooper Bassett and Andrew McGee defended senior academic counselor Terry Henley, who is portrayed as being unqualified for his position by Sports Illustrated. Fields continued his media tour, telling Dan Patrick on his radio show that nothing alleged so far involving the former Cowboy starting quarterback is true.
And Markelle Martin, who was ruled academically ineligible for the 2008 Holiday Bowl, said he never was a part of or witnessed any academic misconduct. He described late nights spent working on papers in the academic center with teammates Brodrick Brown and James Thomas.
Their tutor was sitting beside them. But the words belonged to Martin.
“We type our papers up and then they edit them for us,” Martin said of the tutor’s job. “They correct grammar issues. They correct paragraph issues. They do things of that sort, and then they make us retype the paper.”
At least one former Cowboy named in the report has stuck by his story, however. Fath’ Carter, who played at OSU from 2000-03, told News On 6 that he “definitely received a couple grades that weren’t merited, and that was the norm, too.”
There’s still more to come in the investigation of OSU. Thursday’s story will focus on an alleged drug culture. Friday’s on Orange Pride girls allegedly providing sex to recruits. Next Tuesday’s on “the fallout” of players since leaving the school.
But Wednesday’s installment centered around the branch of the program that belongs to Middlebrook. And when describing the outpour of support she had received from current and former athletes and staff members throughout the day, tears welled in her eyes.
“Beyond my greatest expectation,” she said. “It’s heartfelt to ...”
She paused as she searched for the right words.
“The kids are calling. The kids are saying, ‘Mom, what can we do? We know what you are like. We know what this unit is like.’ They are so angry about what is being said.”