Published September 26, 2011 - 2:00pmNEW: Follow on facebook -
AUBURN, Ala. (1987) — Auburn quarterback Jeff Burger gripped his sore right ankle, lifted it forward, then backward, and smiled at the result of this simple display of power.
“After all that I’ve been through, it feels great to have a problem that I can reach out and touch,” Burger said of the sprained right ankle that kept him out of practice for three days recently.
Charges of plagiarism and a scuffle in a restaurant that resulted in an NCAA violation left Burger’s college career at the control of others this summer.
“It was a pretty helpless feeling,” said Burger, a 6-foot, 211-pound senior.
But the two unrelated incidents were resolved without suspension. A pardoned Burger will lead fifth-ranked Auburn against the University of Texas at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday in the season opener for both teams.
At one point, though, Burger’s career appeared finished. His arrest on charges related to fighting, drinking and carrying a concealed weapon outside a fast-food restaurant in June prompted assistant coach Pat Sullivan to sign a $700 bond for his release, an NCAA violation. When school officials discovered the violation, they suspended Burger and appealed the case to the NCAA.
The governing body later restored his eligibility on the grounds that Sullivan acted no differently from a professor helping an ordinary student.
The plagiarism charge in August drew so much attention that publicity figured into the university’s final decision. A psychology professor accused Burger of improperly using quotation marks in a term paper, took the case to the university’s Academic Honesty Committee and asked that his student be suspended for three quarters. Burger, while admitting clumsiness, maintained his innocence.
“I made a mistake with the quotation marks and I didn’t write a good paper,” Burger said. “That’s my fault, but I was never dishonest.”
The academic committee upheld the plagiarism charge, but reduced the suspension to two quarters. Auburn vice president Warren Brandt agreed with the committee’s decision of guilt, but removed the suspension and lessened the punishment. Burger received an “F” in the course and was required to take an English composition course along with the psychology class. His transcript also was marked ‘Academic Dishonesty’, which will be removed if he passes the psychology class.
“The mental pressure was pretty heavy on Jeff,” said offensive tackle Stacy Searels, Burger’s roommate. “He got really down at times. We were afraid it was going to put a damper on our big plans for this season.”
Burger said he feared the worst. “They were talking about taking away something that is my life,” he said. “Football and school both mean a lot to me.”
Although he is eligible to lead Auburn’s offense, and the team is expected to be among the country’s best, Burger’s slate has not been wiped clean. He declined to appeal to Auburn President James Martin, who could have removed the ‘Academic Dishonesty’ remark from the quarterback’s transcript—or increased the penalty. Burger, unwilling to gamble with the partial decision in his favor, said he is content to postpone the matter of clearing his name until after football season.
“I don’t think I’m compromising by not doing that right now,” he said. “It will be cleared off the record in the winter quarter when I retake the class. I don’t even think of it as clearing my name, because everybody knows I wasn’t being dishonest. I’ll just be clearing my record.”
Auburn coach Pat Dye was pleased with his quarterback’s pragmatic attitude. With no proven runner but lots of good receivers, having an experienced quarterback who can throw the ball is the key to Auburn’s offense.
“The difference between Auburn with Jeff Burger and Auburn without him is like night and day,” Dye said.
Last season, Burger completed nearly 57 percent of his passes in leading the Tigers to a 10-2 record that included a 16-7 victory over Southern Cal in the Florida Citrus Bowl. With running back Brent Fullwood playing for the Green Bay Packers of the NFL, Auburn enters the season without an experienced runner for the first time in the seven-year Dye era. Burger is expected to pass to make up the difference.
Such a scenario seemed unlikely two years ago, when Burger wound up the odd man out in a three-man quarterback tango.
“I didn’t handle that situation very well,” Dye said.
Burger, then a sophomore, started the first two games, but was replaced by freshman Bobby Walden, who shared time with—and was later replaced by—senior Pat Washington.
“That was another tough time,” Burger said. “A lot of mind games. I just had to accept it and hope in the back of my mind that I would get another shot.”
That shot came when Sullivan, the 1971 Heisman Trophy winner, left private business in the spring of 1986 to become Auburn’s quarterbacks coach. The man who unwittingly caused Burger’s career to hang in the balance is credited with turning him into one of the Southeastern Conference’s better passers.
“He’s given me so much,” Burger said.
Copyright 1987 by Keith Dunnavant. Originally published in Dallas Times Herald.
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This article is part of a 10-week series from the archives of best-selling sports author Keith Dunnavant, who started covering the SEC as a teenager and has been writing about the game’s major players and coaches for more than 30 years. You may be familiar with Dunnavant’s Bear Bryant biography Coach or The Missing Ring, his book about the undefeated, untied, uncrowned 1966 Crimson Tide. His fifth book, America’s Quarterback: Bart Starr and the Rise of the National Football League, will be published Sept. 13.
Dunnavant, who was the national college football writer for Frank Deford’s revolutionary sports newspaper The National and the founder of the magazine Dunnavant’s Paydirt Illustrated, now edits College Football Replay and Crimson Replay. Check out these great sites for more award-winning articles, video and audio on national college football history and Alabama football history, respectively.