Savannah State Football Program Under NCAA Investigation

By Noell Barnidge
Updated: December 11, 2004

SAVANNAH, Ga. — The NCAA is investigating Savannah State University’s football program because several current and former players allege that a student-assistant coach sold steroids to players this year.

<!– 091204 LOCAL NEWS The NCAA is investigating Savannah State University’s football program because several current and former players allege that a student-assistant coach sold steroids to players this year.


The student-assistant has been dismissed by the school.

The investigation was in part prompted by a secret tape recording made by one of the former players, who was among at least 11 players who quit the team earlier this week. The tape recording made by the student purports he was offered steroids to help him heal faster from an injury. The tape recording is now in the NCAA’s possession.

“Right now, all I can tell you is we’re working directly with the NCAA on this investigation, and we’re going to give them all the assistance we can with their investigation,” SSU athletic director Tony O’Neal said. “Basically, we’re following their lead.”

O’Neal said SSU football players underwent drug testing earlier this year.

“The NCAA requires drug testing every year. We’re an NCAA institution. That’s all I can tell you,” O’Neal said. “The institution (SSU) has nothing to do with that (drug testing) whatsoever.”

Bob LeFavi, a health sciences professor at Armstrong Atlantic State, said that some athletes seeking an advantage turn to steroids. SSU went 2-8 this season, 0-12 in 2003.

“There’s no question that steroids increase total body mass and lean body mass,” LeFavi said. “Any athlete wanting to become bigger, faster and stronger could achieve an unfair advantage by taking steroids.”

The NCAA made a scheduled peer review visit to SSU on Nov. 14 as part of the NCAA certification process. On Nov. 17-18, an NCAA investigator visited SSU again. Several current and former SSU football players said the NCAA’s investigation centers around the alleged sale of steroids by Jerome Pope, a former student-assistant coach who was in charge of SSU’s strength and conditioning program and its wide receivers.

After the NCAA’s second visit, SSU coach Richard Basil dismissed Pope from the coaching staff. Basil would not say when he fired Pope, but players said Pope was not present at the team’s Nov. 19 practice when police searched SSU’s locker room for steroids the day before the Tigers’ season finale against Hampton.

“Detective (Kenneth) White from the Savannah State Police Department, a narcotics team from some other agency and Mr. O’Neal came to practice and talked with the team,” said Alejandro Ortiz, a junior offensive lineman who quit the team earlier this week.

Ortiz left SSU on Thursday to return home to Lodi, Calif.

“They told us what was happening was illegal and introduced the narcotics team to us,” Ortiz said. “They searched the locker room during practice. Pope was not there.”

Zach Wilson, a freshman quarterback who started three games, quit the team earlier this week. Wilson, who left Savannah on Thursday morning to return home to San Antonio, said “five freshmen, four or five juniors, and a couple of seniors” were called upon to meet individually with an NCAA investigator and O’Neal in a conference room in the SSU admissions building Nov. 17-18.

“It (the NCAA investigation) is all about the steroids,” said Wilson, who was questioned by an NCAA investigator and O’Neal for an hour and 15 minutes. “Jerome Pope’s name came out of everybody’s mouth. I have so many sources that could vouch for that. I guarantee his name came out of everybody’s mouth at least once.

“A lot of the guys said that when they mentioned that Pope was selling steroids to the players, the look on his (O’Neal’s) face was just shock. It sucks if he knew this kind of stuff was going on. If not, I guess he needs to be more careful about who they pick as coaches.”

Wilson said the NCAA investigator asked each player four main questions about financial aid, steroids, alleged illegal housing of players by coaches and players having their scholarships revoked at midseason.

“There were four main things that the NCAA investigator wanted to know,” Wilson said. “She asked us about financial aid. Was the money coming to us? Was it actually reaching us and benefiting us? The main part was on the use of steroids and the distribution of steroids. She asked us if we had ever purchased or used steroids, if we had ever seen or heard of a teammate purchasing or using steroids, or if a coach had ever sold or given any of us steroids. I never saw any of the guys use steroids, but Jerome Pope was always walking around the players’ apartments carrying a backpack filled with steroids. I don’t know who he sold steroids to, but I know some of the players bought them from him.”

Several players said that three players – a senior, junior and sophomore – talked openly in SSU’s locker room, as well as during summer workouts, about their use of steroids.

Ortiz said he met with an NCAA investigator and O’Neal for two hours Nov. 17 and was asked to return for a second interview, which lasted an hour, on Nov. 18.

“They just went down the list of questions. They were just drilling you,” Ortiz said. “It was pretty nerve-wracking.”

Deon Whiteside, a junior wide receiver from Stockton, Calif., quit the team earlier this week. He said the NCAA investigation of SSU is a major reason why he chose to leave.

“It’s deeper than the losses,” said Whiteside, who expects as many as 20 players to quit the team. “It’s the lies. It’s all the lies they told us when we were being recruited, plus all the NCAA stuff that’s going on, the NCAA investigation.”

The player who made the secret tape recording said he did so after Pope unsuccessfully attempted to sell steroids to him a second time.

“I was injured and he told me that steroids would help me heal faster,” the player said. “I didn’t know what to do. I asked some of my teammates what I should do and they told me to get him on tape offering me steroids. I hid a tape recorder in my shorts and I went back to Pope and recorded the conversation of him trying to sell steroids to me, and I turned the tape over to the NCAA.”

The player said, “Pope offered me injected steroids during the season. Over the summer, during summer workouts, he offered a lot of us D-Ball (dianabol), which are steroid pills. I never took them. I never took any steroids. Pope offered steroids to (another player) and (that player) told a (assistant) coach on the staff over the summer. The (assistant) coach told Coach Basil, but Pope denied selling steroids.”

Basil kept Pope on the coaching staff during the season. Basil dismissed Pope on Nov. 18, the day before narcotics investigators visited practice. Pope could not be reached for comment.

“Being my first college football experience, it’s a hard pill to swallow,” Wilson said. “Is college football really like this? It can’t be this awful and corrupt. It puts questions in your head. It makes me wonder if I even want to play college football anymore.”

The steroid investigation is SSU’s second brush with the NCAA in the past six months.

In July, SSU submitted to the NCAA the results of an internal investigation that revealed an eligibility violation by a basketball player. SSU President Carlton Brown announced that an internal investigation conducted by then-interim athletic director Irvin Clark revealed that basketball player Jamal Daniels, the team’s leading scorer and the son of head coach Edward Daniels, was ineligible when he played during the 2003-04 season because he failed to register for spring semester classes.

As a result of the investigation, Brown fired Henry “Hank” Ford, former athletic director and assistant for eligibility and compliance. Brown also dismissed Jamal Daniels from the basketball program and placed Edward Daniels on probation for two years. SSU also forfeited its four victories from a 4-24 record.

Thursday, Loretta Heyward, SSU Director of Communications, said the university has not heard back from the NCAA regarding the basketball team.