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NCAA PLAYS HARD BALL WITH 'BAMA

Even Gene Stallings, the mild-mannered coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide, was bitter.

Stallings broke into a clenched-teeth oratory after the NCAA delivered a sentence so stiff it even targets Alabama's hallowed record book.The top officials in Alabama's athletic department and fans all over the state were horrified at the breadth of the penalties: three years' probation including a postseason ban this season, scholarship reductions and the forfeiture of 11 games in which an ineligible athlete played.

As it all unfolded inside Alabama's football building, life went on outside. On a sun-soaked lawn across the street from the Paul W. Bryant Museum, cheerleaders kicked and twirled with all their might, practicing for a season that will be shrouded in infamy.

"The biggest thing is, the unity and the family of this football team is in question right now," said senior Shannon Brown, a defensive lineman. "What is it going to take to keep that together?"

Never before on probation during decades of prominence, including six national championships, Alabama now faces a task similar to that undertaken by its fiercest rival, Auburn. The Tigers were banned from the postseason for two years and television for one, but recorded a 20-1-1 record.

A television ban was not imposed on Alabama, but the Crimson Tide stands to lose about 30 scholarships over three years - a sanction that could stick with the team for years to come.

"I think it'll make a difference with the reduction in scholarships," Stallings said. "That doesn't leave you much room for error on the judgment of players. I think that's a pretty stiff penalty, I really do."

The NCAA cited the Tide football program for exhibiting "a distressing failure of institutional control."

A statement released by the NCAA said Alabama was censured for three chief reasons:

- A player obtained from boosters six impermissible deferred-payment loans totaling $24,400, during 1989 and 1990. The player, Gene Jelks, completed his career in the fall of 1989. The NCAA said he never repaid the loans.

- Antonio Langham was allowed to play in 11 regular-season games in 1993 even though he had signed with an agent, and athletic officials were aware that a potential violation of rules had occurred.

- The school's faculty athletics representative provided "false and misleading information" to the NCAA in the Langham case.

University president Roger Sayers complained that the infractions committee failed to grasp "who knew what, and when."

"Knowing the facts of our case, the penalties are without precedent," Sayers said.

The sanctions against Alabama call for the loss of four scholarships for 1995-96, which Alabama already has given up voluntarily, plus four more for 1996-97. In addition, Alabama will only be able to sign 12 new recruits in 1996-97 and 16 in 1997-98, instead of up to 25 each year.

The total number of scholarships lost depends on how many players graduate or otherwise leave the program, creating new space on the roster. Assuming normal attrition, Alabama is looking at a net loss of 30 scholarships during the probation.

Sayers called Alabama's sanctions "excessive and inappropriate" and said the school would appeal.

Play-for-pay accusations by Jelks started the probe, but they did not stick. The ensuing investigation, however, uncovered the loans.

The most serious matter - and the one that warranted the severe penalties, according to NCAA infractions committee head David Swank - was the mishandling of eligibility questions regarding Langham.

According to NCAA documents, Langham told Stallings something about signing with an agent the morning after Alabama won the national championship by beating Miami in the Sugar Bowl in January 1993. Stallings conferred with athletic director Hootie Ingram, but the NCAA was not alerted until the season was almost over.

Stallings said he saw nothing wrong with helping Langham get out of his commitment to the NFL and return to school.

"I'm trying to help a player stay in school and do what he wants to do, with no attempt to cover up anything," Stallings said, his usually calm demeanor shaken. "Here's a player who said, `I made a mistake. Can you help me?' I asked him if there was any money involved, and he said there wasn't. I'm not a detective. And I don't want the NCAA to make a detective out of me."