Former Tennessee defensive tackle Maurice Couch said he accepted impermissible cash benefits during his playing career because he was financially struggling and wanted to keep his young family together.
In an interview Monday morning with Tennessee Sports Radio, Couch spoke publicly for the first time about the allegations that caused him to be ruled ineligible for the final 11 games of the 2013 season, effectively ending his career.
“I wasn’t a normal student-athlete,” Couch said. “When you have a young one, there’s more you have to bring to the table. I was at a point where I was going to lose my family. I wasn’t going to be able to focus without knowing my family was taken care of.”
Couch, who is married with a young daughter, was first held out of action before Tennessee’s game at Oregon on Sept. 14 after Yahoo Sports reported that he was among several SEC players who accepted impermissible payments from a man acting as a liaison to NFL agents.
Couch was eventually ruled permanently ineligible. Former Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray was also among the players implicated. He has not commented publicly on the report.
Couch had previously apologized on Twitter, but his comments with Dave Hooker on Monday were his most extensive to date.
“It was tough watching (this season) because I never thought I would be home watching my boys playing without me,” Couch said. “My wife helped me. The fact that I’m graduating kept me positive.”
Couch said the weeks of uncertainty were hard to manage.
“I was sick, all the waiting,” Couch said. “I felt like the NCAA was hiding, like they didn’t want to talk me. It was, ‘Well, we’ll get back to you.’...I just went on about my business, focused on school and kept working out to stay in shape.”
Couch said he and his wife Stephanie have no family support in Knoxville, and that when their financial situation looked bleak, she considered moving back to Kansas to stay with her family.
"I used all the resources I could to take care of my family," Couch said. "We've got two cars, diapers and wipes, baby food. You can't live off a monthly check. You've got to have some additional income."
Couch said it's impossible for the NCAA to stamp out illegal payments to players, and he thinks the stipend to athletes should be "triple or quadrupled."
"(On a football team), you have a lot of guys from all different backgrounds," Couch said. "Some grew up not having things. 'You’re a great athlete, so I'm going to give you $10,000.' From having nothing and seeing all that money? It happens all the time. It’s never going to stop. It’s just a part of it."
Asked by Hooker if he regretted leaving a "paper trail" in the form of Western Union receipts, Couch replied, "To be honest, I didn't feel like I was doing anything wrong."
"The NCAA is getting billions from us, beating each other up and playing, and we get a few hundred bucks a month. That’s not fair."
What about a college scholarship?
"You get an education, but nothing’s free," Couch said. "You pay for it down the road with your body and your health."
Couch said he has been invited to the Senior Bowl and that Tennessee coach Butch Jones has said he will be welcome at Tennessee’s pro day.
“Probably not too many coaches would have done that,” Couch said.
Couch said he believes he can play in the NFL.
"This is probably as fresh as I've felt since I signed the Letter of Intent," he said.
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.