March sadness

Posted: Friday, March 07, 2003

Something about this time of year makes it hard to say student-athlete'' without cracking up.

Just a guess, but maybe it's those scandals that are fast becoming as much a part of college basketball's spring rites as the NCAA tournament.

At the moment, there's major trouble brewing at Georgia, Fresno State and St. Bonaventure and still percolating at Michigan, which has been sitting on the NCAA docket for weeks.

A half-dozen years ago, it was point-shaving charges at Arizona State and at Northwestern the year after that. In 1999, it was the discovery of an academic sinkhole beneath the Minnesota program.

In 2000, it was those darned student-athletes getting clothes, cars and-or prep school tuition bills paid by their Amateur Athletic Union coaches or someone else connected to big-time programs from coast to coast. The only thing that changes are the names and the faces.

The reason the mess doesn't get cleared up is that nobody has the stomach.

Too many ballplayers think of scholarships as pocket change, all the while scheming how to get their hands on some of the big bucks swirling around their programs or just up the road in the NBA.

Too many coaches cut corners because they're busy lining up sneaker deals or their next job interviews. Perhaps the most distressing news is that too many university presidents are even less interested in reform.

The last guy who even appears to have given it serious thought was Hodding Carter III, the one-time White House aide who went on to become president and CEO of the Knight Foundation.

After much research and considerable expense, his commission released a thoughtful, step-by-step reform plan with this warning:

If nothing happens within three months to a year, then I believe it won't be more than another piece of paper.''

That was almost two years ago. Everything the report predicted increased academic cheating, corruption and commercialization has happened. The Knight Commission's first report 10 years earlier predicted essentially the same things. It was right, too.

What made the second one more ominous was that the amount of money schools spent on facilities, staff and especially coaches during the 1990s soared like the Dow.

More schools trying to break into the big time took greater risks. The number of arrests, scandals and investigations went up, up, up. Accountability went down.

And what made Knight Commission II more painful was that the central proposal in the 1991 report that university presidents take control of the NCAA was achieved soon after it came out. They ended up being just as bad as everyone else.

Let's say I'm not surprised,'' said John DiBiaggio, who served on the Knight Commission and was president at Michigan State and Tufts. There's been a real problem of lack of integrity in the athletic programs of many of our institutions. It's astonishing that institutions that have great credibility otherwise allow some of the behavior that exists.''

Especially at the top.

At St. Bonaventure, the basketball players drew most of the scorn for tanking the final two games of their season after the Atlantic 10 Conference stripped the Bonnies of six conference victories and barred them from the league's postseason play for using an ineligible player.

But it was president Robert Wickenheiser who personally approved the transfer of Jamil Terrell from Coastal Georgia Community College, even though Terrell had only a welding certificate instead of an associates degree.

Proof of Wickenheiser's desperation to keep the tiny upstate New York school in the big time is that he took a chance on Terrell after several competitors in his conference tried and failed to get the kid into their schools.

But his counterparts at Georgia and Fresno State don't even pretend they didn't see trouble coming.

Fresno State president John Welty hired Jerry Tarkanian, whose name was synonymous with two things: postseason play and NCAA investigations. His school now has the latter and just banned itself from the former.

Just as puzzling is why Georgia president Michael Adams, who served on the Knight Commission, hired Jim Harrick in the first place. Harrick was forced out at UCLA, and as reports increasingly suggest, left Rhode Island barely a step ahead of a wide-ranging investigation.

Now Harrick is trying to keep his job with the Bulldogs after his son, assistant coach Jim Harrick Jr., was accused of academic fraud and paying off a player's bills.

At least the last guy the elder Harrick hoodwinked, Rhode Island president Robert Carothers, claimed he knew what he was getting into.

At the time, he called Harrick's second chance something we believe in as a people. We wish it for others as we hope for it ourselves.''

College basketball should be so lucky.

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at

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