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March 28, 2003
Foul Shots:
On The Basketball Scandal
What President Welty Knew?
by Welch Suggs
The Chronicle of Higher Education

     MARION, Ohio -- Michael F. Adams is in charge of his athletics department. Don't anybody think he isn't.
     Barely two weeks ago, the University of Georgia president faced a battery of cameras to deliver a serious message: Allegations of academic fraud and unethical conduct in the men's basketball program were serious enough that Georgia was pulling out of the Southeastern Conference and National Collegiate Athletic Association championships, suspending the head coach, and firing one of his assistants.
     That kind of athletics hara-kiri is designed to show everyone that a college is serious about cleaning up a problem. It's also designed to show who is in charge -- namely, Mr. Adams.
    "Presidential control" has been the central tenet of every reform movement in college sports, going all the way back to Theodore Roosevelt's 1905 ultimatum on reining in football that led to the formation of the NCAA. If academic leaders, i.e., presidents and chancellors, would assert control over athletics departments, then universities with big-time sports could defend their integrity and make money in peace.
     The problems come when presidents themselves are responsible for the messes in which their colleges find themselves.
     Georgia's head coach, Jim Harrick Sr., was Mr. Adams's personal choice to run the Bulldog basketball program in 1999. The two had known each other from working at Pepperdine University in the 1980s.
     While Mr. Adams went on to presidencies at Centre College and then Georgia, Mr. Harrick was hired and fired at the University of California at Los Angeles, in part for lying to administrators, and then ran into problems at the University of Rhode Island before Mr. Adams brought him to Georgia.
     Mr. Adams is not alone among presidents in facing questions about decisions on sports. A day before he took action at Georgia, St. Bonaventure University forced its president, Robert J. Wickenheiser, to resign after he admitted circumventing institutional and intercollegiate policies to admit an ineligible basketball player. And in February, John D. Welty, president of California State University at Fresno, canceled the rest of his team's season after allegations of academic fraud surfaced.
    In all three cases, presidents were exercising plenty of control over their sports programs. Both Mr. Adams and Mr. Welty played integral parts in hiring high-profile coaches with lots of wins and lots of run-ins with the NCAA -- Mr. Harrick and Jerry Tarkanian, respectively. Mr. Wickenheiser ordered subordinates to work around their own policies to help a player who wouldn't ordinarily be allowed to play.
     Problem is, this is not exactly the sort of presidential control that Teddy Roosevelt, or the Knight Commission, or the NCAA had in mind. College sports doesn't really have a solution when a president steps out of line.

Commissions of Presidents

The NCAA and the powerful College Football Assoc. created boards of presidents in the 1980s, and when the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics came out with its first report, in 1991, it called for athletics directors and the NCAA to let academic administrators take control of sports programs.

"Presidents will have the same degree of control over athletics that they exercise elsewhere in the university, including the authority to hire, evaluate, and terminate athletics directors and coaches, and to oversee all financial matters in their athletics departments," wrote the commission's members, who included a long list of college presidents and business executives.
     The role of presidents in NCAA decisions ought to be enhanced, and boosters and all other interest groups ought to defer to presidents' authority, the panel said.
     In 1997, the NCAA reorganized itself to allow its three divisions a greater degree of autonomy in making their own rules. Committees of campus CEO's were given veto power over all decisions. This was heralded as a great step forward, as was the association's selection last fall of Myles Brand, Indiana University's president, as its leader.
     "Once athletics, particularly in Division I, became such a major business, you really needed to have the oversight of presidents and chancellors," says Samuel I. Smith, president emeritus of Washington State University. "When you have a coach earning 10 times or 15 times what a senior faculty member makes, this is where the president has to be able to answer to all constituencies."
     John V. Lombardi, chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, says a president has to be responsible, but not involved in the day-to-day operations of an athletics department.
     "I think the ideal arrangement for a university president or chancellor is to be informed but not involved," says Mr. Lombardi, who was president of the University of Florida from 1990 to 1999. "You go, you participate, you attend games, you watch stuff, but it also means you don't ride on the plane or hang out in the locker room."
     Presidents should not be fans, he concludes. And they shouldn't be meddling. That's what they hire athletics directors for.
     "The university runs this way in every area," Mr. Lombardi says. "I'm a member of the history department, but I never go to history-department meetings because there will be a moment in which I [as president] have to make a decision on something that began in the history department."
     However, that hasn't been the modus operandi for all presidents. Plenty of people in college sports have stories about "jock sniffing" presidents who want to be closely involved with their teams. One president, at a Division I institution in the Southwest, even sent his athletics director starting lineups for the basketball team, and threatened to fire the director and the team's coach if his orders weren't obeyed.
     "What is happening here is an illustration of the pressure to win, the pressure of money in college sports. It's not a happy scene," says William C. Friday, president of the University of North Carolina system from 1957 to 1986 and chairman of the Knight Commission. "We've turned college sports into a religion in the United States, and that pressure, coupled with the insatiable appetite of commercial interests," are "beyond a president's ability to control."

Presidents and Coaches

Mr. Brand has nothing but nice things to say about Mr. Adams and Mr. Welty. When the news media went public last month with stories about players' receiving illegitimate academic help, both of the presidents angered boosters and fans by banning their teams from championship tournaments, even though the season was drawing to a close.
      Mr. Adams and Mr. Welty "took quick and sure action, and I believe that five years ago, we would not have expected presidents to have done that," Mr. Brand says. "I see this as a welcome trend of presidents taking action and understanding that it's a risky business they're engaged in."
     One could argue that they should have known it was coming. Before Mr. Adams brought him to Georgia (despite other recommendations from the athletics director, Vincent J. Dooley), Mr. Harrick had been fired by the University of California at Los Angeles after repeatedly lying to the chancellor and the athletics director about an expense report that had been doctored to avoid an NCAA violation.
     And Fresno State's Mr. Tarkanian had been investigated repeatedly by the NCAA during a 20-year coaching career at California State University at Long Beach and the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, finally leaving the latter job in 1992, after both institutions were punished for violations that had occurred on his watch. Three years later, Mr. Welty hired Mr. Tarkanian, a Fresno State alumnus and the overwhelming popular choice in the community.
     "Our search committee recommended him, and the AD at the time reviewed it, and when their recommendations came to me, my judgment was to approve it," Mr. Welty says. "Coach Tarkanian wanted to come back to his alma mater, provide leadership, and get the basketball program back to where it should be.

"In hindsight, maybe it wasn't the best decision."

Mr. Tarkanian boasts that the NCAA never tied any significant violations at UNLV directly to him. And he has told reporters that he knew nothing about the claims of a former team statistician who said in February that he had been paid to write papers for some of the Fresno State basketball players. The coach remains on the Fresno State payroll as a consultant. However, Mr. Welty verified enough allegations of wrongdoing to penalize the team by taking scholarships away and barring it from the NCAA basketball tournament.
     As for Mr. Harrick, after a year off from coaching after UCLA fired him, he was hired at the University of Rhode Island with his son, Jim Harrick Jr., as an assistant. He lured Lamar Odom, a high-school star who had been prohibited from attending UNLV after Las Vegas officials discovered that a booster had offered him money.
     No rules violations or other problems were reported at Rhode Island until this year, when university officials settled a sexual-harassment suit brought against Mr. Harrick Sr. by an athletics-department secretary. During depositions, she also charged that the coach and his son had arranged grade changes to keep players eligible. An investigation is under way.
     At Georgia, "with the Jim Harrick hire, I'm not going to say I was not part of that decision, but I did not do that unilaterally," Mr. Adams says in an interview. "When Coach Dooley and I hired him, we knew there was a de minimus, quote-unquote, expense-report violation, but none of the Rhode Island stuff was known. And we had discussed how important doing the right things was at the University of Georgia, and I think everybody had good faith that that would be taken seriously."
     With the Harricks came Tony Cole, a Louisiana basketball player who had enrolled in three junior colleges after failing to meet the NCAA's academic requirements to play at Rhode Island. He was suspended from the Georgia team in 2002 after being charged with raping a student. Although the charges were dropped last September, the coaches refused to reinstate Mr. Cole.
     Mr. Cole then told ESPN, among other things, that Mr. Harrick Jr. had given him an A in a basketball-coaching class that the assistant coach taught at Georgia. Mr. Cole had enrolled in the class but never attended it.
     ESPN broadcast the story in February, and university officials established that Mr. Cole and two other basketball players had indeed received bogus grades from Mr. Harrick Jr. Three days before the Southeastern Conference tournament began, Mr. Adams announced that he was firing the younger Harrick, suspending his father, and ending the team's season.
     "Most people respect the fact that we've responded to protect the academic integrity of the institution," the president says, even though the decision occasioned protests by students and fans.
     As for the decision to hire Mr. Harrick, "I've never batted a thousand on hires," Mr. Adams says. "I've hit a real high percentage. I don't take the credit, but the key people at the University of Georgia are very good. Yet when something doesn't appear to work out, I take some hits."
     While approving of Mr. Adams's and Mr. Welty's actions, Mr. Brand, the NCAA president who was campus CEO at Indiana and at the University of Oregon, feels differently about Mr. Wickenheiser.
     "This is an explicit case where the president made a bad decision, where he should have known better," Mr. Brand says.

The End-Around

In a statement, Wickenheiser confirmed that he decided to admit Jamil Terrell, a basketball star at Coastal Georgia Community College, even though Mr. Terrell met neither the university's nor the NCAA's requirements for his eligibility. The president said he was just trying to give a young man a chance to make something of himself.
    His decision to go around university and athletics-department administrators did not stand to benefit any part of the university except the basketball team.
     On its remote campus, in the southwestern corner of New York, St. Bonaventure does not make any money on sports. The basketball team is a source of pride, but it is not a campus focal point in the way that, say, the University of Kentucky's is.
     St. Bonaventure did not inform the NCAA and the Atlantic 10 Conference of the situation until February, after most of the basketball season had already been played. Mr. Terrell was declared ineligible, the team had to forfeit the conference games in which he played, and the conference kicked the Bonnies out of its tournament.
     Mr. Wickenheiser took full responsibility for the consequences. "Throughout this process, I made a series of well-intentioned decisions based on a series of assumptions and interpretations," he said in a written statement. "The NCAA has come to a conclusion different from the one I reached."
     This wasn't the first time the president had involved himself in the basketball program. Two years ago, he summarily fired a tenured sociology professor, Joseph F. Greer, after athletes complained about his teaching style. (Mr. Greer was given his job back after an appeal.) And Mr. Wickenheiser acquired a reputation for screaming at referees during games.
     St. Bonaventure's Board of Trustees demanded and got his resignation this month, a week after the Atlantic 10's presidents barred the Bonnies from the tournament. At a rally the day after the board's decision, its chairman, William E. Swan, apologized to students, peer institutions, and fans.
     "Board members were outraged to see what was happening at the university, and at the end of the day they decided to make this unequivocal statement: We will not sacrifice our values for anything -- not even athletic glory," he said.

What Next?

St. Bonaventure, Fresno State, and Georgia will have to wait for the outcome of the NCAA's investigations and then the deliberations of the Division I Committee on Infractions, which will take months to complete.
     Also awaiting decisions from the infractions committee are the University of Michigan, which forfeited money and tournament opportunities this year to atone for player payoffs in the mid-1990s, and Gardner-Webb University, whose president resigned last fall amid campuswide protests after he admitted that he had set aside the university's honor code to allow a star basketball player to continue playing.
     Colleges cannot afford to take such incidents lightly, says the Knight Commission's Mr. Friday.
     "There are multiple examples raising the question of the integrity of the university itself," he says. "When you see academic fraud, this is a very severe kind of issue, and here is where you see the strength of the institution coming to bear. What we've got to do is stand up to this, forcefully, and say there'll be no more of it."
     That can be difficult when well-heeled boosters and donors want presidents to be participants in, not watchdogs of, their institutions' sports programs, says Mr. Lombardi, of Massachusetts.
      "There are constituencies eager to have you be more engaged personally in this stuff," he says. "You can have instant success by being clever, but you can't build a program by being clever. If you want to have a stable program, you have to do the right thing all the time."

All the time can be difficult, Mr. Adams says.

"There's no guarantee that one of us is not going to get off the reservation. People make mistakes. So you have to create a climate of being more grounded about the decisions you make, and more sensitive to the challenges that are out there."

 

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2003 Copyright by The Chronicle of Higher Education

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