March 28, 2003
On The Basketball Scandal
What President Welty
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
"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
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
"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
"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
"This is an explicit case where the
president made a bad decision, where he should have known better,"
Mr. Brand says.
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.
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
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."
©2003 Copyright by The Chronicle
of Higher Education