Hey, Gary Williams: It's new ballgame

MIKE LITTWIN

April 28, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

The applicable phrase is "playing ball," as when the admissions department of a college or university plays ball with the athletic department to admit recruits who don't belong in school.

This cozy relationship is the root of all college scandal, and it is, if nothing else, pervasive. Everyone does it.

Occasionally, even the president or chancellor of a school will intervene with the rare, intransigent admissions officer. This once happened, we know, at the University of Maryland. Of course, what didn't happen there?

And so when we pick up the paper to read that Maryland actually turned down otherwise eligible basketball recruits because they failed to meet stiffer university standards, we find the news as shocking as it is heartening.

This, finally, is progress.

This, finally, suggests a self-accounting, which is what the reformists are always hoping for in college sports.

This, mostly, suggests that the new regime, headed by athletic director Andy Geiger, late of Stanford, is serious about cleaning up the mess that has sullied the Maryland campus since the death of Len Bias.

If only everyone there understood what Geiger does.

The downside to this story is that if three basketball players were turned down by the admissions department, that must mean they were submitted by the basketball coach.

I don't think Gary Williams gets it. I don't think he ever has.

I don't think he understands the depth of the trauma suffered at College Park as one scandal followed another, leading, eventually, to the present state of probation for the basketball program. Tears have been wept, lives have been ruined and the headlines have chronicled each ugly episode.

But Williams seems to think he came in with a fresh slate. He apparently doesn't understand that he entered Maryland as a relief pitcher might, with his team trailing, say, 10-2. It will be

awhile before the Terps catch up.

Geiger says of recruiting: "There need to be risks, but they need to be informed risks. We need to do better."

And Williams says, "We're going to recruit the best players, just like everyone else."

But Geiger is the boss. And he backs the admissions people. And now he says he wants to hire a full-time recruiting coordinator as a liaison between coaches and the admissions people.

"I think it's impossible to lead from somewhere in the middle of the pack," Geiger said. "While there's not a crusade here -- we're not taking off our shirts and beating our breasts in the sun -- we can't be part of change without participating up front. I firmly believe we can have a terrific athletic program here. We're a fine school in a fine state in the finest conference in the country. We have terrific coaches, particularly Gary. And the Baltimore-Washington corridor is exactly the place to be. [When] you've got those things going for you, I'll throw in with you.

"We need to be the best we can be, in every sense of the words, and not worry quite so much what schools X, Y or Z are doing. Instead of worrying about a level playing field, we should be creating a new kind of level for the playing field."

It is easy to see where Williams might become frustrated. Every player Maryland loses ends up playing for a rival, Syracuse and Connecticut as examples. The playing field gets skewed. But should that matter?

The headline in The Sun Friday said, "High academic standards don't deter UM's Williams." It should have read "Higher" or "Heightened." High is the wrong word when athletes are being admitted at Maryland contingent upon scoring 700 (out of 1,600) on their SAT. Do you know how low 700 is? Do you know that you get 400 for signing your name? Do you know that Maryland

students average more than 1,050 and that school officials are working to get that number higher?

The test isn't everything, however, and reaching out to disadvantaged students is fine, particularly if they're not all basketball players.

For his part, Williams says he cares about academics and that he stands on his record. I told you he didn't understand. What we know so far is that he has asked Maryland to admit athletes whose high school record was marginal or worse. The admissions people asked questions, hard questions, and found that the answers didn't always measure up.

As far as the admissions office is concerned, he's Lefty without the accent, although Williams definitely kin coach. He coached well enough last year that he should have been ACC Coach of the Year. He can find enough athletes who are also students to be a contender.

"Gary is a good man; that must come through here," Geiger said. "He's also the most competitive person I have ever known, and that makes it hard for him. He doesn't feel like it's fair paying a price for what happened before he got here. He feels like he's come in without trust. But it's the office that's not trusted. It's beyond trusting or not trusting Gary. It's the institution of basketball that's not trusted.

"He's a proud man, and he has a good record. He wants the place to throw in with him. That's what's really bothered him, and I sympathize with that."

But he has to learn to play by the new rules. That's the right message, and the one we've been hearing consistently from College Park since the day Geiger arrived.

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