Little Towson, step carefully on ladder of success

MIKE LITTWIN

May 31, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

Carl Runk, who coaches the Towson State lacrosse team, is a big bear of a man with a weakness for cigars who enjoyed the story of his team's improbable success as much as anyone, which makes the story that much better.

Before leaving last week for the NCAA semifinals at Syracuse, he was asked what it would be like for little Towson to come home a champion.

He laughed, a long, hard laugh that spoke directly to the audacity of Towson's quest.

"That would be something, wouldn't it?" he said, finally. Runk shook his head and laughed again. "Really something."

Finishing second, when you think about it, was really something, too, and it capped an incredible school year at Towson, which began with the football team having to be saved and didn't end until a parade of teams had played in one NCAA tournament after another.

Little Towson has built itself a major athletic program, and against some odds.

Which means: It's time now to be very, very careful.

The big story current in college sports is an illustrated one. We see a picture of three UNLV basketball players sitting in a hot tub and sharing a few brewskies with a man named Richard Perry, who happens to have been twice convicted for fixing athletic events. What's wrong with this picture? What's wrong is that it doesn't surprise us, except that there were no showgirls in sight.

And yet, we hear from NCAA executive director Dick Schultz, among others, that UNLV is an aberration and that the problems in college sports are not nearly as dire as the headlines indicate.

Then we read the headlines about the University of Virginia.

As an academic institution, Virginia ranks among the elite. It's a wonderful school with a beautiful campus where big-time sports traditionally have been an afterthought. Then, something changed. People weren't content to have top lacrosse teams and top fencing teams. And so, Terry Holland built a basketball powerhouse. That might have been enough, except what can you do on lovely afternoons on the fall other than admire the foliage or get hit with the odd fraternity drug bust? George Welsh was brought in, and miracle of miracles, Virginia football, for decades a laughingstock, spent time last fall as the No. 1 football team in the country.

These were wonderful stories, we thought. If Virginia could win at football and basketball, that proved it was possible to mix big-time academics and big-time athletics. It suggested that UNLV wasn't the only operative model, and that should have heartened a lot of universities.

The story was so good that we ignored warning signs that maybe there were cracks in the infrastructure. When we heard that Virginia was admitting athletes that Maryland was unable to admit, we pointed to Virginia's graduation rate and said they must be doing something right. When there were drug problems and when there was a player caught cheating, we said this could have happened anywhere.

Now, who knows what to say?

Now, at Virginia, they're shocked. And maybe they shouldn't be. Maybe this, or something like it, was inevitable.

What happened is that Virginia is investigating the self-reported finding that 36 athletes and graduate assistants were given no-interest loans by the Virginia Student Aid Foundation, a quasi-independent foundation whose major role is to raise money for athletic scholarships. The loans, which were for as much as $1,700, averaged $350 and were given to athletes from football, men's basketball, golf and wrestling teams.

It appears possible that athletes were somehow funneled to the foundation for these interest-free loans, which are in violation of NCAA rules. In fact, they would be a major violation.

Incredibly, Virginia could well go on probation.

And it gets uglier. Who was athletic director from 1981 to 1987? That's right -- Dick Schultz. Remember the reason given for Maryland's stiff penalties? It was a lack of institutional control.

Schultz, who controlled Virginia's athletic institution, is not commenting, although a NCAA spokesman has said that Schultz was ignorant of the loans. Maybe he was. As for Holland and Welsh, I don't know of anyone in their profession whose integrity is more highly respected. Were they guilty? It's easy to guess that they weren't.

But, apparently, somebody was guilty. Maybe a lot of somebodies.

And here are the questions we have to ask ourselves: If Virginia -- a school that could never imagine itself involved in a sports scandal -- is cheating, who isn't? When Virginia is compromising its standards, who won't?

Do we really believe that the headlines tell more of the story than there is in college sports, or less?

So, yes, Towson's growth, academically and athletically, is heartening. But when the University of Virginia turns into the University of Kentucky, that's a warning for everyone else. It can happen here.

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