Maryland basketball: a game of economics?

April 19, 1992|By Quint Kessenich


C. Fraser Smith.

Bancroft Press.

342 pages. $12.95 (paperback). Drugs killed Len Bias, but the system may have been an accomplice. After the all-American forward for the University of Maryland's basketball team snorted 5 grams of cocaine, enough to fill a coffee cup, his heart and brain ceased to function. Doctors at Leland Memorial Hospital in Prince George's County declared Bias dead at 8:55 a.m. on June 19, 1986. The odds of a high school player reaching the professional ranks were 1 in 10,000 when Bias was selected by the Celtics in the NBA draft, less than 48 hours before his death. He had beaten the odds, or had they beaten him?

In "Lenny, Lefty and the Chancellor," Sun reporter C. Fraser Smith uses the Bias tragedy as a means for exploring the corrupt system that helped kill him, and the agonizing reformation of it that is still in progress. Mr. Smith identifies three factors that debase Maryland's basketball program: the self-supporting .

athletic department system, the academic climate, and the people within the system (players, coaches, boosters and administrators).

Most important was the athletic system at College Park. Created by the General Assembly in the 1950s, when politicians and administrators thought the department was improperly taking academic funds, this self-supporting system generates revenue through gate receipts and booster club donations. Mr. Smith quotes Dick Dull, a former athletic director at the university: "As long as you are required to run a self-supporting program, there are going to be times when you are tempted to compromise your integrity academically. I'm on record as saying we probably took kids who were not proper candidates for admission."

The two revenue sports, basketball and football, were required to provide the budget for the entire department, including 22 other men's and women's non-revenue-generating sports programs.

Maryland's booster group, called the Terrapin Club, had 3,700 members, only half of them Maryland graduates; it contributed $2.7 million in 1986. Mr. Smith writes: "The University became dependent on that money to pay the scholarship bill for intercollegiate athletics. Money became as important as the ideals upon which the club was founded, just more so."

Through its generosity, the Terrapin Club essentially bought the program, Mr. Smith says, happily relieving the university administration and legislature of any financial responsibilities. He pinpoints the abuses of the Terrapin Club by noting that booster money was held privately in a "totally flexible slush fund that was not audited or managed by the university and was used for such things as enhancing contracts, [and] buying houses for coaches and athletic directors."

Mr. Smith effectively punctures the notion that the supposed "student athletes" in basketball were ever really students -- they were entertainers. Their job was to fill the seats at Cole Field House, win 20 games a year, and help the team make the NCAA postseason tournament. In return, the booster club would continue to donate money.

Mr. Smith also relates the academic woes of the basketball NTC program. For those readers who followed the number of newspaper articles in 1986-'87, these passages are not particularly enlightening; for those who paid little attention to the story as it dragged on, what he writes about can be disturbing.

The fact that Len Bias failed or withdrew from all his spring classes during his senior year may seem a fluke rather than a trend for the team until Mr. Smith puts in perspective: the players' cumulative grade point average over a six-year period was 1.82 out of a possible 4.0. Perhaps most tellingly, only one-third of the men's basketball players had graduated, with rumors of cheating nonetheless widespread.

Although generally even-handed in tone, Mr. Smith provides an uncomplimentary assessment of Mr. Driesell. The coach comes off as having an anti-intellectual attitude and Southern sheriff demeanor, and Mr. Smith suggests that he embodies what is wrong with big-time college athletics. Mr. Driesell was the director of the show called Maryland basketball, filling Cole Field House while winning the hearts and wallets of the boosters; he was the University of Maryland's most visible figure.

Although Mr. Smith interviewed more than 150 sources, the crux of his analysis comes from conversations with John Slaughter, chancellor of the College Park campus at the time. A black university administrator who ended the half-time ritual at football games of having a student run the length of the field with a Confederate flag, Dr. Slaughter fought Mr. Driesell, the Terrapin Club and the press to bring about the needed reforms following Bias' death; he is the hero of this book.

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