Paying for patsies: cheap college shot

KEN ROSENTHAL

February 02, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

The state's eight Division I men's basketball teams besides Maryland are a combined 17-53 in non-conference play. Yet, there's a chance three of them will qualify for the NCAA tournament.

How is this possible?

Because many of those non-conference losses came in so-called "money games," in which smaller schools accept near-certain defeats on the home courts of big-time powers in exchange for lucrative cash guarantees.

This is the reason UMBC visits Syracuse, Morgan State visits Georgetown, Towson State visits Oklahoma. The system has been in place for years, but it's so indicative of everything that is wrong with college sports, it's worth another look.

One month into conference play, things are sorting out in their usual way. Coppin State, Towson State and Mount St. Mary's are, indeed, in position to win their leagues, which might seem remarkable, considering they're five games over .500 combined.

What we're talking about is basketball prostitution. Schools such as Morgan State and Coppin State are more aggressive about it than Mount St. Mary's and Navy, but that's only because they're shorter on funds. Nearly everybody plays the game. It's necessary to survive.

The smaller schools need the money to finance their athletic budgets. The bigger schools need easy home wins to pad their records. The vicious cycle never ends, and as Maryland athletic director Andy Geiger says, "We're chasing our tails."

Economic slowdown? Not in this world.

Two years ago, local schools received from $12,000 to $20,000 to play patsy. Last year, Towson got $25,000 from Tennessee. Now, the upper limit is $30,000, and Kentucky, Syracuse and Arkansas recently grew so desperate for opponents, they reportedly were paying $35,000.

Meals and ground transportation, negotiable.

Naturally, all the local schools aspire to play Maryland, a game that requires only a bus ride and no overnight stay. "If you're looking for 30, you'd take 20 from Maryland," Coppin coach Fang Mitchell says. "If you're looking for 25, you'll take 18."

Of course, Fang isn't welcome at Cole Field House anymore, not after triumphing there three years ago. Fang also is on the enemies list at Creighton, where he won on the road that same season. Creighton paid $10,000 to back out of the return date in Baltimore.

Then there's Morgan, a team that went 0-9 before playing its first home game Jan. 16. Oh, Morgan had a home game scheduled before then against Millersville, but Maryland wanted the Bears on that date.

The solution?

Maryland paid Morgan $18,000 to come to College Park -- and Millersville $5,000 to cancel with Morgan. What a country.

Morgan wound up playing eight money games. It would have been nine, but Florida State canceled when its schedule became too heavy. In return, Morgan AD Joe McIver says, Florida State agreed to play in Baltimore next season.

Are you kidding?

The check is in the mail.

Morgan clearly went overboard, but it has gone 6-1 since its 0-9 start to move into second place behind Coppin in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. McIver vows to play fewer money games next season. The problem is, he can't eliminate them completely.

"They're very important to us," McIver says. "In our athletic budget, we don't have the fund raising and the alumni support that some of the other schools have. We have to play those games to be able to compete in Division I."

It's a classic Catch-22: A school such as Morgan could generate more income with higher attendance, but it can't generate higher attendance because it invariably starts the season with a poor record compiled almost entirely on the road.

Granted, the trips are valuable in recruiting, and the experience against quality competition can be useful. But it's a backward world when the schools with more limited academic resources are the ones forced to make their players miss the most classes traveling.

Maryland paid $104,000 in guarantees this season to secure 16 home dates. The idea is to build attendance and grease a path to the NCAA tournament. Naturally, part of the tournament money gets recycled back into guarantees.

"We're partly controlled by the entrepreneurial side of college athletics," Geiger says. "The one thing we get most criticized for becomes absolutely necessary because of the system we're in."

How many times must it be said?

The system stinks.

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