Boosters Key to Sports Success and Scandals

August 29, 1993|By C. FRASER SMITH

It has been said that 90 percent of the schools in big-time college sports abide by the rules -- and the other 10 percent go to bowl games.

That cynically humorous axiom has been decried by a range of reform groups in recent years. And it is being challenged again by the Pacific-10 Conference which declared last Sunday that one of its perennial bowl contenders, the University of Washington, broke the rules big time.

In an arena so large, so clotted with rules and so distorted by the pressure to make money, the Pac-10 may hope that home-based enforcement will have an immediacy and sting that is missing when punishment comes from a distant National Collegiate Athletic Association.

As always, boosters and their money drove the action at Washington.

Indeed, it would be difficult to find a collegiate sports scandal in which this were not so. Boosters are simultaneously the cornerstones and the millstones of college sports. They want Ol' Siwash to have a national championship. They pony up the money for scholarships that can recruit winning players -- and for the golden handshakes that can sink a school. Boosters even give cover to the coaches who reflexively claim they knew nothing.

As school after school succumbed to this syndrome, the U.S. Congress has demanded cleansing action. The prestigious Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Sports conducted a costly study and recommended fundamental changes in the way university presidents handle their sporting enterprise.

From time to time, unilateral action is proposed by university faculties disgusted by some excess or another. And some university presidents have attempted to convince their colleagues in the Big 10 or the Atlantic Coast Conference, for example, to take a reform step -- such as banning freshmen from varsity play -- rejected by the NCAA.

One of the few conferences that does its own investigations and issues its own penalties, the Pac-10 has moved with the sort of focus and determination that gets the attention of the entire athletic community.

One of the nation's most successful teams, the University of Washington had always congratulated itself on winning and winning clean.

Coach Don James had taken his football team to a bowl game 13 of the last 14 years. His teams had been the Pac-10 Rose Bowl representative for the past three years. Washington won a share of the national championship in 1991.

Fans howled when Stanford Coach Bill Walsh said Washington hired mercenaries. Mr. Walsh later apologized for his breach of the coaching fraternity's rule against criticizing a brother coach.

But the Pac-10 says Mr. Walsh was right.

For helping a former star quarterback to secure a $50,000-loan, for excessive pay to athletes in summer jobs, for recruiting violations, for the usual over-involvement of wealthy boosters and for failing to exert sufficient "institutional control," Washington was hammered hard.

The school must decline invitations from bowl game sponsors for two years. It must forgo $1.4 million in 1993 television revenue. It must make do with 10 fewer football scholarships each year for two years. Several current players were declared ineligible and several boosters, including the coach's son-in-law, were barred from further contact with the team.

But the loss most grievous to Washington was a by-product of the penalties. Coach James quit. He knew nothing of the alleged infractions, he said, though some of his assistant coaches were implicated in the irregularities uncovered by conference investigators.

He did admit some mistakes. He said he had taken some players of "marginal character." But he undercut these concessions by saying the rule book was out of control -- too big to be adhered to. He said he could not stay in a conference that treated its players and coaches so unfairly. After 18 years, the 60-year-old coach left his players and his $470,000 job.

Though some have sympathized with his decision to leave, others have reminded him of what coaches always say: When the going gets tough, the tough get going; quitters never win and winners never quit, for example.

It is customary in such matters for the coach, the boosters, the players, the university and the coaches to blame their predicament on factors beyond their control. The Pac-10, the NCAA and others have been saying that response is no longer good enough.

As at Washington, boosters are very frequently in the center of these sporting travails.

One booster said the school jeopardized its own program by admitting guilt. The same lamentations were heard at University of Maryland College Park when, after the death of Len Bias, various shortcomings were discovered in the academic life of athletes: They had no time to study; they frequently had no meaningful major; and, too often, they didn't graduate.

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