Years after the Len Bias tragedy Sports: Much has changed at College Park, and the university says things are better. But the intensity of basketball worship and the importance of money in athletics remain undiminished.

UM 10

June 16, 1996|By C. Fraser Smith

TEN YEARS AGO THIS WEEK, cocaine and bad judgment killed Len Bias. Maryland's flagship university almost succumbed along with its famous basketball player on June 19, 1986.

In the sadness and shame of those days, the university's head man, John B. Slaughter, was accused of scapegoating a famous coach and of prolonging the university's agony in the name of reform.

Bias and most of his teammates, absent 40 percent of the time during the spring semester of 1986, had failed all of their courses. Athletes frequently flunked out, were re-admitted and made eligible for their sport. Often, they had no coherent course of study - beyond the major called "eligibility."

When the investigations he ordered on drug use and the academic life of athletes were finally in, Slaughter and the university's Board of Regents fired Charles G. "Lefty" Driesell, very nearly a national symbol of basketball's untouchable supremacy. Bobby Ross, the football coach, only somewhat less celebrated, left on his own.

One of the nation's few black university presidents, Slaughter was called a racist, incompetent and weak. Within two years, he, too, was gone.

Since then, much has changed at the University of Maryland - but the intensity of basketball worship and the importance of money in athletics remain undiminished. University administrators say UM athletes are better students than they were ten years ago, but they won't provide data to support their assertions about the basketball team.

The work of Slaughter and his harried team of crisis managers, though, is being called essential to a new and improved university.

"I think he showed enormous courage in appointing these commissions and the steps he took later," says the university's current president, William E. "Britt" Kirwan, one of Slaughter's assistants at the time of Bias' death.

Kirwan says he, too, underestimated the importance of the work done by Slaughter and by Robert Dorfman, a physics professor who headed the study of student life for athletes at College Park.

"I did not fully appreciate at the time how far we had moved in relation to other institutions. The [new standards and reforms] seemed like such sensible recommendations - and the right thing to do. But to go back now and look at them in relation to the standards of that day ... they seem more impressive," he said.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association subsequently imposed similar standards. Maryland's year-to-year eligibility standards demanding progress toward graduation remain higher than the NCAA's and higher than most other schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Athletes who were recruited by Maryland coaches but not admitted at Maryland occasionally have gone on to play for Maryland's competitors.

"It was very difficult to hold onto these reforms," Kirwan said, "because a lot of boosters were unhappy. The institution has reason to feel proud of the fact that we stayed the course with these reforms. There was a lot of pressure to back off. We didn't."

In the unrelenting glare of media interest after Bias' death, College Park sometimes seemed paralyzed. The pace of life on a college campus, slow and contemplative, seemed wholly inappropriate to the circumstances.

But Kirwan says that methodical approach produced enduring work, enabling the university to take a position of strength and eventually new eminence. With the anniversary of the Bias calamity approaching, the school exhibited a bit of its new nimbleness. This time, it would try to take control of the message.

In 1986, Kirwan observed during a press conference he convened, an "insider's guide" to American colleges and universities observed that UM's mascot, the terrapin, seemed a most appropriate symbol. Large and sluggish, it mirrored the school's slow and awkward progress toward the modern age.

Last year, though, that same guide found the university leaner and smarter, populated by "a talented and diverse bunch."

The emphasis on academics seemed appropriate yet layered in irony: There was a day when athletics was thought of as a way to project a college's academic profile to a wider audience. That had happened at College Park, of course, but the picture was not a pretty one. Every basketball player, it seemed, was failing and no one, it seemed, cared nearly enough.

"If you go back to 1986, there was a sense that the athletic department was only very loosely connected to the rest of the university," Dr. Kirwan said. "I think that through all of this travail there is a much greater sense of connection. The culture has changed."

And so has the university's overall academic standing, he said.

n College Park now accepts only the best and brightest of Maryland's students: A third of the campus' freshmen are granted "advanced placement" status, exempting them from certain course requirements, as compared with 12 percent in 1986.

Of 55 public and private universities examined by a recent study of honors programs, Maryland was one of nine with the highest, three-star rating.

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