Disqualified schools leave no shining moments

March 11, 2003|By Laura Vecsey

MICHIGAN IS out. Fresno State is out. St. Bonaventure is out. Now add Georgia to the list.

A funny thing happened on the way to the 2003 NCAA basketball tournament. No top 65 programs good enough to qualify were eligible to play.

Hyperbole? Maybe not after yesterday, when Georgia suspended coach Jim Harrick with pay and joined a list of Division I schools that have been banned - by the NCAA or by themselves - from participating in the mother of all college sports championships.

Maybe the selection committee could call upon an old and honorable friend to help fill up the tournament brackets. Jim Phelan probably could rustle up a worthy Mount St. Mary's squad to represent collegiate athletics well.

Meanwhile, it's good to see the Quakers have won the Ivy League's automatic bid. The kids from Penn actually bring their books to their regional site, injecting some academic authenticity into the proceedings.

Look, mom! Real student-athletes!

How sad, really, this current state of affairs. Isn't the entire point of skirting the rules, of hiring and recruiting known offenders, all about getting to college basketball's promised land?

What a waste for Harrick and Georgia, who got in bed with each other despite all the dirt Harrick left behind at UCLA and Rhode Island. He lied on an expense account in Los Angeles, and, in Providence, Harrick is still under investigation on charges of sexual harassment.

It has to be merely a formality or legality that Harrick was not summarily fired and is still getting a paycheck, as Georgia said it will conclude its investigation. The damage is done and the taint is unavoidable. Georgia has had to fall on its sword, beg out of the Southeastern Conference tournament and hope the NCAA doesn't hand down sanctions so severe that boosters howl and pledge allegiance elsewhere.

Out in California, it's a good thing Jerry Tarkanian is retired, otherwise he would be joining Harrick this week in employment limbo.

Last week, Fresno State - which has played a scandal-free, winning season under a new coach - removed itself from postseason action, hoping to head the NCAA off at the pass.

Like Georgia president Michael Adams, Fresno State president John Welty has turned the focus from dirty coaches to the men who hire them.

Maybe this mess at all levels of Division I represents a new season in college hoops.

How many more championship banners have to be given back, as Michigan did in the wake of its Fab Five scandals?

Michigan essentially bought two Final Four appearances, representing the worst in college athletics, when a booster named Ed Martin allegedly shelled out about $600,000 to Michigan players. Michigan is still paying for that mess, just as ex-Wolverine Chris Webber faces a possible prison sentence for allegedly lying to a grand jury about taking money from Martin, who recently died.

How many more records have to be eradicated from the NCAA's books, as Massachusetts had whited-out from its eligibility-troubled 1995-96 season?

How many more schools like Minnesota will report to the NCAA tournament as Big Ten threats, as the Golden Gophers did in 1999, only to see the local paper report that a basketball program tutor wrote 400 term papers for players, thus commencing a long, hideous slide into sanction oblivion?

How many more coaches have to be fired, college presidents embarrassed and "student-athletes" caught selling their size-18 Nikes before reform is real within Division I hoops?

Maybe this is the March when madness gives way to greater introspection. Maybe this is the March when madness starts to yield to better self-control.

The NCAA has been baying for all this since 1991, when college presidents were urged to exercise more control over runaway athletic departments - if they themselves weren't such fans that they couldn't stop themselves from breaking their own rules.

Certainly, that's what they're thinking about this week in Olean, N.Y., where St. Bonaventure president Robert Wickenheiser was forced to quit Sunday because he was such a big basketball fan he could not help himself.

Wanted: Players, at any cost, including institutional integrity and academic standards.

Wickenheiser and St. Bonaventure represent either a new low or a new high for college basketball. It's a tough call. Either way, it has to be a first: The president of a college had to quit because he slipped an academically ineligible welder past the dean of admissions.

Ah, the things we do for love. It might soon be a popular refrain down in Athens, Ga., and out in Fresno, too.

When Jamil Terrell's ineligibility was finally discovered in late February, St. Bonaventure was sanctioned by the Atlantic 10 Conference for six games it had already played. It also was barred from participating in the conference tournament.

Angry and confused, the "players" decided they'd rather quit than play - and no one, not the president nor coach Jan van Breda Kolff, could get these players on a bus to their conference game at UMass.

By yesterday, with amazing speed and fortitude, St. Bonaventure's Board of Trustees had installed an interim president and called for an independent investigation of the basketball program.

The school also called upon its Franciscan values, seeking to forgive the players who committed one of the most mind-boggling nullifications of the competitive spirit, not to mention good sportsmanship. Quitters are worse than cheaters.

In a battle cry that other schools with out-of-control Division I basketball (and football) programs need to hear, St. Bonaventure senior and student council member Andy Keenan said: "[The actions by the school were] a sign of solidarity, and it shows that Bona's bigger than basketball."

It's a bold assertion, one that puts athletics where it belongs: part of the whole, one program within a larger system complete with rules, expectant of integrity.

A few things to consider while filling out our office pool brackets.

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