Two with state ties in middle of mess at St. Bonaventure

Wickenheiser left mark at Mount

Lane is former Maryland assistant AD

March 15, 2003|By Christian Ewell and Mike Klingaman | Christian Ewell and Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

The end of St. Bonaventure's men's basketball season also could damage the careers of two administrators with local ties who went to the Olean, N.Y., campus from Maryland.

Robert J. Wickenheiser resigned under pressure earlier this week as St. Bonaventure's president, the same post he held at Mount St. Mary's for 16 years. Athletic director Gothard Lane, who had been an assistant athletic director at Maryland for three decades before going to St. Bonaventure in 1999, was placed on administrative leave.

St. Bonaventure's board of trustees asked for Wickenheiser's resignation after an inquiry found that he pushed for center Jamil Terrell's admission without an associate's degree, instead allowing a welding certificate. Lane had opposed it.

Making Terrell eligible led to the forfeiture of six Atlantic 10 Conference wins and the team being banned from the league tournament. In response, the team pulled out of its last two regular-season games.

Wickenheiser's son, Kort, the assistant men's basketball coach, also was put on administrative leave along with Lane and coach Jan van Breda Kolff, pending review of their roles.

The former president made "a patently bad decision," attorney Jack McGinley told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. McGinley, an alum investigating the men's basketball program for the university's board of trustees, lauded Wickenheiser's contributions as the first lay president in the school's 144-year history.

"That's the sad part about this," he said this week, citing Wickenheiser's efforts to pull the school out of enrollment and financial troubles in the mid-1990s. "He really worked very hard to try to put this institution on firm footing."

Wickenheiser could not be reached to comment.

Earlier, Wickenheiser steered the Mount -the small, private Catholic school in Frederick County - through an era of unprecedented growth before they parted ways in 1993. A former English professor, he arrived in Emmitsburg from Princeton, quick and ambitious, with an eclectic past. In his 20s, Wickenheiser had spent five years as a Benedictine monk. At 34, he became the nation's youngest president of a private college.

"He looked like he had a chance to be a superstar in academia," said Frank Cashen, a longtime baseball executive with the Orioles and New York Mets who led the Mount's search.

College officials hoped Wickenheiser would lift the campus from a troubling funk in the late 1970s.

"When Bob arrived, the school was in disarray. The buildings hadn't been maintained. The boilers were failing," said Jerry Geckle, head of the board of trustees during most of Wickenheiser's tenure.

On the new president's watch, the college repaired the old and drummed up money for the new: dorms, apartments, classroom buildings and an auditorium.

A tattered gymnasium gave way to the $5 million Knott Arena, home of the basketball team. Wickenheiser embraced basketball at The Mount.

"He'd go onto the court at halftime and lead the crowd in cheers," said Jim Phelan, newly retired after 49 years as coach. It was the president, he said, who hired the first full-time aide for Phelan, in 1977, assistance the coach had sought for years.

"Wickenheiser did a lot of good things," Phelan said. "He improved the faculty, the curriculum. He's a very bright person. It's just that when he gets involved, he quickly thinks he knows everything about everyone's job."

Phelan found this out before the 1992-93 season, when Wickenheiser told him to retire after two straight losing campaigns. Phelan, then 62, refused.

"There was not a lot of harsh talking between us," the coach recalls. "I said, `I'm going to fight you on this.' He [Wickenheiser] said, `You'll be surprised at how few friends you have out there. That was the last time we spoke."

Alumni rushed to Phelan's side. "They really raised a stink," Geckle said.

Four months later, Wickenheiser was gone, but not because of the basketball flap, as is generally thought.

"The Phelan thing had nothing to do with it," Geckle said. "At the end, Bob had really lost the confidence of the faculty. He'd had rough times with a popular academic dean. He'd [implemented] a graduate program in education without faculty sanction, and they got up in arms."

At Bonaventure, where he went in 1994, Wickenheiser was also out front on athletics, advocating the return of football in an alumni newsletter.

This came in 1997, only three years removed from a purge of 43 full-time faculty members.

Lane, as St. Bonaventure's athletic director, told the board of trustees eight months ago that Terrell should not be admitted, said William B. Swan, chairman of the university's board.

The stand taken by Lane, who declined interview requests, rings true with people who worked with him at Maryland.

Back in 1981, he discovered $6,000 worth of telephone card fraud by Terps football players, in which the program eluded NCAA sanctions.

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