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Here's an idea: Stop hiring slime

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By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 12, 2003


We have seen the evil in college basketball.

And it is wearing tweed.

These are not agents lurking in the shadows. They are not boosters with an excess of cash and an absence of honor.

These are university presidents.

And they must be stopped.

Look at Monday's scandal at Georgia. It smells like last week's scandal at St. Bonaventure. And is kin to the earlier mess at Fresno State.

You can say there is a common trait of coaches without scruples. Or a mentality of winning at all costs. But, in each case, the problem begins with a university president. And a willingness to lower standards.

Institutional control is the phrase they like to toss around at NCAA offices. Essentially, it means a school cannot be held liable for the actions of a few renegade coaches, fans or players.

So a coach is providing tutors to write term papers? It's not that serious if the university shows it had no way of knowing. So a booster is slipping money to athletes in fabricated summer jobs? Just so long as the university has plausible deniability when the culprits are discovered.

Already, the schools implicated in the latest scandals are distancing themselves from their mess. They are sprinting to the proactive side. They are showing the NCAA they are serious about running clean programs. They are demonstrating gobs of institutional control.

They are, to cut through the rhetoric, flinging hooey in every direction.

Do you want to know why Fresno State had a problem with academic fraud and players supposedly accepting thousands of dollars from agents? Because university president John Welty hired Jerry Tarkanian as his coach.

This is like hiring Col. Sanders to clean up the barn and then wondering why your chickens have gone missing.

Tarkanian is colorful. He is successful. And he has proven, time and again, to have a low threshold for rules and regulations.

Frankly, it would have been a greater surprise had Fresno State survived Tarkanian without the NCAA paddy wagon pulling up in front of the arena.

You knew that. I knew that.

So how is it Welty did not?

The president explained recently that Tarkanian's hiring seemed like a good idea at the time. Even if he believed this, how did he not make sure his athletic director and compliance officer were not on the alert?

Drugs, assault charges, academic fraud, illegal payoffs and point shaving accusations. That's just part of the list of alleged violations at Fresno State. Who wrote the student-athlete handbook? Bluto and Flounder?

The best defense Welty can offer is he is not alone. Other university presidents also have overlooked dignity in search of victories.

Georgia president Michael Adams knew Jim Harrick was fired at UCLA for cheating on expense accounts and lying to cover it up. If Adams looked hard enough, he might have noticed Harrick was leaving Rhode Island with accusations of sexual harassment and academic improprieties close behind.

It didn't keep Adams from hiring Harrick. And it didn't send up a red flag when Harrick recruited Tony Cole, previously accused of sexual assault after bouncing in and out of five high schools.

Now Cole, after another sexual assault charge, is accusing Georgia of all sorts of NCAA violations. Harrick has been suspended, his son has been fired and the university has pulled the team out of the SEC and NCAA tournaments.

So let's see if I understand this:

Harrick is about to be fired because, essentially, he showed poor judgment in recruiting Cole.

And Adams, who showed equally poor judgment in hiring Harrick, is being praised by NCAA leaders for his decisive action.

Meanwhile, innocent players at Georgia have worked five months to prepare for these tournaments, and they find out from a television report that their university has just abandoned them.

There's your higher learning.

"I think there is a lesson to be learned in that doing one's homework, doing due diligence before hiring coaches, is important," NCAA president Myles Brand told Times reporter Bob Harig Tuesday.

"(But) there's a limit to how much you can do along these lines. And some of these situations are clearly not the doing of the president. What's important is that they do stand up and be counted, and show that presidential control does matter."

Robert J. Wickenheiser certainly took control of the situation at St. Bonaventure. When the school's compliance officer told the coaching staff Jamil Terrell did not meet the academic requirements to transfer from Coastal Georgia Community College, Wickenheiser was asked to intervene.

The departed school president looked at Terrell's profile and saw a welding certificate and a lot of rebounds. Bada-bing. They gave him a scholarship, shorts and, presumably, a blowtorch.

Now the NCAA has ruled Terrell ineligible, the school has forfeited six conference victories and the players have elected to quit on the season.

In some ways, these scandals are more insidious than in the previous generations of boosters and agents. At least then you could point at the scoundrels and say they were motivated by their own ego and greed.

University presidents are supposed to be above that. They are supposed to have the institution's best interests at heart.

Yes, they want successful athletic teams and packed venues. Yes, they want the economic benefits a winning program can bring.

But they also are supposed to be caretakers of the next generation. They are supposed to teach us the difference between integrity and avarice.

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