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TROUBLE AT ASU : Scandals in Sun Devil Athletic Department Bring Reform

June 18, 1985|TRACY DODDS | Times Staff Writer

TEMPE, Ariz. — It's like looking at one of the scenes in a child's play book, trying to find "what's wrong with this picture?"

But this is a tough one. Not one of the athletes passing by has a pickle for a nose. There's no boat flying through the bright blue desert sky. The lizards scurrying across the sidewalks are common, everyday lizards. No feathers or fins.

In fact, the athletic complex on the Arizona State campus seems picture-postcard perfect. Impressive even. A showcase.

Still, there is something wrong here, even if you can't quite put your finger on it. Something feels not quite right.

It's not just that the baseball, basketball and football teams all had losing seasons, a phenomenon that last occurred in 1932.

The losing baseball season for Coach Jim Brock was his first, and he's been at ASU for 14 years.

The football team's losing season was the first in nine years.

The phenomenon was only slightly different in basketball. For Coach Bob Weinhauer, the losing season was the second straight. ASU had not had consecutive losing seasons in basketball for 15 years.

The losing is bad enough, and the Arizona State fans are not at all pleased with it. But what really is hard for them to swallow is that the school has been cheating and losing . Think of it. They are embarrassed.

The embarrassment started with what they call the Kush thing in 1979, but it didn't stop there. It has been one thing after another. If it's not news of probation it's news of a loss of scholarships. If it's not a coaching change, it's an athletic director being forced out. If it's not anything else, then it must be a tempest in a teapot about baseball players using some never-before-heard-of drug.

In Tempe, the fans pick up the morning paper with "What next?" trepidation. A weekly Phoenix journal, New-Times, published a story in April headlined, "Going to Hell With the Sun Devils."

Well, the Sun Devils haven't gone all the way to hell. Not yet, anyway. But the athletic department certainly is no heaven on earth. Right now, the Sun Devils seem to be in limbo.

There's a new athletic director, Charles Harris, due to report July 5, and that could well mean that a lot of changes will be made.

Harris is not an insider. He's now the athletic director at the Ivy League's University of Pennsylvania, and before that he was an assistant to Don Canham at the University of Michigan, highly regarded as an academic institution.

Harris is considered to be one of the president's men. ASU President J. Russell Nelson is looking forward to the day that Harris takes over.

Until that time, Frank Sackton is the athletic director, and he has already started the purge known around the athletic department as the broom.

Sackton, 73, a retired general who served under Douglas MacArthur and a former business affairs vice president of the university, was lured out of retirement last June and assigned to the athletic department by the president. Dick Tamburo was still the athletic director at the time. And when Tamburo suddenly resigned--he was forced out, many believe--the president made Sackton the athletic director.

Although Sackton is serving only until Harris arrives, which in fact makes him an acting athletic director, Nelson specified that Sackton is not to be called an interim director. He's the director, with full power, Nelson said.

That means that he has the power to fire people, or at least suggest that they resign. There have been several resignations recently and rumor has it that there may be more before Harris arrives.

There is a definite attitude of cleaning up and starting over in the athletic department, and that feeling is being strongly encouraged by the president's office.

When did the trouble at Arizona State begin? When did a program that was winning big, making big money and growing by leaps and bounds suddenly become, by its own admission, a laughingstock?

Most point to the 1979 scandal involving football Coach Frank Kush. Kush, himself, said at that time that he thought the trouble began in 1976, when Arizona State was accepted into the Pacific 10. The university president thinks that maybe it began even before that, during all those early years when the athletic department was growing, gaining power and wealth and not answering to anyone.

In any event, the school has developed what columnist Joe Gilmartin of the Phoenix Gazette called "a public relations problem of massive proportions."

That image is the result of a series of bad-news occurrences. A chronology of some of those lowlights of the last few years:

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