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Kentucky Loves Its Basketball, but Not at Any Price

December 11, 1988|MICHAEL YORK | Washington Post

LEXINGTON, Ky. — In what is normally an upbeat time here, serious questions are confronting the University of Kentucky basketball program. A looming probation, the future of Coach Eddie Sutton, the possibility of forfeiting 26 of last year's 27 wins and the slim chances of attracting any top recruits in the near future are all very real concerns for a legion of Wildcats fans who usually spend the fall boasting of their dominance of college basketball.

In addition to those concerns, raised after an NCAA investigation into allegations of improper recruiting, there is the unthinkable prospect--brought up for the first time by Kentucky President David Roselle at a news conference -- that any subsequent violation would bring the death penalty, suspension of the program for as long as two years.

To Lexingtonians, a winter without basketball simply cannot be imagined.

"It's definitely the number one topic of conversation here," said Lexington's popular mayor, Scotty Baesler, who played for the Wildcats during the 1960s. "Basketball may not be the most important thing to Lexington . . . but it's certainly in the top three."

Kentucky faces 18 allegations by the NCAA, from minor transgressions such as handing out free T-shirts to major infractions involving cash payments of $1,000 and more. If found guilty, the nation's winningest basketball program would face at least two years probation, a penalty that could cripple its recruiting efforts well into the 1990s.

If Kentucky committed any serious violation after that sanction, it would qualify for the death penalty.

With the charges has come the growing realization--even among the most zealous boosters--that the Wildcats likely have been playing above the rules as often as they have been playing above the rim.

And with that realization, fueled by the disappointment with the lackluster current 2-3 record, has come an erosion of support from the fans.

Of course, 99% of NCAA Division I schools would love to have a base for such erosion: only 9,500 attended a pre-season scrimmage in Louisville in November compared to 18,127 a year ago, and only about 100 faithful met the team at the airport last Tuesday when players returned from the Great Alaska Shootout (compared to the 500 to 2,000 that turned out after each away game last year).

To be sure, this Kentucky team is still worshipped, but the current players haven't achieved full deification. And Wildcats basketball doesn't appear to be the mandatory statewide religion it was only a couple of years ago.

The erosion of support may be affecting Sutton as well. During ESPN's telecast of Kentucky's season opener, an 80-55 routing by Duke, commentator Dick Vitale said Sutton should step down. The suggestion brought an eruption of protest in Kentucky.

That's the way it is. While it is not unusual for college teams to rate a police escort for bus trips to and from an airport, Kentucky's entourage looks more like that of a visiting head of state, complete with motorcycle police stationed at strategic points along the route.

There are signs, however, that even armed guards cannot protect Kentucky's athletic officials from all their problems. The school's athletic director, Cliff Hagan, a basketball all-America during the 1950s, resigned under pressure last month and there have been more calls for Sutton's ouster -- most recently by the Kentucky Kernel, the student newspaper.

Wednesday, the Kernel published a lengthy editorial calling on Sutton and his entire coaching staff to resign effective at the end of the season. Such a move, the newspaper said, would "restore honesty and integrity to (the) program." Sutton, who declined to be interviewed for this story and directed his staff and players not to talk, said at a press conference that the Kernel editorial was "a little unusual." Said Sutton, "I plan on coaching here a long time."

Kernel editor Jay Blanton said the editorial had brought surprisingly few calls. And of the 10 to 15 the newspaper received, he said, several were in support of the editorial.

Blanton said the modest response is probably an indication that the steady dose of NCAA allegations has taken its toll. "I think people have had so much of the NCAA stuff thrown in their laps that everybody is tired of it," Blanton said.

So much indeed. Since the first reports in April of a cash payment to the father of recruit Chris Mills, there have been stories about cheating on a college admission test by a player, the promise of a car to another recruit and cash payments to another player.

In the meantime, Sutton has dampened expectations about the team's prospects for the season, and for good reason. This Kentucky team can be competitive, even within the unusually weak Southeastern Conference, only as long as its starting five stays healthy and out of foul trouble. The team is so weak, in fact, that some pre-season analysts predicted the Wildcats could have their first losing season since 1927.

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