The man who once held a school in his hands is now holding a cup of coffee. He has been holding it for an hour. Rarely does he take a sip.
The anger James McAlister thought he left behind decades ago was merely tucked away. The familiar pain that once caused him to punch the steel doors of Pauley Pavilion is now causing him to weep again. This time as a father. Always as a Bruin.
Today, McAlister will drive to UCLA to ask his longtime friend, football Coach Terry Donahue, a question whose answer he already knows, but doesn't want to believe. Did UCLA challenge the score on his son's college entrance examination? Donahue will tell him that UCLA did.
"This has brought back a lot of memories, a lot of pain," McAlister said.
Near the end of his freshman year at UCLA in 1971, James McAlister boarded a bus headed to the airport for the NCAA track and field championships. Along with his talent as a running back, he had already made the cover of Sports Illustrated as a two-sport star. A twin threat, he was called.
But Jim Bush, then the track coach, summoned McAlister off the bus and took him to the office of J.D. Morgan, the athletic director. He was introduced to two NCAA representatives. The bus was held. So was the charter plane. They eventually left without McAlister.
His college entrance examination, taken a year before, had been canceled for excessive erasure marks. How many erasure marks? Nobody could tell him. Nobody would tell him anything, he says, except that he would not play any sport his sophomore year. He was given no options.
"I had missed qualifying for the SAT on my first try by 100 points, and passed it on the second time," McAlister said. "This is the same thing they are doing now to my son."
Chris McAlister, a highly sought football quarterback/safety from Pasadena High, was set to go to UCLA this season before he was notified in July by Educational Testing Service (ETS) that his Scholastic Assessment Test score, which had met the NCAA requirements to play freshman athletics, had been challenged. ETS said it had evidence Chris had copied from another test taker.
An SAT score of 820 is required to compete athletically as a freshman at a Division I school. Chris took the test three times, scoring a 1010 the third time. But an increase of 200 points from his second test score raised a red flag in the UCLA admissions office. ETS, which serves as the clearinghouse for SAT exams, was asked to review the score for cheating.
How much a student can improve a score legitimately through intensive preparation is a highly contested issue.
"His data was scrutinized by our admissions people just as they do with all other students if they feel there is a problem, and they consulted with the family, and then asked ETS to look at the test score," said Marc Dellins, UCLA's sports information director.
James McAlister believed he could clear up the situation quickly, but ETS would not change its position. Chris' options included taking the test again or taking ETS to arbitration, which could take several months. Otherwise, the test score would be canceled.
But McAlister wouldn't change his position either. He decided that this time around, he had some options. He decided Chris should not have to take the test again, because he passed it honestly. School was about to start, so Chris enrolled at Mt. San Antonio College so he wouldn't lose a season of football or academics.
And instead of arbitration, McAlister chose to take ETS to court. A $5-million lawsuit was filed against ETS in U.S. District Court on Friday by attorney J. Anthony Willoughby on behalf of Chris, claiming ETS lacked evidence in not validating Chris' test. ETS, in a letter to Willoughby dated Sept. 22, stated it did not have a copy of the seating chart for the test in question.
"How can you say somebody copied from somebody if you don't even know where he was sitting?" said Willoughby, the attorney who successfully fought ETS in arbitration for USC football player Kenny Haslip.
An official from ETS said he could not comment on specifics, but said that Chris' situation remains unresolved and his test score has not been canceled--but it also hasn't been validated. For Chris to be eligible for Division I play next season--as he hopes to be--he has to come to some resolution with ETS or retake the test. Otherwise, he needs to graduate from a junior college and meet the academic transfer requirements.
Chris, who denies cheating on the test, did not want to be interviewed for this story, saying he has had a good season at Mt. San Antonio and wants to move on. But his father said this has been a difficult experience for his son, who met with a tutor twice weekly for six weeks to prepare for the test.