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A Firestorm at UCLA | BILL PLASCHKE

Ethical Road Goes in Right Direction

November 07, 1996|BILL PLASCHKE

Ethics sound pretty, and play ugly.

Ethics float in on wings, but leave on foot, the trail behind them often muddied and scarred.

Ethics are preached by the masses, but belong only to the courageous.

To that small list, add UCLA.

In one chilling moment Wednesday, Bruin officials devastated their basketball program, infuriated some alumni, potentially lost millions of dollars.

But in that one bright moment, they got it right.

In front of a stunned city, they did something that will be dissected for years, yet can be explained in seconds.

They fired their basketball coach because they no longer trusted him.

That simple.

That honorable.

Chancellor Charles E. Young and Athletic Director Peter T. Dalis said the firing was caused by only one offense, when Harrick admittedly lied about the names of some kids who joined him at a recent recruiting dinner.

Give Young and Dalis credit. They hung gamely to the tip of that iceberg for an entire afternoon. Some will wonder if this was any different from Harrick's deceit, but it is. They were only trying to spare themselves and Harrick further pain.

The firing wasn't only one dinner.

It wasn't only Harrick's elusiveness when confronted with the recent Chevy Crisis.

It wasn't only talk of Harrick's increasing off-court recklessness.

It was all of it, the behavior of a championship coach beset by increasing pressure to win again.

It was ethics, in a duel with big-time college athletics.

If athletics win and Harrick is granted his request to quietly finish the season, the Bruins have a legitimate shot at a national championship, the university makes a truckload of money, the next five months are special.

If ethics win, the next five months could be hell.

A tough choice for some.

Apparently not for UCLA.

The rarity of an ethics victory could be seen in the confused faces of UCLA students who crowded outside the conference room where Young and Dalis made their announcement.

These sons and daughters of ESPN obviously had never seen the horse returned to its rightful position in front of the cart.

Said Dalis: "It will cause some damage, I am sure."

Said Young: "But not as much damage as having not acted."

Nothing more important was said all afternoon.

Speaking later from a lawyer's office, looking drained, Harrick said he thought two people from the athletic department had been waiting to ambush him.

This is probably true. But this has nothing to do with Wednesday, when Young and Dalis torched the entire program.

If they wanted Harrick's head on principal, they could have had it last spring after his team suffered that embarrassing first-round NCAA loss to Princeton.

Harrick also intimated in his news conference that he is considering a lawsuit. Either UCLA is not worried about this, or it is receiving the worst legal advice in the Western world.

For nearly an hour in front of opened-mouth media, including Harrick's many television sycophants, Young and Dalis held not a news conference, but a public hanging.

They did everything but call Harrick a liar and a cheat, coldly ripping him for being "unethical" and an "inconsistent" role model.

A tad confident in their case, aren't they?

Not that anyone was acting cocky about anything Wednesday, with everyone dressed in sad.

When asked if he thought his former coach had been set up, Ed O'Bannon said, "That's the way it looks right now. They took his job for a small infraction. I've talked to friends around the country, and things like that [recruiting dinner violation] happen in a number of universities."

When asked about replacing his former mentor, Steve Lavin said, "It is awkward. Very awkward."

While lawyer Bob Tanenbaum sat at Harrick's side talking about "witch hunts," Harrick seemed to shrink inside his gray suit.

"It hurts," he said after denying all but the lie. "It hurts deeply."

Understandably, considering he had completed eight years of service without one stubbed toe.

Eight years of rebuilding the program, filling the seats, representing the university with class, winning a national championship.

"And to throw it all away on a meal?" Harrick asked. "And I want to tell you, that's all there is, is that meal."

If only it were that simple. If only this country were not so desperately in need of a university official to stand up to a fire-breathing extracurricular activity and say, "Enough."

That's what this is really all about, you know.

A university employee running an extracurricular activity who was fired because he could no longer be trusted.

In losing some reputation and stature Wednesday, UCLA regained a tiny bit of its soul.

When the turbulence finally died at midafternoon, a weepy radio announcer blurted out over the air that, "Chancellor Young has decided that academics is more important than athletics."

Since when did that become something bad?

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