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THE FIRING LINE: HARRICK OUSTED AT UCLA | THE ATHLETIC
DIRECTOR

Dalis Dislikes Moral of the Story

Commentary: Relatively calm period is shattered by a little expense report and accompanying lies from basketball coach.

November 07, 1996|BILL DWYRE | TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

You are Peter T. Dalis, athletic director at UCLA, and you finally had a few peaceful, quiet days at your desk. There hadn't been many of those recently.

Your football team had been struggling a bit under a new coach, who replaced the league's winningest coach, who had started a new career in network TV. Your sophomore quarterback had been performing like a freshman and a senior, sometimes on the same play.

And your basketball coach, only 19 months after winning a national championship, had been under heavy scrutiny in the press. A used Chevrolet Blazer, registered in his name but driven by his son, was sold by his son to the sister of a top recruit. The sale was two days after the recruit committed orally to UCLA. The recruit was driving the car with your basketball coach's vanity plates still in place.

Your basketball coach knew about that rather suspect transaction for two weeks before you found out. And you found out, not from your basketball coach, but from a newspaper reporter.

Well, that was worth two weeks of gray hair and more wrinkles until the Pac-10 people, who had come in and investigated, said they found no wrongdoing.

So you had a news conference Oct. 21, said all the right things about how you knew all along this would be no problem. And through it all, you kept the basketball coach fairly well muzzled because you were a nervous wreck over what he might say, given some of those little nudges by the press and given his penchant for breaches of diplomacy.

You had done your job, earned your money by keeping the lid on the loose cannon. And as these things tend to do, the controversy drifted away, to be replaced by other stories in other places. For the moment, Blazergate, as the media started to call it, had been put to rest.

You were relishing this peace and quiet, even though you were still troubled by the recent basketball situation and, despite your public pronouncements, you wondered like everybody else about some of the inconsistencies and strange coincidences of this car deal.

And now, something else was bothering you, something that came across your desk the week before, Oct. 15, that had the wrinkles forming again. It was an expense report from the basketball coach, for a dinner for some recruits held Oct. 11, only three days after the newspaper story hit of the car deal. Some of the numbers jumped off the page.

Later, you would tell a reporter that the Blazer thing "had to be a factor" in taking a longer look at the expense report. And you had added, "Something like that obviously influences how you view the current environment under which the program is being conducted."

The longer the expense report was scrutinized, and the parties involved were questioned and re-questioned, the tighter the knot formed in your stomach.

Soon, the conclusion was reached that the basketball coach had not only perpetrated a rules violation, but repeatedly lied about it. That left you dazed with the knowledge of what was ahead.

You had been part of UCLA since 1955, graduated from the school in 1959 and had been the athletic director since 1983. You bleed Bruin blue, even though you aren't Tommy Lasorda vocal about it. Under your leadership at UCLA, the school has won 27 NCAA championships, numerous conference titles and been in prestigious bowl games consistently.

But perhaps the biggest moment was the 1995 NCAA basketball title, directed by the same basketball coach you, in concert with Chancellor Charles E. Young, were about to fire.

You and Chancellor Young perceived that the issue here was one of ethics and morality. You told a reporter later: "The message is clear, and it is substantial. This says that the consequences of your actions are key in your life."

You tried to get people to understand that the lies for the purposes of a cover-up, more than the action itself, was the issue. But even as you heard yourself saying that, you understood that the issues of ethics and morality were usually lost on the guy at the corner bar, rooting feverishly for your team to not only win, but cover the point spread.

You also had little choice but to elevate a very young assistant coach as the interim leader--it was the day before your intrasquad game and two weeks before your opener against Tulsa in the Preseason NIT--and cross your fingers.

You also knew that, for the third time in your career as athletic director at UCLA, you were really on the spot. You told the reporter that "the enormity of hiring the right person" was already weighing on you.

When you hired the basketball coach in 1988, he was not the first choice. More like an easy one, in the minds of many alumni and backers, because he was right down the road at Pepperdine, running a nice little Division I program with minimal national profile. Certainly not a UCLA-like profile.

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