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The Inside Track | SECOND THOUGHTS

Highest Places Can Bear Lowest Ideals Sometimes

March 10, 2003|Chris Dufresne

The next time you hear a university president squawk about the need for academic reform in athletics and the leadership having to "come from the top," think of these three presidents: John Welty, Michael Adams and Robert Wickenheiser.

Do not think of Mt. Rushmore.

Welty, Adams and Wickenheiser are the men who have presided over college basketball mudslides at Fresno State, Georgia and St. Bonaventure. Wickenheiser resigned Sunday.

No doubt, these men of letters vowed to "tirelessly move" to root out chicanery that has infiltrated their campuses, sullied reputations and led to NCAA investigations.

Anyone who is intellectually honest could conclude the person responsible in each case was ... the university president.

We have met the enemy and he is ... handing out diplomas in May?

Usually, in cases of NCAA skulduggery, we have to crawl down with the bag men, term-paper writers, fixers, auto plant workers with a fancy for Michigan athletics and assorted other dirtbags, miscreants and out-from-under-rock crawlers.

But unique in the cases involving Fresno State, Georgia and St. Bonaventure is that the trouble can be directly linked to men of high life, not low life.

We're talking school presidents, the noble guardians discharged to protect higher education.

One Division I athletic director this week howled at the irony and the hypocrisy of the recent spate of crazy basketball chronicles:

* Fresno State: Welty lowered the boom on the program after it was revealed a team statistician wrote exam papers for players who played for former coach Jerry Tarkanian.

The university has been on top of this situation well, ever since the Fresno Bee broke the story Feb. 9.

Welty acted fast and banned this year's Bulldog squad, regular-season champions of the Western Athletic Conference, from postseason play. None of the players had anything to do with the scandal, but anyone who knows the damage-control infraction business knows you penalize yourself first to show the NCAA you mean business, even if it means selling out the innocent.

Here's another reason Welty acted fast. The school is opening a new arena next season, the Save Mart Center, and Welty hopes his preemptive action will allow the team to start over with a "clean slate."

Welty took general responsibility this week but did not directly blame the man who took a chance on hiring Tarkanian in 1995, because the man who took a roll-of-the-dice chance was John Welty.

In 1995, Welty offered that the Tarkanian hire "provides the opportunity for Fresno State to reach a new level of achievement."

Never mind Tarkanian always traveled with his own NCAA baggage, he did win and he did help build the arena that opens next season.

* Georgia: Athletic Director Vince Dooley reportedly wanted to hire Spic and Span Mike Brey as the school's basketball coach four years ago but Adams, the school president, and Jim Harrick had been friends since their days together at Pepperdine.

We know which man won that power struggle.

Adams also helped the school circumvent anti-nepotism laws so Harrick could hire his son, Jim Jr., which everyone with a clue in basketball circles knew was trouble with a capital "T." One of the smartest things former UCLA athletic director Pete Dalis did was to keep Jim Jr. off pop's payroll.

Adams, gunning for the trifecta, then signed off on the ill-fated decision to allow Tony Cole into school despite the player's, um, somewhat complicated past.

Cole was kicked off the team last season and now has accused the program of numerous NCAA violations.

Harrick Jr. has been fired and Harrick Sr. could be on deck.

We're guessing none of this information will be included on Michael Adams' next resume.

Interestingly, Adams was a member of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a body of 28 high-minded thinkers that determined in a 2001 report the best way to clean up college athletics was to give more power to school presidents.

"It's somewhat embarrassing to me, given the leadership I've provided in those areas, to have to deal with this on my local campus," Adams said.

* St. Bonaventure: My Bonnies lied over the ocean, My Bonnies lied over the sea. The basketball team really wanted this kid, Jamil Terrell, out of Coastal Georgia Community College, even though the school's compliance department could have directed tarmac traffic with all the red-flag waving it did. Wickenheiser, the man who called the final shot, interceded to allow Terrell on campus to pursue his basketball and academic dreams.

See, the Bonnies really wanted this player, and so did the coach, and so did the coach's assistant, Kort Wickenheiser, the school president's son.

Turns out Terrell didn't really have a degree from Coastal Georgia, but did have in his backpack a certificate in welding, the school presumably thinking this might help Terrell bond with his teammates.

Wickenheiser attacked the crisis by ducking the press and spending the critical hours after the scandal broke on a fund-raising trip in the west -- what a check-writing-fest that must have been.

Anyway, the next time you hear a president squawk about academic reform in athletics, don't be afraid to lean toward your cynical side. Know that, at many big-time schools, money drives the machine, athletics is the machine and all the dirty details can be reconciled at the next convening of an academic commission.

On the plus side, once the NCAA furor blows over, your school might be clear to open a new arena with a "clean slate."

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