Archive for Tuesday, June 15, 1999

SATURDAY COLUMN

June 15, 1999

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What does it take to build and sustain a winning collegiate football and basketball program at an NCAA Division I school?

For the past several years, the University of Minnesota and its fans have reveled in the success of the school's basketball program. Their coach was lauded, and the school's former chancellor made it clear he wanted to see championship caliber performances by the school's other major sports.

Kansas football coach Glen Mason was hired to turn around the university's football program, and the current athletic director is engaged in a vigorous program to build a bigger and better physical plant to support the athletic program.

Now, however, members of the school's board of regents are trying to design a plan to buy out the contract of the basketball coach, and the school's academic reputation and respect has been tarnished. Morale among faculty members is poor and there is much embarrassment about what apparently has been going on among some university faculty members and athletes. There is question about how much was known about the athletic/academic cheating situation and left unchecked by the athletic director and other top university officials. And there are bound to be other ugly, embarrassing revelations in the weeks to come.

This past March, the St. Paul Pioneer Press carried a story quoting a former Minnesota academic counselor saying she had written 400 papers and reports for Gopher athletes. Since then, unsavory allegations have accelerated and -- in addition to the accusations of phony grades and academic cheating -- sexual harassment, racism and monetary payoffs have entered the picture.

The school's president Mark Yudof has promised a thorough investigation, and it is uncertain how deep the current probe will reach and how many jobs, careers and reputations may be at stake.

Again, the initial question: What does it take these days to build and sustain a winning collegiate athletic program at an NCAA Division I school?

Minnesota's Clem Haskins apparently decided the way to develop a championship team was to bring in outstanding players but players who were ill-prepared for collegiate academic requirements. These were young men who looked at school only as a means of getting into the professional basketball ranks. This called for fraudulent grades, overlooking certain personal conduct and perhaps illegal monetary payoffs.

It would seem the question of how to build a winning program starts at the very top of a university's hierarchy. A chancellor or president has to set a firm policy about how he expects his athletic director to perform. Also, what is meant by "winning"? Does this mean a program that consistently posts more wins than losses or a program that wins conference championships and post-season play with some regularity?

A winning program would seem to call for a strong athletic director with the power to enforce high standards on his coaches, regardless of the popularity of the coaches.

A winning program would seem to require coaches with proven credentials and high personal standards.

A winning program requires good athletes, and here is where the coach, with the understanding, approval and/or knowledge of the athletic director and even the school's president or chancellor sets standards on the types of players to be recruited. Should he recruit marginal high school players with a record of poor personal conduct, young men who could be looked upon as underachievers in high school but with intense help from tutors might be able to remain academically eligible, or does a coach limit his recruiting to those high school players who not only have excelled in athletic competition but who also have done well in the classroom?

One has to look somewhat skeptically at those football or basketball programs at major schools that undergo a relatively quick turn-around. This is particularly true in situations in which one or more key players on a team is known to have been denied admission to other schools because of his academic record. In such instances, it seems the school's president and athletic director would have to know something questionable is going on, but apparently they close their eyes and decide winning is more important than maintaining the school's academic integrity.

This raises the question of why some young men and women are enrolled in a university. It's thought they are there to obtain an education that will help them be more productive, successful and happy in their post-university careers and contribute more to society. Are they in school primarily to be an athlete, not a student, and try to become one of the relatively few college athletes who go on to highly paid professional sports?

There are bound to be occasional serious problems even when a coach, athletic director and chancellor/president tries to be on top of the student-athlete situation. A player can become involved in a bad personal matter or he can slip in his classwork. This can happen without the coach or AD knowing about it. A coach can tell his players what he expects, but there's always the chance some will ignore his admonitions.

On the other hand, it is difficult for a coach or AD to overlook continued bad personal conduct and poor classroom work.

What would the public reaction be if the Kansas University football or basketball program were to be involved in a mess as ugly as the one in Minnesota? Do KU officials and Jayhawk alumni and friends want a winning program so badly that they would tolerate cheating and other actions that reflect unfavorably on the school?

One faculty member at Ohio State University is quoted as saying, "The academic integrity of this university has become a joke." One of the school's athletes acknowledged, "not everyone comes to college to be in college." Ohio State officials and alumni and fans are terribly proud of their football team's winning record, but what price have they paid to achieve this record? The same questions could be asked about the basketball program at Minnesota.

It is hoped KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway, Athletic Director Bob Frederick and coaches Terry Allen and Roy Williams, along with all other Jayhawk coaches, will attempt to build and sustain winning programs on a framework of integrity at all levels of the student-athlete programs. Far better to build an athletic program modeled after those schools that stress academics, rather than those that justify winning at the sacrifice of honesty, high standards and personal accountability.

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