TGS SPECIAL REPORT...UNC'S GET-OUT-OF-JAIL-FREE CARD--PART II
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
“The NCAA is so mad at Kentucky, it put Cleveland State on probation.” – Jerry Tarkanian
We suppose that any time the NCAA’s enforcement policies come under review, the preceding Jerry Tarkanian quote from the ‘80s is likely to be repeated. As it has been several times in the two weeks since the governing body ruled in favor of North Carolina in the well-publicized Chapel Hill academic fraud case, chronicled in detail last week on these pages in Part I of this feature.
What continues to intrigue us, however, is how the anger at the NCAA (and North Carolina) has hardly subsided since mid-October. On our numerous radio show guest spots over the past week, Part I of “Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free” remained a hot topic. And many national columnists continue to decry the ruling. Including Yahoo Sports’ Pat Forde, who penned one of many scathing indictments of the whole system.
“The North Carolina ruling,” said Forde, “was bound to infuriate people, no matter what the NCAA decided. It was a tricky, contentious case that did not neatly fit the association’s bulky rules manual. The intrigue was whether the COI (Committee on Infractions) could find a way around its own bylaw limitations to make a penalty stick, or let the Heels skate on a technicality.
“They skated. The ruling was immediately hated. And the NCAA’s impotence can no longer be debated.”
Various administrators also continued to be vexed. “It’s a bad case,” said Tom Yeager, former commissioner of the Colonial Athletic Association and a former chair of the COI. “The optics of the academic thing is very bad right on the heels of all this payment [scandal in basketball], which is really bad. Again, to the general public, it’s going to be a one-two punch on the credibility of college athletics. It’s going to be a challenge to help try and restore that credibility, if it’s restorable.”
Forde would also try to close the circle on the subject and make some sense of the whole mess. “This is not a Mark Emmert (NCAA president) problem, per se. It’s a systemic problem,” said Forde. “The profundity of this debacle falls less on the people directly involved in adjudicating this case than on the structure of the association itself. The rules themselves are the problem, not the application of them. The COI, led by SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, was handed a no-win task, and failed accordingly.”
All of this made the TGS staff think back several years when we penned one of our all-time favorite book reviews on these pages. Indeed, Murray Sperber’s timeless Onward to Victory, written in 1998, detailed a point in history during the early 1950s at which the colleges could have effectively decided to police themselves and their sports...but didn’t. The machinations involved make for a good read almost seven decades on, and suggest that while the names and faces change, the underlying problems involved with college athletics don’t.
Sperber’s book framed the context of the era by paying specific attention to Michigan State’s rather dramatic rise to athletic prominence after World War II, and the Spartans’ important (if somewhat unintended) role in shaping the direction of college athletics. And, eventually, some hard-to-ignore parallels to the recent North Carolina academic fraud scandal.
As Sperber meticulously noted, there was hard evidence that the Spartans had done some not-so-subtle skirting of the rules to rise to prominence. Along with football coach and eventual AD Clarence “Biggie” Munn, the other key figure in MSU’s rise was school president John Hannah, one of the most influential administrators of the ’40s and early ’50s. As Sperber noted, Sport Magazine put things into perspective regarding MSU’s ascendancy in this passage from a December, 1953, story.
“The ingredients of Michigan State’s rise from an ‘also-ran’ in the football picture to a top national power include an athletic-minded college president; an aggressive, free-spending football-conscious alumni group; a head coach who is a sound fundamentalist; a staff of assistants who are talented and persuasive “salesmen”; a liberal academic policy...”
John Hannah (left) was one of the first “Booster Presidents” who believed he could promote his school regionally and nationally through success in big-time college sports. Winning was the necessary formula, and to that end Hannah believed in looking the other direction when his coaches, alumni, and administrators broke the rules. The NCAA’s Walter Byers termed Hannah’s overall strategy “athletic bootstrapping,” and considered Hannah a forerunner to many like-minded university leaders.
Hannah, who was appointed to his MSU post in 1941, immediately set about implementing his athletics vision in East Lansing. He announced that “football is a college’s show window,” and his intentions, according to Byers, were to “climb from the status of an instructional school for tradesmen and farmers to a nationally respected university.” Athletics, and football in particular, would be his vehicle.
Hannah’s actions spoke as loud as his words, as soon after his MSU appointment he used a major bequest to the school to permanently fund a large number of athletic scholarships. And by raising the capacity of the school’s football stadium from 14,000 to 51,000 on his watch, the Spartans, campaigning as an independent in those days, were a natural choice to fill the void in the Big Ten left by the University of Chicago’s eventual departure.
Michigan State was not welcomed to the Big Ten with open arms, however. Conference commissioner Tug Wilson began to get many complaints and charges that “unearned aid” was being funneled to athletes through the off-campus Spartan Foundation. Cutting corners was an art perfected by many Big Ten (and other) schools in the post-war era, but MSU was cheating on a much larger and better-organized scale than the others. Wilson, urged by nearby Michigan, accused Spartan officials of making no attempt to regulate the out-of-control boosters. (Ed. Note: This would eventually come back to bite the Wolverines twenty years later when, in 1973, Big Ten athletic directors voted to send Woody Hayes’ Ohio State, and not Bo Schembechler’s Michigan, to the Rose Bowl after their memorable 10-10 draw had left both tied atop the conference...with Michigan State casting the deciding vote for the Buckeyes in what was considered as retribution for Ann Arbor’s attempt at blocking MSU’s Big Ten membership in the early ‘50s).
Parallels to present-day North Carolina can be compared to the approach of Hannah (his present-day statue at MSU, right), who, throughout the Big Ten investigation, took the stance that he could not be held responsible for an outside “slush fund” that was funneling money to athletes, a stance which subjected him to claims of hypocrisy. (Feel free to substitute UNC’s stance on its academic fraud to MSU’s stance on its long-ago slush fund if you wish.)
MSU was given warnings by the Big Ten to behave itself, but the team of Hannah and Munn had perfected the art of skirting the rules, creating a template for other schools to use in the future with well-heeled boosters and similar “athletic foundations” that were leading a dual existence while acting as slush funds for the players. (Again, substitute modern-day UNC and its disingenuous academic practices that have likely caused some schools to take notice and wonder why they can’t get away with something similar...just as schools replicated the MSU “slush fund” model).
As for Hannah, his new-found prominence thrust him in 1951 to the forefront of a committee formed by the American Council on Education (ACE)—consisting of ten prominent college presidents, including Notre Dame’s Father John Cavanaugh and Yale’s A. Whitney Griswold—of which Hannah would be the chairman. Reforming the college athletics scene to help rid it of cheats was one important function of the committee, but Hannah’s position of influence in the group acted as a barrier to real reform. Specifically, Hannah was able to cut off Cavanaugh’s attempts to use regional accreditation agencies to downgrade colleges that were caught usurping the rules in sports.
Many speculated upon Hannah’s reasons for betraying the ACE reform initiative. Truth be told, it basically came down to the fact that his Michigan State, for which he was still serving as president, could exist much more happily in the looser world of NCAA regulations than in an atmosphere of ACE reforms policed by the North Central Accrediting Agency, which in essence would be fitting the MSU athletics program and Spartan Foundation with a noose. The reforms eventually adopted by the NCAA only partially addressed the issues brought forth by ACE, creating a much watered-down version.
In retrospect, some of the ACE reforms seemed rather Draconian, among them no bowl games, and no spring football. But the bigger point was that ACE’s failed attempt at reform in the early ‘50s was one of the last chances college sports had to effectively police itself, as the growing influence of football made revisiting the original ACE proposal a moot point in subsequent years. Meanwhile, college sports scandals accelerated and continue to this day, which the NCAA remains powerless to curb.
One has to wonder if something as outrageous as the North Carolina academic fraud would ever have been able to exist, flourish, and eventually skate by punishments had college sports taken a different fork in the road more than a half-century before.
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