At some juncture in the Byrd Stadium press box Monday night, Kevin Anderson will shake hands with his counterpart, current Miami Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst, and think, understandably, I am so glad I’m not you right now.
Miami meets Maryland in College Park sans eight Hurricane players, of course. They were suspended pending further investigation into their relationship with a white collar felon/booster who claims he paid or gave illegal benefits worth about $2 million to players and coaches between 2002 and 2010.
“One of the worst Sundays I’ve had recently is when the story broke about Miami,” Anderson says, adding that he turned on ESPN to watch back-to-back documentaries on “The U” and “Pony Excess” — which detailed renegade college football programs in the 1980s and 1990s.
“It was a sleepless night, because you start thinking about, ‘Are we making sure we’re doing this, and are we making sure we’re doing that, so we don’t end up there?’ It’s a fine line that you walk, because you could do everything right and there could still be something out there — you know, with 750 kids.”
All it takes is one cash-strapped linebacker plus one rogue booster to equal probation, and that’s it — career over.
I’ve been critical of Anderson several times in his first year on the job. Even he would admit he has not handled everything with the utmost aplomb since he inherited Debbie Yow’s old office and, uh, expenditures — including a coach-in-waiting deal that Anderson never liked.
Between Ralph Friedgen’s unseemly exit and the search for Gary Williams’s successor, Anderson has gotten more grief about whom he didn’t hire to coach football and men’s basketball at Maryland than deserved praise for plucking Randy Edsall out of Connecticut and Mark Turgeon out of Texas A&M.
At a time when every reporter or a “30 For 30” filmmaker is ready to make their bones on the next big-time college sports scandal, is it not a good thing to have someone overseeing Terrapin athletics who says “student-athlete” and means it?
For more proof of Anderson’s convictions, go back to May and a hotel room in Las Vegas off the Strip, where Anderson met with Sean Miller, Arizona’s coach, to see if he was the right man to replace Williams after 22 years. We heard the “chemistry” wasn’t great between the two men. Here’s what we didn’t hear:
Special admits. That’s a term for special admission to a university, a way for a coach to secure more talented players — most of whom are African American, from inner cities — without strictly conforming to exact NCAA standards. It’s what many successful coaches feel they need to compete against other schools that give talented, academically challenged kids a break that other student-athletes don’t receive. It’s what Miller wanted to coach at Maryland, according to two people familiar with the conversation.
Many coaches might have asked for the same. But it does show that Anderson is not complicit in anything under the table, because this is what he said:
Asked if he told Miller he could not promise him “special admits,” Anderson replied, “It’s not that I couldn’t promise him that, I wasn’t going to do that. I don’t know what they’re doing where he is but, you know, we’re not doing that.”
Yes, it’s hard in some ways for Anderson to get on a high horse. Especially when Maryland is paying four coaches a combined $6.3 million for football and basketball this season (the sum of deals for Edsall, Turgeon and the Friedgen-Williams buyouts) and can justify paying an assistant men’s basketball coach $300,000 while simultaneously looking to cut other sports because Maryland was so far in the red before he arrived.
But if the Comcast Center and Byrd Stadium are indeed cash registers to help pay for other programs and lure more paid tuitions to College Park — and like all big-time programs, they are — there also won’t be shortcuts on Anderson’s watch.
“I want to be able to go to bed at night and be able to sleep and get up and be able to look myself in the mirror,” Anderson said. “I’m not going to be a mercenary and I’m not going to just use these kids to benefit from winning and not have them be good people and good students. I’m really committed to that.”
“I feel you know you’re getting yourself into trouble. . . when you know you’re bringing marginal people in,” he added. “We’ve got a program to make academically challenged kids better. But if you’re bringing in kids that aren’t interested in academics, and kids that are borderline and sometimes not good citizens, that’s when you get in trouble.”
Within a year after taking the job, Anderson suddenly had to fill the two most important spots an athletic director has: the two coaches for the highest-revenue sports. As an AD’s problems go, it was all relative to the job. For solace, all Anderson has to do Monday is see his counterpart from Miami, wondering how many kids were paid and how many will never play for the university again.
“That’s not going to be us,” he says. “Well, wait. I can’t say, ‘Not.’
“I think Gene Smith is one of the best athletic directors in the country. . . and look what happened to Ohio State. So, you know, you can’t say, ‘Never.’ If it happened to him, it can happen to anyone. But we’re going to try our absolute best to make Maryland about good people, good students and good athletes. Anything else these days means trouble.”