NCAA’s Final Four celebration turns sour

John Feinstein
Columnist April 6, 2013

The NCAA has spent most of the past year relentlessly promoting this Final Four as a “celebration” of the men’s basketball tournament’s 75th anniversary.

There have been awards for the best tournament teams of all times, the 75 best NCAA tournament players have been named and there have been endless parties, marketing events and ceremonies honoring just about anyone who ever set foot on a basketball court during the event, which began in 1939 when the Final Four was held at Patten Gymnasium — capacity 1,000 — on the campus of Northwestern University.

John Feinstein is a sports columnist for The Washington Post and also provides commentary for the Golf Channel and National Public Radio. View Archive

The NCAA even arranged to play the Division II and Division II championship games here on Sunday afternoon to make the weekend a coming together of the entire college basketball world, from the power schools playing on Saturday night at the Georgia Dome — capacity 75,000 — to Amherst and Mary Hardin-Baylor, who will play the Division III championship game on Sunday.

Except that almost no one has been talking this week about the anniversary or Saturday night’s Final Four matchups: Louisville-Wichita State and Syracuse-Michigan.

They’re talking about the incompetence of everyone at Rutgers. They’re talking about former Pacific-12 supervisor of officials Ed Rush and his foot-dragging former boss, Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott. They’re talking about NCAA President Mark Emmert, and the USA Today story detailing his remarkable ability to dodge blame for mistakes and Emmert’s snarky, “I’m smarter than all of you because I say I’m smarter than all of you” news conference on Thursday. And they’re talking about a continuing story coming out of Auburn — the BCS champion in football two years ago — about payoffs and grade-fixing and hushed-up drug tests.

Wow, what a celebration! Cue the dogs and the ponies, please.

The coach that everyone here has been talking about all week isn’t Louisville Coach Rick Pitino, who will be formally announced as a Hall of Fame inductee on Monday, or even Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, his former boss, who is already in the Hall of Fame.

The honor — so to speak — as the coach-of-the-moment belongs to Mike Rice, who may never coach again after the video that was released earlier this week showing him verbally and physically abusing his players at Rutgers in a manner that shocked even coaches known for legendary intensity on the practice court.

“Don’t tell me that’s ‘old school,’ or ‘a lot of guys motivate that way,’ ” said Jim Calhoun, who won three national titles at Connecticut and was known to raise his voice on occasion. “I watched that tape for 30 seconds and I was shocked. I think we all were. That’s not coaching.”

Rice was fired on Wednesday — not because anyone at Rutgers had a sudden attack of conscience but because the public release of the tape made it impossible not to fire him. Rutgers Athletic Director Tim Pernetti, who has changed his version of the story more often than a golfer changes clubs in a high wind, said at the time that he had consulted with school President Robert L. Barchi back in December before deciding to only suspend Rice for three games for his actions.

After Pernetti “resigned” on Friday, Barchi held a news conference in which he actually said that he hadn’t looked at the tape of Rice when Pernetti first told him about it back in December because he was just too busy. In hindsight, Barchi said, he should have looked at the tape, but when he did finally look at it on Tuesday, it wasn’t that different than what Pernetti had described to him.

And he thought a three-game suspension was enough? Seriously?

Of course, Barchi came off as John F. Kennedy compared with Emmert’s performance on Thursday. After conducting a 20-minute filibuster congratulating himself on the great job he has done the last two years, Emmert turned snippy the instant he was asked any questions at all about the NCAA’s botched Miami investigation; his handling of the Penn State tragedy; the Auburn story; and the USA Today story. He pleaded ignorance on the Rutgers situation, which was, without question, the most honest thing he said all day.

As he walked off the podium, Emmert looked at one reporter who has been critical of him and said: “Thanks for the career advice. I know you’re disappointed but I’m still here.”

Emmert being catty shouldn’t be surprising. He does appear to have nine lives thanks to the remarkable arrogance of his fellow presidents who continue to think they are the smartest guys in any room. Here’s a list of some of those smart guys: Ohio State President Gordon “I hope Jim Tressel doesn’t fire me” Gee; former Penn State President Graham Spanier, who faces charges of obstruction of justice in the Jerry Sandusky debacle; and, most recently, Robert “don’t show me the tape, I’m busy” Barchi.

Not to mention Emmert, who hired Julie Roe Lach to run the enforcement division of the NCAA and then threw her overboard after the Miami investigation, likening her mistakes to those of an “assistant coach” when asked why he shouldn’t be held responsible.

And then there was Rush, who “joked” to six of his officials during the Pac-12 tournament that he would give any one of them $5,000 or a trip to Cancun if they found a reason to give Arizona Coach Sean Miller a technical foul or eject him. In a remarkable coincidence, Miller, who hadn’t received a single technical foul all season, got teed up at a critical juncture in a semifinal game against UCLA.

Oh, but it was just a joke, Rush and Scott insisted when the story broke. Apparently, the two of them were the only ones who saw any humor in it. After two days of Scott insisting Rush didn’t have to be fired, Rush “resigned” much the same way Pernetti — and Richard Nixon once upon a time — “resigned.”

Against this backdrop, fans of the Final Four teams have streamed into Atlanta. No doubt they are all focused on whether their school can win a national championship.

But even among the four survivors, the picture hasn’t been pretty. The story of Kevin Ware, the Louisville guard who broke his leg in a horrible accident last Sunday in the region final against Duke, appeared to be an inspiring one in the aftermath of the Cardinals’ resounding victory that day.

As he was being carried off the court, Ware courageously told Pitino to tell his teammates to win the game. The players managed to push the sights and sounds of his injury out of their minds to win the game and dedicate that victory to him.

This was a story worthy of cheers, except that it, too, turned sordid when Louisville began to sell T-shirts with Ware’s number on it, “honoring” him. The money, the school said, would go to its scholarship fund. In other words, it would go to Louisville — not to a real charity and certainly not to Ware because that would be a violation — of course — of NCAA rules.

Finally, at a few minutes after 6 p.m. local time on Saturday, they started playing basketball.

It was, to say the least, a welcome relief.

For more by John Feinstein, go to www.washingtonpost.com/feinstein.

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