At Final Four, coaches' integrity and graduation rates will be swept under rug

By Leonard Shapiro
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Dick Vitale went off on a mini-rant Monday morning on ESPN radio, railing at the Lords of The Masters at Augusta National for scheduling Tiger Woods's pre-tournament press conference on the same Monday as the NCAA basketball championship game later that night.

Why draw attention away from college basketball's premier event, Vitale shouted into a totally defenseless microphone. Never mind that it was Woods, not Augusta National, who set the time and the date for his first extended session with reporters since his infamous car accident on Nov. 27 and subsequent revelations of serial marital infidelities by the No. 1 golfer in the world.

Vitale would be wise to stick to subjects he knows something about and perhaps direct his ire toward his own sport's seamier side very much on display since the start of the 2010 college season. Perhaps he'll recall that just this past December, for example, his fellow ESPN analyst, Hall of Fame coach Bob Knight, went off on the University of Kentucky's decision to hire John Calipari as its head coach.

Calipari was the head coach for programs at Massachusetts and Memphis that had their NCAA Final Four appearances vacated and penalties imposed for breaking the rules on his watch. Calipari was never sanctioned by the NCAA, obviously a sore point with Knight, who spoke out in a speech delivered at a fundraiser for the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.

"We've gotten into a situation over the years where integrity is really lacking and in a way I'm glad I'm not coaching," said Knight, with 902 career victories and his own rather checkered history of loutish tantrums and tirades that eventually cost him his job at Indiana. "You see we've got a coach at Kentucky that put two schools on probation and he's still coaching. I really don't understand that."

Since the start of March Madness, we have seen plenty of other examples exposing the slimy underbelly of college hoops, even if they've mostly been ignored during the NCAA tournament by network and cable broadcasters clearly far more focused on buzzer-beating shots, frantic finishes and major upsets and fans far more worried about the state of their brackets and their standings in the office pool.

Not much national broadcasting attention was paid to the events of March 19, when St. John's University in New York fired its basketball coach, Norm Roberts, by all accounts an honorable man who brought the program back from the abyss he inherited six years earlier and even got his young team into the NIT this season. In announcing the firing, the school's athletic director, Chris Monasch, conceded that while "Norm has restored integrity to our program," it all came down to not winning enough games.

The next day, the N.Y. Times quoted a New York City AAU basketball coach, Russell Smith, as saying Roberts and his staff had been too "laid back" in their local recruiting efforts. "You got to hustle here, bend some rules or do something," he said.

Kenny Wilcox, a junior college coach in Brooklyn, told the Times that St. John's was "naïve" in thinking it could get top players without breaking the rules. "If you know the business, there are certain schools that are getting certain types of players and certain schools that aren't," he said. "At St. John's, they're not getting certain types of players because they're doing things the right way."

The right way clearly was the wrong way for Roberts, and you have to wonder what sort of message his firing sent to the rest of the college basketball world, and particularly the Big East. Perhaps that cheating still pays?

That's a story we didn't hear much about on CBS or ESPN over the last few weeks. Nor was a whole lot of attention paid to the strong comments made earlier this month by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a former Harvard basketball player, on the subject of dismal graduation rates among some of the final 64 men's teams in the tournament.

Citing a recently released study by Dr. Richard Lapchick, a professor in the business school at the University of Central Florida and head of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, Duncan pointed out that one of every five teams in the men's tournament, a dozen in all, had graduation rates of 40 percent or lower according to the most recently available statistics. Five teams had a graduation rate of 20 per cent or lower among their African American players.

"Growing up as a kid on the south side of Chicago who loved basketball, I got to see the best that college sports has to offer and unfortunately, the worst," he said in remarks that accompanied the release of Lapchick's annual report. "I played with inner-city players who had been used and dumped by their universities. They had nothing to show for the victories and the revenues they brought to the schools."

Duncan proposed that any school that does not graduate at least 40 percent of its players be declared ineligible for postseason play. Among the dozen schools cited in Lapchick's report as being under 40 percent were Maryland, Kentucky and Tennessee. All four teams in the Final Four were above that 40 percent graduation benchmark -- Duke at 92 percent, Butler 90 percent Michigan State 58 percent and West Virginia 44 percent.

Then again, those numbers were compiled long before West Virginia Coach Bob Huggins arrived on campus in 2007, but his previous track record in 16 years at Cincinnati surely does not bode well for the Mountaineers' future graduation numbers. A total of 27 of the 95 players in his Cincinnati program -- 28 percent -- graduated from the school, and in four different seasons, the graduation rate was zero percent.

When the university bought out his contract in August 2005, university president Nancy Zimpher cited Huggins's "lack of character" among the reasons for its decision to let him go, and the school also indicated that 21 players over his tenure had "significant encounters with law enforcement," another factor in his dismissal.

How much of Huggins's sordid past do you think CBS is going to mention when West Virginia takes on Duke in the semifinals Saturday night? The guess here is that when it comes to Huggins, redemption will be the talking point, something we're already hearing on ESPN radio from host Mike Greenberg, who says he's going to be rooting for West Virginia to win it all this weekend.

Maybe this is a new, improved Bob Huggins. But it's far too soon to throw him a parade, even if his team does win on Monday night. Let's wait and see how many of the kids he's recruited actually graduate over the next three or four years. Stay tuned.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company