When a college athletic program finally gets near the peak of the mountain, the dangers of a great fall -- all the way from grace to disgrace -- actually increase. The higher you rise, the more closely everyone watches you for any possible ethics breach.
If you don't slip, if you don't break rules and bring the NCAA down on your head, you stay on top of the world. Winning breeds winning. A tradition of stars attracts more stars in a virtuous cycle.
But if you do blunder, or if those associated with the school step over the line, then you have the farthest to fall as well as the most enemies who would like to stick out their foot to help you trip.
The Maryland football and basketball teams are near the pinnacles of their sports these days, playing in classy bowl games and Final Fours the last two seasons. Yet, this week, each had a well-publicized scare. In both cases, the Maryland programs have done a good job of keeping their balance and doing the right thing.
But the moral of both stories is the same: Be careful out there. Especially after all these decades of waiting to reach such heights.
The cases are very different. Ralph Friedgen's football program might have some soul-searching to do. Gary Williams's basketball team merely got a scare by a minor NCAA rule violation. The problem was caused by an ex-Maryland athlete, not associated with the school, who has now been asked by the university to have no contact with any of its athletic programs.
"Obviously, this has not been the best week for us in the football program," said Friedgen on Wednesday after linebacker coach Rod Sharpless resigned in the midst of a school investigation of whether he allegedly paid a recruit $300 to $400 to entice him to play for Maryland.
"If and when mistakes are made, we are committed to fixing them and making sure they don't happen again," Friedgen said.
"As for the individual involved, he made a terrible mistake. I have known this person for over 25 years and he is a very good man. And he is going through some tough times right now."
So far, it appears Maryland's reaction appears to be correct. It has initiated its own investigation, apparently forced out the coach in question, broke off its recruiting of the star player and immediately informed the NCAA. This is all well and good. But the school still has to continue investigating to find out whether this is indeed the "isolated instance" that Friedgen claims.
"No coach can guarantee that every single person associated with the program will always act appropriately," Friedgen said.
"This incident is not representative of this program."
Apparently, other recruits agreed with Friedgen because on Wednesday, Maryland signed one of its best recruiting classes in years. However, 6-foot-6, 245-pound defensive end Victor Abiamiri from Baltimore, the kind of player with instant-impact talent that Maryland has often missed in the past, will not be among them. And he should have been. Two of Abiamiri's brothers play for Maryland. Sources say he was headed to College Park.
So why on earth would an assistant coach think that a few hundred dollars would make a difference? Or that such a handout would be worth such an incredible personal risk?
Assistant coaches often feel pressure to recruit stars for the units they coach. And if they don't produce, they may not keep their jobs. If you haven't landed a star in a while, what pressures do you feel? Does the head coach lessen, or increase, those pressures by the tone he sets in his program?
Ironically, the more successful a program, the easier recruiting becomes. So, the temptation to fudge around the edges, much less cheat blatantly ought to go down radically. But human nature doesn't always work that way. Sometimes, the pressure to get from 11-2 to 13-0 can be greater than the need to go from 7-6 to 9-4.
Maryland has retained a law firm to investigate. According to sources, no other wrongdoings in the football program have been found so far. By now, however, Maryland must be getting tired of hiring lawyers to ferret out the facts about its celebrity programs.
Last fall, Maryland hired the same law firm to find out what the heck was going on between freshman basketball player Travis Garrison and ex-Maryland athlete Mike Anderson. Anderson gave Garrison car rides and a free ticket, worth $75, to a Wizards game. Maybe that doesn't sound like much. But it's plenty if the NCAA gets wind of it before you find out and tell them about it.
In this case, Maryland reported the minor violations to the NCAA, and then sent a letter of disassociation to Anderson, asking him to stay away from Maryland athletics -- far away, preferably.
Garrison was declared ineligible until the NCAA agreed with Maryland that only secondary rules violations occurred. Garrison repaid the $75 and didn't even miss a game. Still, the incident shows how easy it is for a program, even a national championship team such as Maryland's, to have a problem and never know it.
Who constitutes a "booster?" Who represents a school? What are the motives of a gift giver, especially if he is an ex-football and basketball player at the school? In this case, Anderson had no connection to Maryland's program. But what other rockhead may be out there, thinking he's "helping" his old school?
On the surface, this has been an embarrassing week for Maryland, even though its violations appear to be minor. However, if you look deeper, it is actually heartening. Twice within a few months, Maryland has been presented with exactly the kind of "minor" breaches that schools and programs are most tempted to cover up. It's only $300. It's only a Wizards ticket.
That's how the problems start, how the ethos of bending the rules gets established. Instead, Maryland has hired law firms both times, opened its own investigations, informed the NCAA and taken its chances that honesty really is the best policy.
If an athletic department will turn itself inside out over one free ticket, that sends a message to everybody inside and outside its programs. Once you get on top, once the momentum of recruiting and winning finally gets on your side, playing it straight -- absolutely by the book -- is the only way to go.