With the NCAA men's basketball tournament just weeks away, accusations of rules violations at a handful of schools are threatening to taint the game's biggest showcase.
The latest blow came yesterday, when St. Bonaventure, after forfeiting six games because the school president admitted a transfer whose chief academic accomplishment in junior college was a certificate in welding, announced its players had voted to refuse to play two remaining regular season games.
Within the past week, a former player at Georgia accused the son of Coach Jim Harrick of giving him money and committing academic fraud. The former player, Tony Cole, has asserted that the elder Harrick knew about the activities of assistant coach Jim Harrick Jr., who was suspended with pay by the school last week. Days later, Rhode Island announced it was investigating allegations that coaches changed players' grades and gave them cash while the Harricks worked there.
A stoic Jim Harrick appeared on ESPN last night to deny the allegations.
Fresno State announced Monday that it had confirmed a Fresno Bee report alleging academic fraud under former coach Jerry Tarkanian. The school said it will not accept an invitation to play in the NCAA tournament, and last night the Western Athletic Conference ruled the Bulldogs (20-6) will not be allowed to play in its postseason tournament.
All of this comes in a season in which Michigan's on-court resurgence -- which would have been a feel-good story under second-year coach Tommy Amaker -- rings somewhat hollow because the school has surrendered its postseason eligibility as part of its self-imposed punishment following a lengthy investigation that uncovered a score of violations involving former Wolverines star Chris Webber and other members of the so-called "Fab Five."
Cheating was supposed to be on the decline in college sports since the NCAA began focusing on reforming recruiting, academic and benefits' rules more than a decade ago. Part of the plan to improve policing of athletic departments was to shift power from athletic directors to university presidents, who theoretically would have a clearer sense of perspective in balancing athletics and academics.
The recent allegations raise questions about why the school presidents at Georgia, Rhode Island and Fresno State would hire Harrick and Tarkanian, both of whom have been the subject of numerous investigations of possible NCAA rules violations.
"As an institution you feel an awful lot of pressure to produce winning teams," said John Gerdy, a former SEC associate commissioner for compliance and author of "Sports: The All-American Addiction." "Given [Harrick's] record, or at least the reports . . . I would certainly think those accusations and the resulting actions of the universities regarding the coach would certainly raise a red flag."
Before his two-year stint at Rhode Island, Harrick was forced out at UCLA, Chancellor Charles A. Young said, for committing a recruiting violation, for apparently trying to cover up that violation in an expense report, for lying about it to then-athletic director Peter T. Dalis and for encouraging another member of the program to mislead school officials about the violation.
Harrick, who did not respond to interview requests by The Washington Post, told ESPN's Dick Vitale, who described himself as Harrick's longtime friend: "I've been in this business for 30 years and you don't survive by doing people's [classwork] for them. It's all going to come out. . . . I have nothing to hide."
Rhode Island hired Harrick in May 1997. At a news conference to introduce Harrick, Rhode Island President Robert Carothers talked of the importance of giving people second chances. "[Second chances are] something we believe in as a people," Carothers told the Providence Journal-Bulletin. "We wish it for others as we hope for it ourselves."
Harrick led the Bruins to an NCAA championship in 1995. Under Harrick's stewardship, Rhode Island won 45 games in two years, made it to the NCAA tournament's round of eight and built a $50 million basketball arena.
But since Harrick left Rhode Island four years ago, the school has paid $45,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by a former secretary in the athletic department. And state auditors have accused Jim Harrick Jr. of turning in "bogus expense accounts," according to Mike Ballweg, a Rhode Island assistant athletic director.
Cole said he received a passing grade without ever attending a class taught by Harrick Jr. called "Coaching Principles and Strategies of Basketball." The elder Harrick said attendance records show Cole was in the class, and that other athletes will back it up.
As for Tarkanian, he has been investigated by the NCAA so often that the coach who led the University of Nevada-Las Vegas to the 1990 national championship has accused the organization of targeting him. He pursued a legal case against the NCAA for seven years before agreeing to settle in 1998. The NCAA had looked into Fresno State's program for more than two years when the Fresno Bee reported last month that a former team statistician admitted to writing papers for players.
Although school administrators and coaches decided to support them, the St. Bonaventure players' decision not to play the remaining games at Massachusetts today and at home against Dayton on Saturday drew the ire of U-Mass. and the Atlantic 10.
"It's . . . really an unprecedented set of circumstances that they're dealing with right now," U-Mass. Athletic Director Ian McCaw said. "It's certainly regrettable, but we'll move on."
On Monday, St. Bonaventure President Robert Wickenheiser took responsibility for approving the transfer of Jamil Terrell from Coastal Georgia Community College in Brunswick, Ga., even though Terrell's certificate in welding did not satisfy the NCAA's core curriculum requirements for junior college transfers, who must have minimum credits in core areas such as English, history and science. Terrell appeared in 25 games, starting 18, before he was declared ineligible last week.
Also banned from the conference's postseason tournament, those players decided to walk away.
"I don't want to put blame on anybody because I don't have all the facts yet," senior co-captain Patricio Prato said yesterday morning.
"This is sad. It stinks, but there's nothing I can do about it. It's out of my hands."