The term March Madness has taken on a whole new meaning this month.
Three major college basketball programs will not be playing in their conference tournaments this week or in any kind of postseason play. The latest to join that list is Georgia, which yesterday suspended Coach Jim Harrick (with pay, clearly for legal reasons) and announced that its basketball team won't play in this week's Southeastern Conference tournament or next week's NCAA tournament (to which it was sure to be invited). Georgia joins Fresno State and St. Bonaventure on the outside looking in while their conference titles are being decided.
Is there a common thread in these seedy tales? You bet. In each one, the school president was right smack in the middle of the whole mess. If there is anyone out there who still believes that presidential involvement is the key to fixing college athletics, please send $100,000 to this address and you will receive in return tapes of both Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny in action.
When Georgia was looking for a basketball coach four years ago, Athletic Director Vince Dooley was focused on two promising young coaches, Mike Brey and Buzz Peterson. School president Michael Adams, a member of the vaunted Knight Commission in 1991, an alleged reformer, had a better idea: Jim Harrick, the same Jim Harrick who was fired by UCLA less than two years after winning a national championship for lying on an expense account; the same Jim Harrick who left behind a trail of tears -- and ongoing investigations -- at Rhode Island.
Last week when ex-Georgia player Tony Cole came forward with his accusations of misdeeds on the part of Harrick and his son, Jim Harrick Jr., Adams was apparently shocked -- shocked -- to learn misdeeding was going on. He said he had talked to Harrick before hiring him and told him that all those problems he had at UCLA and Rhode Island had better be behind him; that there had better not be any shenanigans at Georgia. Harrick, he said, assured him there wouldn't be.
And it don't rain in Indianapolis in the summer time.
Then there's the case of Fresno State, where the school is investigating academic fraud that took place during the regime of coach Jerry Tarkanian. Another stunner. Tark has often been confused for Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski when it comes to the recruitment of student-athletes. Last week school president John D. Welty said that hiring Tarkanian, "seemed like a good idea at the time."
The same can be said of New Coke.
And then there is St. Bonaventure, college basketball's Watergate -- everyone is guilty, right up to the president, who ended up resigning in the wake of the scandal. Rather than following the money, in this case, one need only follow the welding certificate.
It was bad enough that school president Robert J. Wickenheiser overruled his compliance officer and allowed Jamil Terrell into school and onto the basketball team. It is amazing that, 25 games into the season, it occurred to Wickenheiser that he might need to check with the NCAA to see whether having someone with a junior college welding certificate on his basketball team was a problem.
But the single most stunning thing in the whole sordid affair was the reaction of the school's alleged leaders to the players' decision to forfeit their final two regular season games after learning they would not be allowed to play in the Atlantic 10 tournament.
They said, okay, fine with us, enjoy spring break.
One can understand the players' anger and frustration. They were let down by Coach Jan Van Breda Kolff, by the athletic department and, perhaps most of all, by Wickenheiser. But someone needed to step in and say, "Hey, guys, you're right to be upset. We've let you down horribly. But you don't quit. You owe it to yourselves, to everyone else connected to your school and to your opponents to show up and play."
No one said that, setting up the school as a symbol of poor judgment run amok and as a bunch of quitters.
Of course there's no guarantee the NCAA will step in and do the right thing in any of these cases. Tarkanian best summed up the NCAA's approach to justice 14 years ago, after a package from the Kentucky basketball office to the father of a recruit popped open and $10,000 fell out. "The NCAA is so mad at Kentucky," Tarkanian said, "that it's going to put Cleveland State on probation for three more years."
All of which brings us to the case of Andrew Pleick. Unless lightning -- or, even less likely, common sense -- strikes, Pleick played his last game for Lafayette on Sunday in the Patriot League semifinals. He will graduate this spring with a degree in government and law. But Pleick wants to double up on his major, continue to pay $15,000 in tuition at Lafayette (the school has no athletic scholarships) and play one more season with the other four starters on this year's team -- all juniors.
The NCAA says he can't do it, even though he sat out a season after transferring from Drake to Lafayette two years ago. The reason Pleick won't get to play next season? One exhibition game, specifically 19 minutes that he played in an exhibition game in fall 2000 before transferring. NCAA rule 126.96.36.199 says that any transfer student who plays in any game -- exhibition or regular season -- loses a year of eligibility. Clearly, Pleick did play in a game.
But that's where the story gets murky. According to Pleick, he had a lengthy meeting with Drake Coach Kurt Kanaskie before the exhibition game to discuss his future.
"When they recruited me, they talked a lot about academics," he said. "I liked that. My dad played at Notre Dame, and he always told me to go someplace where my degree would mean something. Then, I got there and they had recruited four junior college players who were shaky students. . . . I just didn't feel right there."
Pleick says Kanaskie urged him to play in the exhibition game to see if being in uniform and playing might fire him up. Pleick played the game and then learned soon after that four of his teammates were about to become academically ineligible. "I knew then," he said, "that I wanted out."
Under NCAA rules a transfer who has only played in an exhibition game can apply to have his fifth year reinstated if his former coach admits that the player was somehow misled or misunderstood the rule. When Kimberly Keenan Kirkpatrick, Lafayette's compliance officer, put together Pleick's appeal, she called Kanaskie to ask if he would write a letter to the NCAA explaining that he had encouraged Pleick to play in the game.
"He denied that the first meeting ever took place," Kirkpatrick said. "His memory of events and Andrew's are very different."
If Pleick had flunked out of Drake and then transferred, he would have a fifth year to play. If he had been thrown out of school for an off-court violation, he would have a fifth year to play. He did none of those things. He will graduate in four years without ever having been in anything resembling trouble.
"I've dealt with it emotionally," he said Saturday evening, shortly before his team's first tournament game. "I know my next game might be my last in college. . . . I've beaten myself up for not knowing what I was doing by playing, but my dad has told me not to do that. I was an innocent, and I made a mistake."
An innocent who made a mistake. That makes him about as different from the people making headlines in college basketball these days as you can possibly be. The NCAA review committee should give that some thought.
By allowing Pleick to play next year it would, in fact, be setting a precedent.
The precedent would be using common sense to do the right thing for a kid who embodies all the principles the NCAA so piously claims to stand for.
Sadly, the odds of that happening are probably about the same as St. Bonaventure's chances in the Atlantic 10 tournament.