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THE Passing Game
L. Jon Wertheim
June 14, 1999
"Friendly faculty" looked the other way while Minnesota basketball players turned in 400 papers allegedly written for them by a university staffer
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June 14, 1999

The Passing Game

"Friendly faculty" looked the other way while Minnesota basketball players turned in 400 papers allegedly written for them by a university staffer

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That Minnesota gave Haskins oversight of his players' academic support system, however briefly, is startling given the players' long history of wretched performance in the classroom. Since Haskins took over the Gophers in 1986, only 23% of his players have gotten their degrees, by far the worst rate of any Big Ten basketball program during that period, according to a comparison by the Pioneer Press. Yet last season's team media guide declared, "Coach Haskins and his staff truly believe that the primary goal of the student-athlete is to achieve academic success."

Haskins has worked to help his players earn better grades, but his methods are open to question. One day in the winter term of 1992, instructor Jed Hopkins was teaching a class called Introduction to (College Writing when his assistant approached him and said someone important was waiting for him in the hallway. Whispered the assistant excitedly, "It's Clem Haskins!"

Hopkins, an Englishman, had never attended a college basketball game and had little clue as to why Haskins had come to speak with him. Haskins was in fact flouting an unwritten Minnesota rule against coaches trying to influence their players' professors. He had dropped by to discuss the plight of his star shooting guard, Voshon Lenard, who was failing Hopkins's course.

Hopkins says Lenard was woefully ill-prepared for college work—"Almost immediately I was worried about his level of literacy," he says—and he wasn't the only faculty member to harbor that view. A history professor told SI that when he asked Lenard during a class why George Washington was considered a founding father, Lenard looked up and responded, "George Washington...name sounds familiar. Can you give me a hint?" Lenard, now with the Miami Heat, says, "The professor said that? Man, that's messed up. I can't comment any further on that."

Hopkins nevertheless assured Haskins that he would try to do a better job of getting the clearly uninterested Lenard to participate in the class. A few days later he was surprised to find a thank-you note from Haskins with two tickets to a Gophers game enclosed. "At the time I didn't think there was any quid pro quo," says Hopkins. "My brother-in-law and I used the tickets."

After the encounter with Hopkins, Haskins approached Donahue. The two had long feuded over Donahue's reluctance to cut players much slack academically. According to Donahue, Haskins told her sternly, "Lenard is flunking English. What do I do? I go over, see the professor and talk to him. You see, he's British and doesn't know anything about basketball. I invite him to practice. I give him some tickets. That's how you do the job."

Though Hopkins says he ended up giving Lenard a failing grade, Haskins's behavior suggests that other professors had been more susceptible to his overtures. "When my bosses heard what happened, the first question they asked was whether I accepted a bribe from Clem Haskins," says Hopkins, who left the university in 1993 and now works for the Minneapolis school system. "They explained that he had a reputation for influencing assessment decisions."

Hopkins's direct supervisor at the time, Fred Amram, declined to talk to SI, but one faculty member who was present when Hopkins was questioned by his "bosses" confirmed Hopkins's account and said Haskins is known for trying to influence the grading of his players.

A number of sources at Minnesota said that Haskins has often injected racial politics into discussions of his players' academic treatment. On a college campus, being accused of racism can be tantamount to professional death, and Haskins and his staff have seemed keenly aware of this. "Clem always throws in race," says Donahue. "He did it almost from the get-go. 'If you don't do this, we'll know you're racist.' That was his trump card."

In 1995, when Latts questioned the provenance of a paper written by Mark Jones, a black basketball player, he mistakenly contacted Brian Berube, who once had been an academic counselor for basketball but had since become a counselor for football. Berube says that he and Latts had a brief phone conversation—Jones's name was never even mentioned—in which he told Latts to call the current academic counselor for basketball, Newby, Latts doesn't remember if he called Newby, but he did pass on his concerns to the academic staff at the General College, who in turn told Donahue. Latts subsequently decided not to pursue the matter further. In a memo to Donahue and others dated Aug. 2, 1995, Latts said that he was giving Jones a C-in the course; in the margin he handwrote a note to Donahue that concluded, "Didn't want to create a big deal."

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