Plenty of times, Nordquist says, he would show up at the basketball office at five a.m. to do the players' course work. "When Neil and Gar got to the office, they'd sort of wink and say, 'How's it going?' " ("Chris knows that's not true," responds McCarthy. "If I had known about any of this, it wouldn't have happened.")
Nordquist knew full well that his conduct could have dire consequences. But when you're young and trying to break into coaching, he says, the lines between right and wrong can be tinged in gray. "Once I complained [to Forman about the cheating], and he said, 'We have the names of 70 guys who would take your job in a heartbeat.' When you're in that position, there are a lot of psychological [pressures]. I feel like I had a choice, yet I didn't have a choice.' " (For his part, Forman denies Nordquist's account. "We have statements from every player involved, and not a single one implicates Gar in the cheating," says Jim Darnell, Forman's lawyer.)
At first, anyway, Nordquist's work paid off for the program, which came to be regarded as a transfer's best friend. New Mexico State catapulted into the big time with a roster that included 34 junior college players within one six-year period. Despite little basketball tradition to speak of, the Aggies won 122 games in five seasons and reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament in '92. But in the spring of '95 the NCAA opened an investigation into New Mexico State's participation in the credit-manufacturing scam at SCAG. Unaccompanied by a lawyer—"At $16,000 a year, I couldn't afford one," he says—Nordquist went before the NCAA Committee on Infractions and, as he puts it, "came clean." He testified that at his superiors' behest he had forged signatures, provided answers for exams and done course work for players. "Basically I did some really screwed up stuff," he says. "But I told them the truth: that I was following orders."
Nordquist expected to be sanctioned for his role, but he was shocked when the NCAA revealed its findings in July 1996. New Mexico State was hit with a three-year probation and Nordquist received a five-year "show cause" penalty—one of the most severe sanctions a college coach can incur—meaning that, effectively, no program could hire him for five years without the NCAA's approval. Forman got a three-year show-cause penalty for violating the principles of institutional control. McCarthy, the head coach, received a letter of reprimand but was otherwise cleared. "My faith was totally shaken," says Nordquist. "It was unbelievable that they would try and nail all of this on me."
Forman was similarly incredulous. Stating that the university was "trying to build a Chinese wall between [McCarthy] and reality," his lawyer, Darnell, said that his client was being served up as New Mexico State's scapegoat. Having moved on to an assistant's job at Iowa State, where he was at first prohibited from recruiting off-campus, Forman appealed the ruling. In July 1996 he was cleared when the NCAA agreed with his argument that assistant coaches cannot be held responsible for exercising institutional control. "Gar Forman walked away with a clean bill of health," says Darnell. "His name was removed from the violations report."
McCarthy ended up having a bitter split with the university over the academic performance of his players. Earlier this year he settled a contract dispute with the school for $835,000. While he is no longer in coaching, there was no finding from the NCAA that prevents him from taking another job.
So, in essence, one of the biggest academic fraud scandals in NCAA history was pinned on Nordquist, then a twentysomething restricted-earnings lackey who ranked fourth on the team's hierarchy of coaches. "It's just ludicrous to think I was acting alone," says Nordquist. "I think when the other coaches went before the committee, they testified that the entire scheme was my idea. But you don't have to be familiar with the ins and outs of college basketball to know that restricted-earnings coaches just can't go over their superiors' heads like that. There's not a head coach in the country who doesn't take a strong interest in the status of his recruiting class and the players' eligibility."
Over and over, head coaches, a species notorious for their tendency to micromanage, claim that they were oblivious to the unethical conduct of rogue assistants. Granted, some assistants can be so besotted with ambition, or so beset with pressure, that they break the rules on their own. For example, in 1998 former Alabama assistant Tyrone Beaman was found guilty by the NCAA of having asked two boosters to send $5,000 to the high school coach of recruit Antonio Falu, and all evidence from the investigation indicated that he had indeed acted alone. Beaman received a four-year show-cause penalty and is now out of basketball.
Invariably, though, when the NCAA investigates a program, the men supposedly in charge beat a hasty retreat and plead ignorance. Those on the inside say this lack of knowledge is simply not plausible. "It's like the chain of command in the Army—everyone's accountable to somebody," says Kenny (Eggman) Williamson, a longtime assistant at Florida State who is now a scout for the New York Knicks. "Unless you're a total renegade, someone else knows what you're doing. There are too many checks and balances. Then something happens, and, all of a sudden, nobody recalls anything. The head coaches say they don't know, but, believe me, they know. And if they don't, what kind of [institutional] control do they have over their program?"
Take Denny Crum, Louisville's coach since 1971. Crum is compensated as if he were the CEO of a multimillion-dollar operation, which, one could argue, he is. His base salary of $353,702 is laden with additional incentives, including guarantees of $25,000 if his recruiting class is ranked in the Top 25 in the country, $45,000 for reaching the Sweet 16, and $25,000 if his players simply earn a 2.5 (a solid C) grade point average. Crum also recently cashed a $1 million annuity that he earned by completing a 10-year contract. Yet he hardly bears an executive's burden of accountability. In the past five years the university has racked up more than $500,000 in legal bills defending Crum's program from NCAA investigations that twice resulted in probation. Through all the turmoil the man running the team has remained blissfully cocooned from the violations, which included improperly furnishing a vehicle to former center Samaki Walker and improper assistance to forward Nate Johnson's father. Last February, when Louisville successfully appealed the NCAA's "repeat violator" ruling that would have banned the Cardinals from the postseason, Crum expressed indifference. "Personally, I was never involved with the violations, nor was I charged, so I don't feel vindication in that regard."