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DODGING A BULLET
Curry Kirkpatrick
May 29, 1989
Kentucky could have received the death penalty for basketball misdeeds; by cooperating, the Wildcats stayed their execution
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May 29, 1989

Dodging A Bullet

Kentucky could have received the death penalty for basketball misdeeds; by cooperating, the Wildcats stayed their execution

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Cheating is nothing new to the pages of Kentucky's basketball scrapbook. Adolph Rupp's 1952-53 team was nailed with what amounted to the NCAA's first death penalty—the Wildcats had to sit out the winter playing intrasquad exhibitions—because of payments to players, which came to light during an investigation into a point-shaving scandal involving several Wildcat players. The next year Kentucky came back with a vengeance, going 25-0 en route to a No. 1 ranking at the end of the regular season. But the Wildcats again didn't get to play in the NCAAs because of a rule—since revoked—that made the team's stars (Frank Ramsey, Lou Tsioropoulos and Hagan) ineligible for postseason play because they were graduate students. Steaming, Rupp swore that someday the NCAA would hand him another championship trophy, which it did after his Fiddlin' Five won the 1958 title in Louisville.

Rupp's problems weren't as much with the NCAA as with the changing times. He dragged his heels on using black players until near the end of his career, and that created grave difficulties for his successor, Joe B. Hall, who got the Kentucky job only after Rupp was taken kicking and screaming from office in 1972. But with the help of Leonard Hamilton, a black recruiter whom Hall hired in 1974, Kentucky extended its talent-pool base from the white, parochial Ohio Valley that Rupp had worked to the nation at large.

Hall's detractors say he was insecure in Rupp's shoes, and afraid of failure, and by 1976 he had other concerns as well. That year, the NCAA announced that the Wildcats' scholarships would be limited for two seasons because of recruiting violations. Still, Hall gave the fat Cat boosters among the horsemen and coal-mine operators in the commonwealth access to practices and the locker room, even at halftimes of games. That stopped in 1985, when Hall retired and Sutton, practically begging for the job—who can forget his declaration that he would "crawl to Lexington" from Arkansas to coach at the University of Kentucky?—replaced him. When Hamilton left to coach Oklahoma State in '86, the word was that Kentucky retained a toehold on big-city recruiting by replacing him with Casey, who had played for Hall between 1976 and '79.

If anyone can bring the Kentucky program under control, the soft-spoken Roselle, a Duke Ph.D. who rooted for Blue Devils Art Heyman and Jeff Mullins in the mid-1960s, can. Last week the NCAA went out of its way to praise him for conducting what amounted to a textbook investigation. Indeed, Roselle has emerged as a leader of the new breed of university presidents who are trying to keep big-time sports from compromising their schools' academic standings.

Roselle's predecessor at Lexington was Otis Singletary, who so loved Kentucky's sports teams that he was known by some faculty members as Doctor Jock. When Roselle, who had been the president of Virginia Tech, got the job in 1987, he said all he wanted from the athletic department was honesty and competence and that it be run in full compliance with NCAA and university regulations. Pointedly he said he wasn't too concerned about football coach Jerry Claiborne's losing record, as long as Claiborne's players maintained their excellent academic records. The football team recently won the College Football Association's annual academic achievement award for having the highest graduation rate among CFA schools.

Sutton claimed that he and Roselle were on the same page, but even as he spoke, he was recruiting classroom liabilities like Shawn Kemp of Elkhart, Ind., and Sean Woods of Indianapolis. Both were academically ineligible when they entered Kentucky last fall, and Kemp would leave school shortly thereafter, after having been found with gold jewelry that had been stolen from Sutton's son, Sean, who also played on the team. These developments came after Roselle had already expressed displeasure with Sutton's wooing of John Pittman, an academically marginal player from Rosenberg, Texas. Roselle made it clear after the Emery fiasco that he would let the chips fall where they might. The chips ultimately chased Sutton out of the job.

To many Wildcat fans, Roselle's attitude has been nothing short of treason. He has been accused of selling out Kentucky basketball to make a name for himself to land a prestigious job in the Ivy League. But Roselle has been politically astute enough to out-maneuver everybody.

His first step was to replace the popular Hagan, a fabled Wildcat basketball hero who, as athletic director, practiced benign neglect as well as he used to shoot his lovely hook. Pressuring Hagan to resign showed the NCAA good faith and, as Roselle told a reporter, "turned up the heat" on the coaches, who publicly were denying everything. By December, Roselle was certain Manuel had cheated on the entrance exam. Because Roselle considered that transgression to be so serious, he thought his own choices had been drastically reduced. Apparently, Sutton had to go. The only questions were when and how.

At the same time, Roselle virtually handpicked Newton to replace Hagan. After initially expressing no interest in the job, Newton, who was in his eighth season as Vandy's coach, listened to friends like Bob Knight, who convinced him that he had a unique opportunity to accomplish something important at his alma mater (he played for Rupp's 1951 championship team). Newton was impressed that Roselle had extended Claiborne's contract, despite the fact that the football team was coming off a third straight mediocre season.

Roselle didn't waver in his decision to replace Sutton, either, even when Sutton and his attorney, Terry McBrayer, resorted to a late-season attempt to rally support for Sutton. In the week before he resigned, Sutton sat in Roselle's living room and told him he would fight to the end. Two days after that meeting Roselle telephoned Sutton to tell him he had called an athletics board meeting to discuss Sutton's future. "And Eddie," Roselle said, "I've got the votes." After that call, on March 19, Sutton resigned on national television.

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