During a four-year period when Barton County Community College had one of the nation's most successful junior college basketball programs, the winning formula was as unremarkable as the school's campus, a cluster of drab brick buildings surrounded by hay and corn fields. � Barton won because it had the most talent. � Coach Ryan Wolf recruited players from all over the nation to the 2,500-student school in Great Bend, Kans., 90 miles northwest of Wichita. He signed kids with academic troubles. He brought in players with checkered backgrounds. Barton became known as a way station for mercurial athletes like Ricky Clemons, Randy Pulley, Travis Robinson and Robert Whaley. � From 1999-2000 through '02-03, Wolf's teams went 111-25 and won two Western Division titles in the Jayhawk Conference, a league made up of 19 Kansas jucos. Sixteen of his players went on to Division I programs. But even as he was winning, Wolf was transforming Barton into what one of his peers called America's most "infamous" junior college program.
After a one-year federal investigation of Barton and Wolf, it is a label likely to stick. "Embezzle," "fraud," and "scheme" appear frequently in the 38-count indictment handed up by a Wichita grand jury in December. It alleges 34 counts of felonious criminal activity by Wolf. The most serious charges--two counts of bank fraud--together carry a maximum 30-year prison sentence.
The details from Wolf's indictment have passed through the juco ranks like celebrity gossip and will no doubt be a prime topic during the four-day Jayhawk Conference tournament, which will take place beginning on March 13 in Salina. Some Jayhawk coaches have called Wolf's actions an anomaly. Others say that Barton under Wolf was typical of the conference's frontier atmosphere. At the very least, the scandal has shed light on the unsavory and, some say, endemic practice of playing fast and loose with work-study programs for athletes.
No other coaches have been accused of wrongdoing, yet suspicions are being raised about their programs as well as the quid pro quo that exists between Division I assistants and juco coaches. "Right now, a lot of coaches are taking a look at their programs and realizing that they better make some changes fast," says Dave Campbell, who succeeded Wolf at Barton and has coached at three other junior colleges in a 26-year career. "If they don't, they know they could end up like [Wolf]."
Kansas is the heart of juco basketball. The NJCAA Division I Championships are held each March in Hutchinson--this season's five-day event will begin on March 22--and the Jayhawk is consistently among the strongest conferences in the country. Since 1992 a Jayhawk school has either won or finished second in the national tournament five times. NBA players Tony Allen and Lee Nailon (Butler County C.C.) and Reggie Evans (Coffeyville College) played in the conference.
The schools are situated mostly in rural communities where game night is a unifying event. At Fort Scott College games are held in a divided Quonset-shaped building: One side is a basketball court, the other a rodeo arena. The stench of cow manure covers the court like a Rick Pitino press, yet fans still go.
Players from around the nation are lured to Kansas because it is where juco basketball matters and because the schools do not require students to pass an exit exam to earn a degree. The Kansas jucos don't offer full athletic scholarships; their stipends cover tuition and the cost of books. Athletes are responsible for room and board, but coaches offset that expense with a combination of Pell Grants and money from the Federal Work-Study Program (WSP) or a campus-employment program.
One of the accusations against Wolf--a guard at Minnesota from 1991 to '95 who took over at Barton when he was 26--is that he abused those two federal programs. On federal student aid applications for three players, he allegedly wrote that each had earned a high school diploma or GED (a requirement for funding) when he knew they had not. According to the indictment Wolf also filled out time sheets for seven players so they could receive WSP funds, but he did not require the athletes to work. In two cases Wolf allegedly represented that a player worked 100 hours in an 11-day period. He also allegedly enrolled two players in classes and in the WSP when they weren't on campus, then deposited their WSP checks into his personal account. (The bank fraud charges stem from allegations that Wolf falsely endorsed the checks.) In all, Wolf is accused of defrauding the government and Barton of $122,213.
Wolf pleaded not guilty to all charges in a court appearance in Wichita on Jan. 6. Through his lawyer he declined to be interviewed for this story, citing rules limiting pretrial comments in a federal case. A court date is scheduled for April 5.
Wolf's alleged work-study abuses are the talk of the Jayhawk, in part because Barton officials have intimated that other schools are committing similar offenses. "One wonders if those sorts of things are happening elsewhere and are either buried or unknown," says Barton president Veldon Law.