Up until the very moment the bombshell hit, you could have searched the world of college athletics and not found a soul who seriously believed the NCAA would let Nevada-Las Vegas and its basketball coach, Jerry (the Shark) Tarkanian off the hook. After all, how could the NCAA back off after a fanatical, 13-year quest that made captain Ahab's little adventure seem like a day at the beach? After so many years and so much court-clogging litigation, the NCAA last July had finally been able to stick Tarkanian where it hurt most, by denying his splendid reigning national championship team the right to defend its title because of recruiting violations that occurred 13 years ago, when the current Runnin' Rebel players were barely out of diapers.
That penalty struck many observers as unfair to the players, but the NCAA only shrugged and pointed at Tarkanian for taking his case to court instead of taking his medicine those many years ago. But last Thursday, in what has to rank as the most shocking upset in college basketball history, the NCAA's Committee on Infractions announced that it had changed its mind about keeping the Rebels out of the 1991 tournament and was instead offering UNLV two options: 1) Tarkanian would be suspended from coaching during the '91 tournament and the Rebels would sit out the tournament in '92, or 2) UNLV would be banned from live television appearances in the '91-92 season and from the '92 tournament. School president Robert Maxson says Tarkanian, athletic director Dennis Finfrock and university lawyers needed "about 30 seconds" to select the second alternative.
When news of the NCAA's decision reached Maxson's office, fans standing in his reception area cheered, and Maxson said, "I give the NCAA [committee members] credit for their fairness when there's no question they knew other institutions would raise questions." Raise questions? Raise hell is more like it. Although some coaches and administrators agreed with UC Santa Barbara coach Jerry Pimm, who said, "It was good to see some compassion" from the NCAA's four-member infractions committee, many more accused the NCAA of hypocrisy, greed, inconsistency, unfairness and all-around weenieness, not to mention of applying a double standard.
The atmosphere was especially volatile at Kansas, Missouri, Florida, Kentucky, Illinois, Maryland, Houston and other schools that are currently on NCAA probation in either basketball or football for various rules violations, or have been on probation in the recent past. "I sure wish they'd given us a multiple-choice penalty," said angry Kansas coach Roy Williams, whose 1988-89 team wasn't allowed to defend its NCAA title because of transgressions committed under previous coach Larry Brown. Former Jayhawk guard Milt Newton called the NCAA "gutless and spineless." Newton, who is currently working on his master's degree at Kansas, says, "They tried to make an example out of us. Now, we're a wasted example." Added Missouri coach Norm Stewart, whose team was hit last month with two years' probation, including no tournament appearance this season, "It's a total farce."
The most popular theory about the infractions committee's unprecedented change of heart was that it simply caved in before the growing clamor against the NCAA. In six states—Nebraska, South Carolina, Missouri, Illinois, Florida and California—legislation has been introduced or at least discussed that would force the NCAA to drastically change the way it conducts its investigations, which have always been behind closed doors. In addition, U.S. Congressman Tom McMillen (D., Md.), deploring what he calls the NCAA's "school-yard-bully tactics," has enlisted the support of 31 colleagues for a bill that would require the NCAA to grant due process to individuals accused of wrongdoing.
However, Alan Williams, the University of Virginia history professor who is chairman of the infractions committee, denies that the members (the others are SEC commissioner Roy Kramer, Notre Dame head of student affairs Patricia O'Hara and Arizona State law professor Milton Schroeder) were intimidated by the politicians or by the threat of a lawsuit by some of the Vegas players. "That had nothing to do with it," says Williams, "except that [UNLV] feels, and a number of its players expressed, that they might well have gotten in the tournament anyway, by tying up the NCAA in court. But that didn't affect us one way or another."
Hmmmmm. Maybe not. But many observers believe that the NCAA has only opened up a can of worms and caused more problems for itself. Now every school that gets slapped with penalties can attempt to plea-bargain, citing the Vegas situation as a precedent. "I would anticipate that everyone might try it," says Williams, "but I would also anticipate that the committee would find no room to change penalties. It isn't a precedent-setter, because there's no other case like it, and there can be no other case like it."
There Williams has a point.
The NCAA's obsession with Tarkanian goes back to the early 1970s, when his program at Long Beach State was investigated. The Shark got out of town a step ahead of the posse, leaving his successor, Lute Olson, to endure the consequences-three years' probation for the 49ers. The NCAA bloodhounds followed Tarkanian to Las Vegas. In '77, after the Rebels had reached that year's Final Four, the NCAA found UNLV guilty of recruiting and organizational violations, and hit the Rebels with a stiff probation that kept them off TV and out of postseason play for two seasons, '77-78 and '78-79.
In addition—and this is the crux of the current row—the NCAA asked UNLV to show cause why the university shouldn't take appropriate disciplinary and corrective action against the head basketball coach, and the committee would determine if it was appropriate. The NCAA let it be known that it wanted the school to suspend Tarkanian for two seasons.