Final Four marred by new UK, UConn probes

HOUSTON – It’s Final Four Saturday and to ring in the action there are two new media investigations into NCAA violations, this time at Kentucky and Connecticut, one half of the Bond, Schoeneck and King subregional here.

Jim Calhoun's program could find itself in hot water again if the NCAA looks into new allegations.
(Mark Humphrey/AP)

The New York Times said that the NCAA could potentially reopen the UConn major infractions case involving one-time recruit Nate Miles after Miles told the paper that Huskies coach Jim Calhoun “knew” of illegal payments from a booster, that he twice received improper help on standardized tests and characterized a number of Calhoun’s statements to the NCAA as “lies”.

Meanwhile, FoxSports.com is reporting a former Kentucky and Memphis basketball staffer, Bilal Bately, made illegal phone calls to recruits, including former Wildcat DeMarcus Cousins. In his job, Bately was not permitted to call recruits. He left the program in 2009.

While neither scandal is overwhelming in nature, together they represent more dings to an already banged up sport. The timing of their release serves as the latest drumbeat that college athletics are at a breaking point.

Already there are major allegations against the football programs of Auburn, Ohio State and Oregon, plus details of illegal activity and rampant fraud involving the BCS’s Fiesta Bowl. There was also this week’s report by ESPN that former LSU All-American Patrick Peterson was shopped as a high school recruit, which follows last fall’s case of Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton being shopped as a recruit. And it turns out Ohio State head football coach Jim Tressel knowingly used ineligible players for an entire season.

Now it’s more mud for UConn, which was already cited for eight major violations involving Miles, and more for Calhoun, who already must serve a three-game suspension next season for his actions. The program previously vacated its 1996 NCAA tournament for gifts from an agent to players.

And it’s more questions for a program run by UK coach John Calipari, who had his two previous trips to the Final Four (1996 at Massachusetts, 2008 at Memphis) vacated due to violations.

This is, in many ways, supposed to be the crowning weekend of college sports – its glamorous and popular men’s basketball tournament roaring to a conclusion. And with the inclusion of two underdog programs – Butler and VCU – there was a sense that a unique feel-good story could emerge.

Instead it’s more of the same – allegations and statements and denials and justifications. Everyone’s once again up in arms, trying to find a silver lining in another wave of dark clouds.

This is almost as bad as the BCS title game, which featured two schools now under investigation in a bowl run by a guy who may be headed for prison.

Yes, the quaint feeling of amateur athletics.

If you’re inclined, perhaps you watch Butler and VCU play and then turn off the television. The question is whether anyone in college athletics actually cares. There is little indication they do.

Cheating isn’t new; it just seems the curtain is being peeled back more often. This has always been an exercise in make-believe – everyone looking the other way and pretending its clean and knowing CBS will scrub its broadcasts of any negative talk. Jim Nantz, who will again call the Final Four on Saturday, is so professional he used to wear a 2004 UConn NCAA championship ring that the program presented him.

New NCAA president Mark Emmert has paid lip service to scrubbing up his sports. He’s thrown out some lines about the need to do better but there’s been no interest in any real path to improvement.

John Calipari is making his third trip to the Final Four. His previous two were vacated.
(Eric Gay/AP)

He isn’t going law and order and expanding the overworked and understaffed NCAA enforcement group. He isn’t thinking big picture and discussing the need more control over things by the central office. He isn’t being bold and plotting a course for real reform of the amateurism rules that are outdated, unfair and simply aren’t being followed.

And he’s certainly showed no willingness to address the growing gap between the millions that coaches and ADs bask in and the zero dollars the players are paid.

Just this week the Fiesta Bowl released a scathing and stunning report detailing illegal campaign donations, rampant graft and the doling out of gifts, cruises and golf to athletic directors and conference officials in an effort to curry favor. The behavior on all sides is indefensible.

Emmert was so troubled by it that he said he didn’t bother to actually read the entire report – “I didn’t have that much time.” Ah, priorities.

College athletics is a gravy train for the suits and they’re quite content to fiddle along as it burns. Emmert arrogantly wouldn’t tell PBS this week how much he is being paid – even thought the figure will eventually be revealed on federal tax forms.

There is no one in charge right now. There is no one daring to question why they keep trying to jam the square peg of “amateurism” into the round hole of “capitalism.”

Everyone wants to stick their head in the sand and hope everything returns to Mayberry and scandal after scandal after John Junker strip joint bill just disappears.

“One could argue right now there are some serious assaults on [the] collegiate model,” Emmert said. “And the collegiate model requires all of us in the NCAA office, in higher education, everyone who is inside intercollegiate athletics, it requires that we work extremely hard to protect and defend that model.”

Or just keep pretending.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Apr 1, 2011