CRAWFORD | It's time for Louisville to strike its banners, rebuild its brand
Eric Crawford on the University of Louisville's challenge moving forward.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The NCAA has spoken. The University of Louisville has reeled down its 2013 men’s basketball championship banner, and one from the 2012 Final Four. I’ve wondered what to say to Cardinal fans, or others who care about the university on this day, knowing that they are both angry and sad. This is the best I could come up with.
I want to tell you about one of the men I have admired more than any other in my quarter century in this business. He was a Louisville kid, played sports at Male High School and was an All-Stater in four sports.
He was a tremendous college basketball player. One Hall of Fame coach called him “the Michael Jordan of his time.” He won two NCAA titles as a player and went to the NBA and became an All-Star point guard. He won a gold medal for the United States as part of the 1948 Olympic team.
He also was involved in the biggest scandal ever to hit college basketball – until recent events.
Ralph Beard, as a basketball player at the University of Kentucky, took some money from gamblers. He said he never threw a game, but when they shoved $100 in his pocket a couple of times and offered $500 on another occasion, he didn’t give it back. He was poor. He could use the money. When the scandal broke, he and his teammates who were implicated received a lifetime ban from organized sports. Beyond that, it earned the college program he loved the death penalty, an entire season without competition.
Taking basketball from him was like taking his life. His marriage fell apart. He felt shame -- public shame -- like many of us will never experience. In fact, he considered taking his own life. Thank goodness he didn’t. He recovered, remarried, and he and his new wife Betty had two kids. He finished his college degree and became a successful businessman.
I only knew him as an older man who, without fail, would show up with a smile on his face in the suite of U of L athletic director Tom Jurich. He was as gracious and magnanimous a person as I ever met, humble and down to earth. He was always the classiest guy in the room.
None of us will probably ever lose close to what Ralph Beard lost as a result of our own questionable decisions. We’ll all make mistakes, but we’re not likely to lose a career, or our good names. But we can only hope to bounce back with as much class and grace as he did.
U OF L TODAY HAS LOST a national championship. It has lost a Final Four appearance. It has lost some conference titles and a lot of victories. The shame, public shame, now covers those accomplishments, as well as so many people involved with them, fair or not, from Rick Pitino and Tom Jurich, who have since lost their jobs, to Andre McGee and Katina Powell, who carried out the prostitution scheme for which the penalties were given, to players who participated. It even lands, unfortunately, on people who don’t deserve it, players who didn’t take part, and fans who knew nothing of any of this, and who now have to listen to the jeers and ridicule of friends and rival fans.
I think about Luke Hancock, Most Outstanding Player of that Final Four. (His award, by the way, will stand. He wasn’t involved in any of the stripper business.) Hancock said: “I disagree with the NCAA’s punishment, but in the end, when I think about it, it doesn’t change much for me. It’s still the last time my dad (who died not long after the championship game, following a long illness) had all his kids under one roof. Granted, it was a really big roof, but it was a special time for me and my family and our program and this community, and one that I’ll never forget. This doesn’t change that.”
What this university, and its fans, and its athletics program should keep in mind, even in the midst of dealing with all this, is that while these kinds of things alter the memory and legacy of the university and the basketball program, they need not define it.
Time does heal these things – but only if we make the best use of that time moving forward, only if at some point we turn loose of the bitterness and defensiveness and just accept things for what they were, and resolve to be better moving forward.
That’s all anyone can do.
Ralph Beard told me that the decisions he made and their repercussions wouldn’t stop hurting him until “the first shovel of dirt hits me,” but he wound up being voted into the state athletic Hall of Fame, and his name hangs in the rafters at Rupp Arena, and by the end of his life you couldn’t find anyone to say a bad word about him.
“You can’t keep punishing someone forever,” he said, and that’s the rather vapid nature of these rulings, which attempt to reach back and nullify things we all watched.
But in the end, all you can do is endure the hurt and embarrassment and then get on with it. This appeal gained the university nothing. It cost a good bit of money. The Infractions Appeals Committee panel yielded on nothing. Every original sanction handed down by the Committee on Infractions will be enforced. If U of L, the day all these allegations had occurred, had fallen completely on its sword, vacated all its wins, given back its championship and the money and the Final Four, banned itself from a postseason, taken away four scholarships and put itself on four years of probation, it would’ve been no different than what wound up happening after two and a half years of back-and-forth with the NCAA.
This was never going to be pretty. It never will be. It shouldn’t be.
I FEEL BAD FOR FANS, who don’t deserve any of this. Many supporters – and many I consider important and intelligent folks -- want the university to keep fighting, to take this to court. To those, I have to ask, fight for what? Are you fighting for the right of schools to use prostitutes in recruiting? For the right to fund stripper parties for recruits in the dormitory? And if not that, then what? To fight NCAA inconsistency? That inconsistency is borne of legislation enacted by its membership, which includes U of L.
Postel said the university is bigger than any one person, meaning that the actions of McGee are not what U of L stands for. That’s a primary reason not to continue the fight. Because to fight on means, in some ways, you are standing for them.
There is no clear, well-defined principle here for which to fight.
What can be done, however, is for U of L and its leadership to make a stronger statement on behalf of the university’s actions since this scandal came to light, something interim president Greg Postel did to a degree on Tuesday, but not in as forceful a manner as perhaps I would have.
Now that the final verdict has been ratified on appeal, U of L needs to aggressively illustrate what it did in response to these actions on its campus.
National reporting to the contrary, U of L has always acknowledged that what happened on its campus was wrong. It has not defended those actions, only argued as to what the proper penalties should be. In the end, it is in disagreement with the NCAA on the level of those penalties, but it is also an NCAA member, and must abide by the findings.
This was not, despite what some of its critics would tell you, an institutional crime. There has not been produced a single piece of evidence that anyone at U of L beyond Andre McGee – and a handful of basketball players – knew this was happening. Yes, McGee worked for the university, but there is no evidence that his actions were ordered by anyone who worked for the school, or known about by anyone who worked for the school, financed by anyone who worked for the school or condoned by anyone who worked for the school. That’s not my opinion. That’s what the evidence of a yearlong NCAA investigation shows, and that’s what the NCAA report says.
The NCAA, in fact, didn’t even find that then-coach Rick Pitino should have known what was going on. It only ruled that he should have investigated harder to find out what was going on. Goodness, I read an ESPN column today excoriating Pitino for his behavior. That writer obviously never read the history of ESPN.
It’s not as if, of course, someone came to his office and discussed actual criminal behavior, and he failed to follow up on it in any meaningful way, as NCAA president Mark Emmert did when sexual assault concerns at Michigan State were brought to him years ago. It’s not as if multiple coaches and school officials were found to have known about improprieties and either worked to conceal them or simply failed to address them, as happened at that school or in an academic scandal at North Carolina which the NCAA refused to weigh in on.
McGee is the only individual employed by U of L found to have a role in this scandal. Brandon Williams, a program assistant, was sanctioned for not cooperating fully with the investigation.
McGee not only procured strippers and prostitutes for recruits, but according to Powell in her book, for himself and for friends of his who came into town. He has never spoken publicly about his role in these events.
U of L leadership needs to remind the public, when it was notified of this, it interviewed McGee – then working for another school – within two weeks, not months later. Within five days of that it had submitted its findings to NCAA enforcement officials. Within a week, it had interviewed most players on its current basketball team and non-coaching staff members, and within two weeks of that had provided the NCAA with results of its initial inquiry.
The next day, Sept. 29, 2015, U of L and the NCAA began a joint investigation into the allegations. All of this, by the way, happened before the public and media learned of the bombshell allegations, in a news conference the afternoon of Oct. 2, 2015.
“If we did anything wrong, we will ante up,” Jurich said that day.
Neither he, nor anyone at the school, likely imagined that the stakes would be giving up a national championship and four years’ worth of victories.
That assumption was wrong.
Regardless, the actions of U of L from the day an allegation was first presented – and nearly two months before anything became public – do not paint a picture of an institution in cover-up mode. Say what you want. And they stand in stark contrast to the most recent major transgressions – punished or not -- at other programs.
None of that mitigates McGee’s violations or the price U of L will pay for them. But it absolutely throws into question the NCAA’s viability moving forward, and if I were U of L, even as an NCAA member, I’d have no problem throwing out the first formal institutional question of NCAA leadership, not because I want the banner back, but because there is a great incentive now to not cooperate, and an institution that follows NCAA guidelines when wrongdoing is found ends up being penalized while those that tell the association to take a hike are rewarded.
None of that helps U of L on this day. On this day, the NCAA hammer has fallen, and there can be little doubt that the NCAA has the right – given to it by its own membership – to drop that hammer.
At some point, like Ralph Beard, you have to grit your teeth, survive these dark nights of the soul, and come out on the other side and get to work, living the rest of your life the best you can.
Unfortunately, it never stops hurting, never stops being a source of aggravation, or pain, or whatever you feel.
But it doesn’t have to define an institution. And the result, after two and a half years of near-futile effort, doesn’t have to consume a fan base any longer.
IN THE END, THIS IS NOT A GAME. U of L is not a front for a basketball program. The basketball program exists as part of a much larger institution. It has brought that institution a lot of publicity, and in recent years, a lot of anguish. Enough is enough.
Whether a banner hangs in the KFC Yum! Center doesn’t really matter in the day-to-day life of anybody. It’s not going to help anybody get a better grade or work harder on a research project. That the banner would make some people feel better about their university than the leadership of that same university deciding to do the right thing in the end says something about society that I’m not quite comfortable with. But I know that feeling is out there.
My hope is that the university is able to move forward – not the easiest thing in the world with another major basketball scandal staring it in the face.
If none of this brings comfort, all I can say is this. In the wee hours after U of L won the 2013 Big East Tournament, Steve Andress scrambled up to the rims in Madison Square Garden to cut down nets that U of L’s teams had left after winning the tournament. They weren’t going to cut down any nets until they won the championship.
I’ve still got part of that net, somewhere. It’s just a thing. It doesn’t matter. It has no bearing on who I am as a person. It just is. U of L vacated that victory today. The net didn’t mysteriously disappear. I called home and checked.
If the house were to catch on fire, it wouldn’t be among the first 100 things I would want saved. I remember covering those games, and the people.
U of L lost a lot of money, today. And some symbols of a championship, a source of pride. But in some of the ways that matter most, it really didn’t lose anything. And I think, in light of how some schools have shrunk from the tough task for standing up for the wrong they’ve done lately, there’s something to be proud of in Louisville, even amid this scandal.
In the words of Jurich, ante up. Grit your teeth, get through it, hold your head up. And move forward.
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