- Cheating and under-the-table bribes can bring in big-time athletes.
- The NCAA policing and enforcement powers are practically impotent.
Many eyes are focused on the most recent and possibly the most severe sanctions ever placed on the kansas athletic program, involving bribes, collusion, and lack of institutional control, and centered around controversial basketball coach Bill Self. What younger sports fans may not know is that kansas has been willfully skirting rules and laws since at least the mid-1950s, and probably longer. Prior to the 1950s, the NCAA had virtually no policing powers and as college sports became more popular, recruiting top talent involved all manner of improprieties that went virtually unchecked.
Eventually, Walter Byers, the first executive director of the NCAA was forced to take action and create an enforcement arm to the organization when the University of kansas began breaking rules in such extraordinary ways that it became impossible to ignore.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was the shady recruitment of the most extraordinary basketball talent in a generation, Wilt Chamberlain. Even the most casual glance at Chamberlain’s college decision drew skepticism. Here was a poor black student from the heart of bustling Philadelphia, who chose to play basketball in the sparsely populated, rural, white, open prairie of kansas. It was more than a head-scratcher. It was the result of calculated and brazen cheating.
Chamberlain told the LA Times about his recruitment in 1985. “The payment system was much more sophisticated than just giving an athlete cash. The boosters were delegated by a little group. They would say, ‘OK, we will allow you, A, B and C, to go out and help to recruit Wilt Chamberlain, and you become like his godfather.’ I had two or three godfathers. That way, I wasn’t sure where it was coming from. Everyone was assigned at least one godfather when I was at kansas.”
Phog Allen desperately wanted Chamberlain at kansas, but not only to win games. Allen had a bizarre ongoing personal war going with the NCAA. He felt that as the average height of players grew, the basketball rim was becoming too low. He hated dunking, and felt it shouldn’t be part of the game. He appealed to the NCAA to raise the rims to 12 feet. He lost that battle, and as a form of revenge, he wanted to get the tallest player in the country and have him stuff the ball down that 10-foot rim as often as time would allow.
The NCAA finally decided to step in after Wilt was seen driving around lawrence, kansas in his brand new 1956 Oldsmobile convertible. Even kansas fans raised eyebrows at the open display of newfound wealth.
Unfortunately Byers did not have much experience at investigating or enforcing rules, and there would be no punishment for Chamberlain's convertible as there was no way of proving who paid for it.
The investigation, however did turn up evidence that of a kU booster offering 6’8” center Kent Bryan money to entice him to kansas and Phog Allen himself gave the young player an illegal ride to lawrence to take an entrance exam. kansas denied any wrongdoing, which they quickly learned was the best strategy when battling a poorly equipped enforcement body, and in 1957 the NCAA cited kansas with its first major infraction.
The result of the judgement; a reprimand and one year probation. Rather than teach kansas a lesson, the light sentence only encouraged the university to skirt further rules. They had become a basketball powerhouse with the most exciting player in the country. The only cost had been a flimsy slap on the wrist. Cheating would now become part of the university’s athletic culture.
In 1960, Byers was dead-set on continuing his hunt for the source of Wilt’s ride and was able to track down evidence that three kansas boosters paid $1,564 for the car. Once Wilt had made his way to the NBA, he mocked the NCAA by saying that the car “was worth way more than that!” A separate investigation of the football program found illegal recruitment activities including free meals and entertainment and soon kansas was hit with its second “major infractions” violation in three years.
The severity of the 1960 punishments would tame kansas cheating for a while, or at least would make the university go to greater efforts to hide their wrongdoing. But by the early 1970s, John Wooden’s UCLA teams were becoming the darlings of college basketball. kansas was desperate to remain prominent in the sport where they had found the most success.
The university fraudulently certified high school recruit Logan Gray as academically eligible and the NCAA caught wind of it. After a lengthy investigation, the NCAA went on to discover that kansas had also illegally certified two football players and given discount ticket passes to football and basketball players. They also found that track star Sam Goldberg had been given free shoes and illegal rides for his wife.
kansas was slapped with postseason bans in all three sports and denied the opportunity to play on television. More importantly, it revealed an athletic department-wide culture of cutting corners and skirting rules.
Another 11 years would pass before the NCAA would hand kansas with another major violations citation. Football had never really recovered from the 1972 punishments and in an attempt to revitalize the program, kansas went back to what they knew… cheating.
Again, the NCAA uncovered the improprieties which included paying recruits, stating that in one instance kansas assistant coaches asked a high school student who was planning to play elsewhere “if a certain amount of money would change your mind?”
The laundry list of violations against the football team included improper financial aid and transportation; extra benefits; improper recruiting contacts, employment, entertainment, inducements, lodging and transportation; excessive number of official visits; eligibility; unethical conduct; coaching staff limitations; certification of compliance.
The team would face another postseason ban, another year without televised games, and two years of probation. kansas football wouldn’t see another winning season until a 6-5 record in 1991.
Just five years later, the basketball program would be back under the microscope. Head coach Larry Brown purchased a $364 airline ticket for Memphis player and possible kU transfer Vincent Askew. Askew needed to return home to see his dying grandmother. Brown stated “I’d give it to anybody if they told me his grandmother was passing away. It was something I wasn’t trying to hide.”
Regardless, it was a major NCAA violation. Combined with the system-wide violations the football program had been recently punished for, the NCAA considered slapping kansas basketball with the death penalty, just as they had recently done to SMU in football. One NCAA Infractions Committee member said that Kansas was “on the bubble”.
Though it might be easy to muster sympathy for the Brown’s actions, the NCAA took a holistic view of kU’s history of playing fast and loose with the rules, as well as the dismissive nature the program showed to dealing with infractions.
“The committee also was troubled by statements by the university in its official response during the hearing before the committee that clear and admitted violations of NCAA regulations somehow should not be considered violations,” the NCAA wrote in its official response. “Such statements diminished the committee’s sense of confidence that the university was prepared to take institutional action.”
Brown left the program and new coach Roy Williams was left to deal with the serious punishments dealt to kansas as a “repeat violator”. The Jayhawks would face a one year postseason ban, the only time a reigning national champion would face such a ban. They also were placed on a three-year probation and reduced scholarships.
In 2006, kansas once again faced a situation that likely emboldened their cheating ways and led to the situation they find themselves in today. While an NCAA investigation found multiple violations in men’s basketball and football involving impermissible inducements and benefits and academic fraud, neither basketball coach Bill Self or football coach Mark Mangino would have to deal with postseason or television bans.
Instead kansas would again face three-year probation, reduced recruiting visits and scholarships. Most revealing in 2006 investigation was a rare bit of candor from a kansas athletics executive, regarding their attitude about playing by the rules. Athletic director Al Bohl was quoted in the committee’s report as saying “Compliance doesn’t sell tickets.”
This brazen attitude has often paid off for kansas. In fact, the 2007 kansas football team went 12-1 and landed its only Orange Bowl win. Many forget that if not for a toothless punishment from the NCAA, kansas would have been ineligible to even play in the postseason that year.
That leads us to today, where again kansas is reliving its Wild West, rules-be-damned, anything-to-win approach to college athletics. Accused of improper deals with shoe companies, payouts to recruits, collusion between boosters and the head coach, even to this day, it took an FBI investigation to spur the NCAA to put any real pressure on kansas.
How many championships were bought and paid for over the years? How many wins were ill-gotten? Imagine a world where the NCAA was an organization with a backbone or with an investigative and punitive system that made any sense whatsoever?
The real question is, will the NCAA continue to coddle a program that has a 70-year history of breaking not only rules, but the law when it comes to keeping its legendary basketball program at the top of the heap.