Tonight’s NCAA championship game is truly a David vs. Goliath matchup. Gonzaga is located in tiny Spokane, Washington, a small city of 200,000 way the hell out in eastern Washington. Well, that description fits when you are driving from Oregon to visit schools and stop by Gonzaga as I did over 20 years ago.
The Zags weren’t a basketball powerhouse at that point in 1995, but the sport was central to the school’s identity. The basketball court was where our campus tour concluded, after some fascinating stories about Bing Crosby’s antics — including shoving a piano out a window.
The gym didn’t look that different than a high school court, with one major exception. John Stockton was working on his free throws that summer day. That alone was almost enough to convince me to attend, but the weather and price tag sent me to sunny Santa Barbara instead.
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Though they’ve now appeared in the NCAA Tournament 19 straight times and are ranked #1, Gonzaga still gives off a folksy small town vibe — right down to their coach, Mark Few:
Few was raised in rural Oregon, the son of a minister. He’s a small man in a sport of giants, and quiet speaker in a profession of loud mouths. Living in a big city holds no appeal for him. In Spokane, he can pursue his hobby of fly-fishing and before games, he jogs on mountain biking trails. He lives with his wife and four children on a 30-acre property with expansive views of the city and mountains.
Though I didn’t end up attending the school, I’ll be pulling for Gonzaga tonight, and not just because UNC broke Oregon’s Jordan Bell Saturday night — prompting the saddest tweet to ever conclude a sporting event.
The Tar Heels are perennial March Madness favorites. Gonzaga is going after their first championship, while a win tonight will give North Carolina their sixth. They also played for the championship last year.
All this success was helped no doubt by the academic mischief that allowed players to receive high grades in classes that didn’t really exist. The chair of UNC’s African and Afro-American studies program gave student athletes (mostly basketball and football players) credit for lecture courses that never actually met, dating back as far as 1993.
While some sportswriters point out that the scandal proceeds the current crop of UNC talent, the New York Times notes that the foul play goes deeper than one academic administrator and is a stain on coach Roy Williams and the entire program:
Emails show, however, that behind the scenes, the university officials and board members knew that the misconduct extended deeper. The chairman of the Board of Governors wrote in an email that he had repeatedly asked administrators to purge people who were involved in “fake classes.”
UNC claims they are trying to close the case out as quickly as possible. The cloud hanging over them could hurt recruiting. Coach Williams highlighted his frustration saying , “I’d hope that the NCAA thing would be over before I’m retired. And now I’m hoping it will be over before I die.”
He should maybe tell that to the university legal team. UNC has spent nearly $18 million defending the case including PR costs. And by “defending,” I mean dragging it out.
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Where’s all that money going? The NCAA put the university on notice in May of 2015, giving the school 90-days to respond. UNC came up with a tricky way to push that deadline. They self-reported they were investigating infractions related to men’s soccer. It’s an old lawyer trick of dangling something else that doesn’t matter as much and appearing to cooperate.
The tactic seems to have worked and the NCAA issued a revised notice of allegations that was much weaker and precluded the 2005 national championship team. The university’s response was to force more delays by claiming the NCAA lacked jurisdiction since the alleged infractions involved academic fraud as opposed to standard NCAA violations like those related to recruiting . The NCAA disagreed and issued a third notice late last year.
It’s tempting to believe Williams and his staff are innocent or were at least ignorant of the phantom classes. But the evidence shows Wayne Walden, the academic counselor for basketball steered players to the dodgy courses and asked for special treatment from instructors. I’m sure Coach Williams was shocked to learn a key member of his staff was the point person for the scandal!
Professor Jay Smith, who taught a course on college sports corruption at UNC before administrators abruptly canceled it summed up the climate at the school:
“The university is operating like a crime family, and it shows the lengths to which they will go to protect their athletic machine.”
UNC hasn’t responded to the latest notice. They are busy pursuing another championship.