Kentucky basketball victories tainted

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Kentucky with its tainted history has registered 2,011 victories to sit atop the college basketball heap. Now North Carolina (1,997) and Kansas (1,993) are neck and neck in an exciting race to the 2,000 level.

As we all know, there are countless, indelible KU-UK-UNC connections. It’s regrettable that KU grad Adolph Rupp factored so heavily in a shady Kentucky march to glory. Kentucky may have hit 2,000 first but KU and UNC will do so more honorably. The Wildcats got there with considerable assistance from cheating and NCAA criminal indifference and oversight.

In his 1931-72 reign at Kentucky, the abrasive Rupp became noted for his ability to disregard and flaunt recruiting legality and remuneration limits for his players. As Ken Johnson, the incomparable KU court historian in Des Moines, points out: “In the 1930s and ’40s, 386 of the Wildcat wins were generated when there was virtually no oversight in college basketball. Transgressions never were penalized. Since then, though, the Kentucky basketball program has continuously been documented as one of the most criminal of all NCAA Division I schools.

“Rupp’s 1952-53 squad was nailed with what amounted to the NCAA’s first death penalty (cancelled season) because of payments to players. It all came to light during an investigation into a point-shaving scandal involving players during the ’49 season.” Kentucky won the NCAA title in ’48, ’49 and ’51 at the height of the horrendous fixing scandals; the NCAA never rescinded a trophy or a single victory.

A judge called Rupp’s UK program the acme of commercialization and overemphasis. He said he found covert subsidization of players, ruthless exploitation of athletes, cribbing at examinations, illegal recruiting, reckless disregard for physical welfare, matriculation of unqualified students and flagrant abuse of the athletic scholarship concept.

Rupp retired, but in 1976 the NCAA said the Wildcat scholarships would be limited for two seasons because of recruiting violations by coach Joe B. Hall’s staff. A handslap; UK won the ’78 NCAA title. In 1985, the Lexington, Ky., Herald Leader broke a story about UK paying players and recruits, documented by 31 former player admissions. Recruit Sam Bowie reportedly was handsomely rewarded.

There were recruiting, ineligibility and payoff scandals during the Eddie Sutton tenure and Eddie had to resign. An assistant was banned from coaching in the NCAA for five years. Boy, did the NCAA get tough on that one!

Historian Ken Johnson offers a kicker on the Kentucky outlawry so often ignored by the NCAA. He says UK periodically has tried to clean house but questions if that will continue.

“ . . . with the history and culture of cheating, there is probable doubt a clean program will continue under the stewardship of John Calipari. It’s hard to overlook the corruption of the athletic department when they sign a basketball coach to the richest per year contract in college hoops within two months of the coach’s second school being stripped of a Final Four appearance by the NCAA.”

Where was Calipari once an assistant? At KU, of course. Yet any barrel can have bad apples, including “alumni” who create programs with notably less honor and dignity than the source of their apprenticeships.

I admire how KU and UNC will reach the 2,000 level a whole lot more.