Through the Trifocals: Illinois & the NCAA

The University of Illinois has had a frustrating long-term relationship with the NCAA that may be continuing unabated. Illinisports discusses this relationship, especially how it has affected the Deon Thomas case and the Chief Illiniwek controversy, in this article. This is part VI of XIV parts.

One aspect of life in a crime family like The Godfather that has not yet been discussed is the concept of "made men." In tightly-knit crime families, only those who are totally loyal and committed to the needs of the family are allowed into the inner sanctum. These are called "made men." They have privileges not afforded others and are set for life, but they also have obligations to protect the family at all costs. If they break their vow of silence or go against the family in any way, they are eliminated.

Did Walter Byers employ this concept within his beloved NCAA? Were there some sacred cows who received extra benefits denied others or were free from Byers' wrath and rules? No one can say with 100% certainty, but there is strong evidence to suggest it.

For one thing, Byers arranged no-interest and low-interest loans of less than 7% from the United Missouri Bank of Kansas City for himself and a few of his most trusted aids. Loan interest rates hovered around 16% at the time. Byers personally used his loans to expand greatly the Kansas ranch he inherited from his father. He claimed this was just a perk offered to keep top personnel on staff and was common among many businesses.

But according to the Washington Post in November, 1985, the United Missouri Bank of Kansas City was the only bank authorized at the time to receive NCAA deposits. To some, this seemed to be unethical if not illegal. At the least, it gave the appearance of conflict of interest to give NCAA business to one bank in return for special deals available only to Byers and his inner circle. One can bet his inner circle could not have received these bonanzas without complete loyalty and devotion to Byers, and these loans further strengthened his control over them. These special arrangements were in stark contrast to the required behavior of NCAA member schools.

While some schools were dragged into long, destructive investigations for relatively minor rules infractions, some of which could be explained away as humanitarian assistance under extreme duress, other schools were treated with kid gloves for massive and repeated violations. There is no more obvious example than the UCLA Bruins during the fabled dynasty of legend Johnny Wooden.

In Undue Process, Don Yaeger tells the story about Sam Gilbert, a multimillionaire contractor and highly visible Bruin fan for 15 years. Everyone knew who he was. He befriended Wooden and became a close personal advisor for Wooden's players. Wanting to help his beloved team and gain attention and prestige for himself, he arranged all sorts of special favors for UCLA basketball players. In 1982 the Los Angeles Times did an investigative report that included interviews with 45 players, coaches and boosters covering those 15 years. These interviews produced evidence of massive cheating.

The Times described Gilbert this way: "...a one-man clearinghouse who has enabled players and their families to receive goods and services usually at a big discount and sometimes at no cost." Players from seven different Wooden teams told the newspaper that Gilbert helped them obtain cars, stereos, clothes, airline tickets and sometimes even abortions for their girlfriends. He even admitted the abortions, airline tickets home for funerals, etc. to an NCAA investigator, claiming his emotional attachment required him to help those in need.

It was reported that Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Lucious Allen considered transferring away from UCLA after their sophomore years but changed their minds after Gilbert intervened. Abdul-Jabbar admitted to the Times that he had lived in an Encino guest house of Gilbert's at little or no cost during his junior year. Gilbert signed Abdul-Jabbar and several other UCLA All-Americans including Richard Washington and Marques Johnson to professional contracts for him to serve as their agent, most while still in school, another violation. He believed NCAA rules were racist and thought the players should be compensated for their services, so he knowingly broke those rules.

Wooden denied knowing any of this, asking no questions while absorbing himself into the basketball end of the program. He claimed "tunnel vision" and said, "Maybe I trusted too much." He never believed any of Gilbert's actions had a significant effect on the success of the UCLA basktball program. As an aside, Gilbert was later indicted for involvement in a Miami drug money laundering operation.

J. Brent Clark, one of the rare former NCAA investigators who broke free completely from the NCAA and felt secure enough to talk about them, investigated the UCLA case right after his employment in 1976. He believed he had a good case against Gilbert, Washington and Johnson. And he shared his notes with the NCAA, who already had information about the highly visible Gilbert from previous situations. But according to Clark, the NCAA dragged their heels on continuing the investigation.

Brought as a witness by the 1978 House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce's subcommittee on oversight and investigations, Clark said he was told by his supervisor William Hunt, "We're just not going after that institution right now." When asked why, Clark answered, "The conclusion I draw is that it is an example of a school that is too big, too powerful and too well respected by the public, that the timing was not right to proceed against them...In this instance, politics and balance sheets seemed to dictate the NCAA take no action."

David Berst denied Clark's accusations of selective enforcement and attacked Clark by saying he "lives in a fanstasy world." In fact, the NCAA worked diligently to discredit Clark with accusations of lack of objectivity and vengence over not getting promoted. And they claimed they had no paperwork to support Clark's charges.

Clark responded by claiming Berst was upset these charges were in the public domain: "With all those staff members who go on to work at conference offices or at different universities, they couldn't be outspoken, they couldn't be open about what they saw. But I left and decided that I had had my fill of college athletics."

And regarding the lack of paperwork, Clark said, "I'm not shocked by that, are you? That is just the way the NCAA works. Rather than taking what was said and looking for ways to improve, the NCAA decided to attack the bearer of bad news. Those things happened the way I said they did and one day they'll have to admit it." They haven't yet.

The Los Angeles Times expose by Mike Littwin and Alan Greenberg was written in 1982, but the NCAA admitted it could extend any statute of limitations if needed. So even though it was presented facts sufficient to put some college programs in hot water with the NCAA, Berst said the NCAA had no plan to reopen its previous investigation that had placed UCLA on two years probation for nine violations. This was a minimal penalty. He claimed the NCAA saw no willful pattern of violations despite what Yaeger called "...15 years of blatant disregard for the rules."

The University of Kentucky basketball program also seemed to be treated with specialness, especially before the Eddie Sutton years. In 1985, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported that 26 former Kentucky players admitted illegality, and all its interviews were recorded on tape. The newspaper's article won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize.

The NCAA asked the newspaper for all its notes and tapes, but journalists are highly protective of their sources. Most won't willingly share information with the U. S. government, so they certainly won't do so for the NCAA. And they felt the NCAA should do its own investigation and arrive at its own conclusions. This provided the NCAA with the excuse of blaming the newspaper for not sharing. The NCAA later admitted they did not even interview all those identified in the award-winning article. And the ones who were interviewed didn't wish to incriminate their school with the NCAA.

Thus, the NCAA found no evidence of inpropriety. However, only five weeks after they ended their Kentucky investigation in 1988, an Emery Freight package sent by an Eddie Sutton assistant to the father of athlete Chris Mills broke open accidently to expose a recruiting tape and 20 $50 bills. Chris Mills was allowed to transfer from Kentucky to the University of Arizona without penalty, but the NCAA was finally forced to penalize the University of Kentucky. We cannot say with certainty that Kentucky is or was a sacred cow with the NCAA, but the evidence certainly suggests it.

And what about individual coaches around the country? Are some of them off-limits to NCAA wrath? One of the people quoted to promote Walter Byers' 1995 book Unsportsmanlike Conduct was highly successful basketball coach at Army, Indiana and now Texas Tech Bobby Knight. He is quoted:

"Walter Byers has done more to shape intercollegiate athletics than any single person in history. He brought a combination of leadership, insight and integrity to intercollegiate athletics that we will never again see equalled."

Bobby Knight has always controlled his teams and his overall programs with an iron fist, much like Byers with the NCAA. In many ways, they are birds of a feather, so it is easy to see how they might have mutual respect. It is also highly likely they are close personal friends, as Byers would be loath to ask anyone other than trusted friends to give testimonials for his book.

Perhaps this might explain how Bobby "The General" Knight has always seemed immune to punishment during his frequent blowups. Perhaps he had support about which the public was unaware. And since Knight has Scorpionic tendencies to back-stab those he feels have wronged him, it is logical to assume he might contact Byers to inform on schools who have interferred with his plans. Knight won national championships and brought money and prestige to the NCAA. Could he be a made man?

And what about Knight protege Mike Krzyzewski? He has many similar tendencies to Knight and learned much from him. He has won national championships and made millions for large corporations like Duke, the NCAA, Nike and American Express. Can anyone imagine a situation in which the NCAA would want to bring down the goose laying all the golden eggs? They might have to someday, but would they do so willingly and with maximum force? It seems highly doubtful.

What about other strong-willed field commanders with tendencies similar to Walter Byers? Wouldn't Ohio State's Woody Hayes fit this scenario? And what about Michigan's Bo Schembechler and his replacements, former Schembechler assistants Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr? Schembechler wanted to dominate opponents and control every aspect of his program, including a refusal to let press or fans into most practices, spring or fall. Wouldn't he and Byers find common ground? And haven't Moeller and now Carr maintained the same tradition, seeing how Schembechler still oversees the program from a short distance?

One might argue the major penalties Michigan received for the massive payments to its "Fab Five" basketball team disproves the notion of favoritism by the NCAA. But the NCAA had no choice in the matter since Grand Jury testimony was made public. The lengthy delay in determining penalties for Michigan resulted from delays in receiving the testimony and not because the NCAA tried to prolong the investigation. This case can neither prove nor disprove the possibility of favorable treatment for Michigan.

Is it a coincidence that Byers' book is published by the University of Michigan Press? Perhaps so, but one cannot imagine a scenario where Byers would approach a publisher who wasn't a trusted friend. And even if his co-author Charles Hammer arranged the contract, it had to be with Byers' blessing. This is no proof of collusion or favored treatment. But it is highly unlikely Byers ever contacted the University of Illinois Press about his book. And Don Yaeger's book undoubtedly turned Byers off to Sagamore Publishing.

With all its money, international power, football television contract and "subway alumni", Notre Dame University is a likely candidate for favored treatment. Would the NCAA dare attack Notre Dame intentionally with no thought to the negative repercussions it might face for doing so? Even Walter Byers likely knew he had less power than Notre Dame. Certainly, Notre Dame received punishment for a female's largess with a few players once, but this was a public scandal that forced the NCAA's hand. And it blew over relatively quickly and with little long-term damage to Notre Dame's reputation.

Top football programs making the NCAA money are possibly looked at favorably. With all its political clout in Washington, D. C., it is easy to imagine Texas being one of those. And basketball programs consistently among the top ten nationally like Connecticut, Florida, North Carolina, Kansas and the aforementioned Duke, Kentucky and lately again UCLA may all receive the benefit of the doubt with the NCAA. With so many Kansas grads hired by the NCAA over the years, it is hard to imagine an adversarial relationship between their basketball program and the NCAA could ever exist.

And what about the University of Iowa, Walter Byers' college of record? Could a Walter Byers organization possibly be punative toward the school that meant so much to him? Iowa was the recipient of two NCAA penalties prior to 1990, but both were minor and had no lasting negative impact on their programs. And the Deon Thomas case described later demonstrated a significant trust between Iowa and the NCAA. One must also wonder why the NCAA Clearinghouse, the body created to control academic integrity for student athletes wishing to enter college, became located in the state of Iowa.

We cannot say with certainty what individuals and schools might be "made men" within the NCAA power base, but there is little doubt there have been some. And this has contributed to the haves vs. havenots mentality that has created numerous problems while making the NCAA wealthy.


Parts VII through XIV will appear on IlliniBoard.com in the upcoming days.

Part I of this series is available here.
Part II of this series is available here.
Part III of this series is available here.
Part IV for this series is available here.
Part V for this series is available here.


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