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 XI of XIV parts.

Walter Byers retired from his consulting position with the NCAA in 1990, about the time the Deon Thomas case concluded. There is no proof he remained to help oversee the Illinois case, but some will assume so. And without doubt he hand-picked his successor Dick Schultz.

Dick Schultz was the athletic director at the University of Virginia and had previously been head basketball coach at the University of Iowa. He could not have gotten this job without Byers' blessing, but even then he had a rocky beginning.

About this same time, Virginia was being investigated by the NCAA for rule violations. The office where these illegalities originated was just a few steps from Dick Schultz' office. Schultz denied knowing anything about it and was exonerated by the NCAA. Of course, knowing nothing about problems within one's own department might imply a failure of leadership or "lack of institutional control." Maybe to some that is true, but not to the NCAA.

Schultz was an outgoing opposite from Walter Byers when it came to communicating with member schools. He became a front man for improving the NCAA's image after its aura of invincibility was shattered by the embarrassment of their childish and vindictive behavior in the Illinois case and its subsequent reportage by Don Yaeger. And he was ultimately credited with overseeing modifications in the enforcement program that were long overdue.

However, like Berst said, the NCAA was in no hurry to change its ways, even after the Illinois case. That is, until a small grassroots effort began in central Illinois. Jo Miller organized the "Our Group", and she and her members took upon themselves the task of informing the nation of the NCAA's true behavior in the Illinois case and other investigations. Showing remarkable resiliency, determination and courage under fire, the "Our Group" sought nonviolent, nonconfrontational ways of getting their point across.

For instance, they wore T-shirts with the phrase "Illinois found innocent...punished anyway" printed on them and proceeded to show up for NCAA-sponsored events. They prepared and handed out leaflets to anyone who would listen describing the draconian and unethical investigative methods employed by the NCAA. They talked to people quietly but with purpose, all the while aware that emotionality and force would be perceived as "sour grapes" and would be ignored.

They had the truth on their side, so they persisted. Little by little, NCAA member schools began to feel the pressure to ask for discussion of these issues at NCAA meetings. Eventually, improvements were made. Now, all investigative meetings are taped and made available to all parties. All accused are allowed counsel and are given a more fair hearing.

Most investigations now are more civilized, but it is also true more schools are willing to self-impose penalties rather than leave everything up to the NCAA. Investigations are resolved quicker whenever possible, with less damage to the schools' recruiting and overall program. Like the "Little Engine That Could", Jo Miller and her mighty band of assistants created improvements that were long overdue.

This was a good starting point, but we must speculate on how much the NCAA has really changed over the years since 1990. Walter Byers made sure everyone in his organization thought like him and had the same values as him. They were all committed to his motives and methods. Wouldn't they continue the status quo?

There is absolutely no evidence any major changes have been made in the overall function of the NCAA. Dick Schultz had to promise to maintain Byers' beloved organization to gain his position. And he would likely continue to hire others who fit the same agenda and mentality. Can we be certain the changes since 1990 are anything other than procedural and cosmetic? Through Dick Schultz, many people now feel more secure in the hope the NCAA is considering the needs of all its members. But charming communicators are just as likely to disguise problems as resolve them.

Miller and her "Our Group" are cult heroes in Illinois and in other places where the NCAA had run roughshod over decent people. But their actions had two opposite results. The positive effect were the changes within the NCAA investigative process. The opposite effect was to anger those within the NCAA hierarchy who despise change or loss of power. If Walter Byers never could forgive or forget, how can we expect his loyal followers to behave differently? Did this pave the way for future vengence or at least distrust of the University of Illinois?

Schultz was replaced by Cedric Dempsey and eventually by former Indiana University president Myles Brand. Initially, some thought this represented a complete reversal for the NCAA. After all, Brand is the one who fired Bobby Knight from Indiana. However, a closer look at that situation reveals a somewhat different scenario.

There is little doubt enmity exists between Knight and Brand. And it is likely Knight now has less power within the NCAA. Knight never accepts such a result gladly, and he has fought the firing ever since. But Myles Brand didn't really fire Knight, at least not directly. Knight's previous behaviors had been ignored by the Indiana athletic department and Brand's predecessor, and Brand was under intense pressure to do something about Knight's behavior.

Bobby Knight had pretty much taken over control of Indiana University, and many thought him invincible. Brand used the clever indirect ploy of giving Knight a choice. If he could follow written guidelines he could keep his job, but a failure to maintain his composure or go against school policy would result in his termination. It didn't take long before Knight departed from the strict terms of the job description, and Brand had no choice but to carry out the mandate to terminate Knight.

This is indirect rather than direct behavior by Brand, the likes of which Walter Byers himself might have approved. We actually know little about Brand's methods and motives. He appears to represent the interests of university academia, appeasing those who think academic importance should supercede athletic accomplishment at the collegiate level. But we think it impossible for Brand to be hired or operate with power within an organization like the NCAA unless his real goals and tendencies match his predecessors. So we are left to wonder how much change there has really been in the last 16 years.

Brand seems almost as secretive and elusive a figure as Byers. He is not as personable as Schultz, and he has done little to permit the general public to evaluate his effectiveness as a leader. But his efforts toward eliminating Indian mascots and symbols may allow us at least a minimal peak into his tendencies.

Parts XI through XIV will appear on 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.
Part VI for this series is available here.
Part VII for this series is available here.
Part VIII for this series is available here.
Part IX for this series is available here.
Part X for this series is available here.

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