FRESNO - With it's worries seemingly behind them, the Fresno State Men's Basketball team was preparing for their opening game against Idaho State when a bomb was dropped.
In Sunday's Fresno Bee, writer Eric Prisbell published an article outlining the receipt of benefits totaling several thousand dollars by two former Fresno State basketball players while the athletes attended the university.
Most people who pay close enough attention realize that there are problems with the sanctity of college sports but most want to deny it is happening or has happened at their schools.
Following years of accusations and questioning surrounding the Bulldog basketball program under the ever so blind eye of Jerry Tarkanian, Fresno State, it's coaches, players and fans might be left to pick up the pieces after the NCAA finishes an investigation of their program.
In 1998, Jerry Tarkanian won a settlement in excess of $2 million dollars when the NCAA agreed to pay the befuddled coach for years of scrutiny and accusations followed by no proof of any wrongdoing.
The now retired Tarkanian had claimed these actions hindered his career and led to his dismissal from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. A young eager writer, just a few years removed from college, may have uncovered what the NCAA failed to do.
Seemingly, the story begins and ends with the now defunct Franchise Sports of Las Vegas. Franchise Sports was run by an ex-Fresnan, Ron Delpit, who played for the legendary coach at San Joaquin Memorial High School in Fresno in the early 60's -Tarkanian's first coaching stop.
Delpit's agency has been portrayed as a mismanaged and unethical agency with the sole focus of signing top-rated players by any means possible. Lies, deception and money were apparent tactics the company used in efforts to sway talented athletes in their direction.
According to the article in The Fresno Bee, the agency used a web of middlemen to funnel cash and other favors to players in Tarkanian's program and most of the relationships were fostered by a Franchise Sports agent, Nate Cebrum.
Nate Cebrum is a name many that follow college sports will remember. Cebrum has a reputation as a street agent who develops relationships with top players and then provides them with items they need or desire and does so for the benefit of one or more agencies in the race to sign top athletes. Whether it's cash, a car or a trip, the players go to a person like Cebrum who answers their needs or wants with action yet the ultimate price may be the players to pay.
Cebrum was the one responsible for channeling money to Auburn basketball star Chris Porter that ultimately led to his dismissal from the basketball team. (A plea bargain around the Porter case is what has led to Cebrum's revelations).
He was also the agent behind the famous Foot Locker shopping spree in Tallahassee, FL that led to the suspension of several players from the Florida State football team and jail time for Cebrum because he had never registered as a sports agent in the state of Florida.
Cebrum is also one of the foremost experts on standardization test score fixing in the country and has admitted to fixing the scores on SAT and ACT tests for roughly 20 athletes.
Yet, Jerry Tarkanian knowingly allowed this kind of person to acquaint himself with his players. Terrance Roberson, one of the players who admitted to accepting cash from Franchise Sports, even has gone as far as to claim that Cebrum had been allowed to ride the team bus on several occasions.
That's like letting the fox into the hen house or Bill Clinton into another kind of house! Tarkanian must be held accountable for lack of good judgement if nothing else.
Tarkanian has always played the innocent role to perfection. For more than 30 years now, allegations of wrongdoing have haunted every Tarkanian led program and in every incident, Tark the Shark has claimed innocence. This time, he may have finally been bitten!
Former player Roberson and Tito Maddox have both openly admitted to accepting cash payments and benefits that total in excess of $30,000 for Maddox alone. Maddox, now a rookie guard with the Houston Rockets, was ultimately dismissed by the Fresno State administration in August of 2001 following the second allegation of illegal benefits in as many years.
Roberson's benefits seem a little less severe totaling somewhere between $300 and $700 but the NCAA believes that amounts are irrelevant and is currently investigating the program for the receipt of free rice bowls from a local Japanese restaurant.
If Cebrum can be classified as a booster because of his relationship with Tarkanian (that relationship has now been terminated according to both sides but exact details as to why are unclear) then the school and the basketball team can face severe punishment.
That punishment could include forfeiture of games the players played in, repayment of monies earned from Fresno State's appearance in the NCAA Tournament in 2000 and 2001 and the removal of future scholarships as well as probation or suspension.
Didn't Tark ever learn that you're only as good as the people you surround yourself with?
So it wasn't players in hot tubs with known game fixers, point shaving scandals, samurai swords or drug use that may be the ultimate downfall of Jerry Tarkanian but the type of players he recruited and the associations that he fostered over the years that may eventually take him down.
These are the very things so many people have criticized him for while others have portrayed him as a saint for giving troubled players a second chance. Being one of the winningest coaches of all time may have won him a lot of leniency but the Father Flanagan of college basketball may finally be reduced to what his critics always portrayed him to be, a coach who would do anything to win.
After Tarkanian announced his retirement last March, he claimed that he ran a clean program and no major violations would be uncovered. While today's article stops at cash benefits to two players, there are insinuations throughout the carefully worded piece that this may only be the tip of the iceberg and there would be more to follow.
All of this begs the question, "Who should pay the price for the acts?" Should the school who placed very stringent controls over the program in its final years bear the burden after all, they certainly didn't suffer from lack of institutional control?
Is it the coaches that continually looked the other way even when it was apparent that his players had stepped beyond the bounds of fair play?
Is it the players who committed the acts that broke the rules of their governing agency since it was their misdeeds even though they are non-paid workers in a very profitable business?
Should the current group of players and the new coaching staff who is looking for a fresh start and are working hard to put the ills of the past behind them pay the price for something they had no control over?
If you look at the history of the NCAA the likely answer is that those who committed the acts will likely go unpunished and the school who tried to control a renegade program and the players who had little or no part in what occurred, will bear the brunt of the force this archaic institution likes to wield.
Maddox and Roberson will likely never be forced to repay the money they took. Tarkanian, now retired, is no longer any threat to the institution unless it wants to go after the millions it paid Tark although the chance they could ever recover it is unlikely.
The only target the NCAA has that would make it appear to harbor any remnants of it's once awesome might are Fresno State and it's basketball program run by first year head coach, Ray Lopes.
So the coach who became so adept at looking the other way and the players who knowingly broke rules will likely pay no restitution other than damage to their reputations.
Michigan is continually rocked by evidence that a once prominent booster paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to players like Chris Webber and Robert Traylor while it's former coach Steve Fisher is free to build a new program at San Diego State.
Fisher's former school suffers from self-imposed loss of post season play and loss of scholarships while they are awaiting a ruling from the NCAA on a matters that occurred over the last ten years and Fisher is not expected to suffer any consequences.
Are we really to believe that these coaches had no idea what their players were doing with new cars, new clothes and cell phones that rarely stop ringing? Is exercising more staff control over these players asking too much of these coaches who feel compelled to win under ever increasing pressure from administrations and alumni?
Apparently the NCAA is at a loss on how to deal with these matters as well so that it can actually maintain the illusion that it actually yields any power whatsoever.
Their decision making rarely punishes those who deserve it and those who deserve it nearly always go unpunished.
How long are those who count on the NCAA to maintain the integrity of the college game supposed to sit around while the guilty go unpunished and the innocent or the relatively innocent pay the price of their predecessors misdeeds?
With the school's track record for a harsh line on infractions, Fresno State fans can expect the current program to suffer from the transgressions of the previous squad.
With any luck and without further revelations, the best Bulldog fans can hope for is a decision by the NCAA that the school did not suffer from lack of institutional control and their actions at the time of the infractions and any current actions they may take are adequate enough to satisfy their needs for punishment and give the school probation on the matters listed.
However, if as the article suggests, there are further infractions, we can only guess at what the NCAA might do and the severity of it will ultimately depend on what is revealed.
Alas, the fans at Fresno State must decide if it was all worth it. Under Jerry Tarkanian the Bulldogs produced six 20-win seasons (19 wins in his final campaign) and seven post-season appearances including two NCAA Tournament appearances that produced only one win.
There were also several run-ins with the law, drug addiction, player dismissals, point shaving allegations, NCAA rules infractions, television documentaries detailing the outlandish actions of many of the players and who knows what else.
There is a $120 million-plus arena being built on campus that is currently scheduled to house Jerry Tarkanian Court and will be the standard by which all other arenas on the West Coast are judged but in the end, the fans in Fresno may have lost anyway.
Time will tell but from most vantage points, there is a storm brewing and it looks to be a wild one.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com
*Many facts obtained from the Fresno Bee article published November 24, 2002.