VBK at center of controversy at St. Bonaventure

One of the greatest centers in Vanderbilt basketball history now stands at the center of a whirlwind of controversy. The man who coached six seasons from the benches at Memorial Gym now has to be sitting at his home in Ellicottville, N. Y., wondering if he will ever coach again.

Jan van Breda Kolff-- who, depending on your age, is remembered either as one of Vandy's greatest players in history, or one of its most mediocre coaches-- today finds himself embroiled in a controversy that could possibly drive him from the profession he was born into-- coaching basketball.

Perchance you've not been keeping up with the developments from upstate New York.  Back on March 4 the Atlantic 10 Conference took away six wins and barred the St. Bonaventure Bonnies from the postseason for using an ineligible player, center Jamil Terrell.  The team-- against van Breda Kolff's wishes-- subsequently decided to cancel its two remaining regular season games.

It turns out Terrell was supposedly admitted to Bona despite holding no degree beyond (get this) a welding certificate.  The scandal has already cost the resignation of university president Robert J. Wickenheiser, and forced van Breda Kolff and athletics director Gothard Lane to go on administrative leave.  Investigations into Terrell's admission and academic standing are still pending; rumors abound of the same kind of academic fraud for which the University of Georgia recently blew the whistle.

Stop!  Vanderbilt fans want to scream.  We don't want to hear any more.  The one thing that can't be said about Jan's era at Vandy is that he didn't run a clean program.  He graduated his players, and there was never even a whiff of scandal during his years in Nashville.  So what in the world is this all about?

I wish I knew.

As an aging baby boomer, the enduring memories I have of Jan are those of the 1974 SEC Championship year with the Kentucky Long Rifle and the F-Troop... of the floppy-haired, 6-7 point guard from California who moved to center his senior year and morphed into the SEC Player of the Year... of the leader of a team of road warriors who traveled to hothouses like Lexington and Knoxville and Tuscaloosa, and kicked butt.  (Ah, those were the days.)

When Paul Hoolahan brought van Breda Kolff back to Vandy from Cornell in 1993 on the heels of another SEC Championship year, Commodore fans held out lofty expectations that he'd be able take up right where Eddie Fogler had left off.  When VBK proved unable to sustain the momentum from Fogler's glorious 28-6 year, many fans turned on him.  His train ran out of steam in 1999.

His detractors, and there are many, forget that he won 70 games and obtained one NCAA invitation in his first four years at Vandy (numbers that, given what's happened since, sound pretty darn good).  They remember only that he couldn't elevate his team anywhere close to Rick Pitino's Kentucky teams and Nolan Richardson's Arkansas teams, which dominated that era.  (Oh, and also that he flailed his arms a lot.)

Pepperdine scooped him off the trash heap in 1999, and in two seasons in Malibu he went 47-17, even beat Bob Knight in the NCAA's.  He left there in 2001, ostensibly to get closer to his wife's family in the Northeast.

Now, after two seasons in Olean, a scandal rears its ugly head.  All the facts have yet to surface, but the same criticisms that dogged him at Vandy-- doesn't get along with the press, can't keep his assistants-- have followed him to Bona.  Assistant Coach Billy McCaffrey, now 31, the greatest player ever to play for VBK at Vandy, has assumed the reins as interim coach for the Bonnies.

Van Breda Kolff maintains his innocence, and hopes to eventually reclaim his job.

"The truth will all come out," van Breda Kolff recently told ESPN.com. "The only concern is for our players and what they're going through and how to deal with the situation. It's a very difficult life lesson to have gone through at such a young age. They'll grow from it and be better for it and I'll help them with that process."

But many suspect van Breda Kolff-- son of legendary coach Butch van Breda Kolff-- has coached his last game for the Bonnies.  (His future at St. Bonaventure may come down to whether one of those complex negotiated buyouts can be worked out.)  In the meantime, VBK must get accustomed once again to reading the word "embattled" in front of his name-- just the way he used to during his latter days in Nashville.


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