SAN ANTONIO — Imagine my surprise on Friday when, on the day of the open practices here at the Final Four, they ran videos of the proud histories of the participating basketball programs, and the video for Michigan was narrated by ESPN personality Jalen Rose. This was strange, you see, because, according to the official NCAA history of this event, Jalen Rose does not exist. Neither do Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, Ray Jackson Chris Webber, Rob Pelinka and the rest of those Michigan teams that did not officially lose to Duke, 71-51, in 1992, nor did they officially lose, 77-71, to North Carolina a year later when the officially non-existent Webber did not officially call a timeout that the officially non-existent Wolverines did not have at a crucial moment. This is the curious Phantom Zone in which the Officially Vacant teams exist in the collective and deliberate amnesia of the NCAA’s signature event.
Except for Loyola of Chicago, the history of every member of this year’s Final Four has one foot in the netherworld of the Vacated. For example, is this Villanova’s fourth national championship game or only its third? That depends upon whether or not you count the Vacated appearance in the 1971 championship game in which the Wildcats came very close to derailing UCLA’s lordly dynasty—in its interregnum between Alcindor and Walton—behind Howard Porter, who won the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player despite being on a losing team. Alas, these were also the days of the cutthroat wars between the NBA and the ABA, and it later came out that Porter surreptitiously signed a contract with the ABA’s Pittsburgh Condors. So not only was Villanova disappeared as that year’s runner-up, but Porter became a non-MOP as far as the history of the tournament is concerned. Porter, alas, came to a very bad end in 2007, and, according to the official records of the biggest moment of his life, he is, at best, an asterisk.
(Interestingly, the 1971 semifinal between Villanova and Western Kentucky now is completely null and void, since WKU was subsequently Vacated as well because its star, Jim McDaniels, was discovered to have signed with an agent in order to take advantage of the sub rosa bidding war between professional leagues.)
We’ve already dealt with the Fab Five conundrum, but Michigan also is involved in the shadowlands in another way. According to the official history, the Wolverines did not lose the 2013 championship game to Louisville, because Louisville’s championship that year was vacated as a result of the swirling scandal surrounding the end of Rick Pitino’s tenure with the Cardinals. And, as for now-departed Kansas, they won in 2008 and, as far as the record book is concerned, they beat nobody to do it, Memphis having been vacated over its shenanigans regarding Derrick Rose’s SAT’s, and who it was that actually took the test on Rose’s behalf.
To be sure, Memphis is a towering institution in the Land of the Lost. They are the only school to have two Final Four appearances Vacated. (Their 1985 loss to Villanova has vanished because their recruitment of Keith Lee amounted to a virtual sublet. This was the program coached by Dana Kirk, who actually went to an actual prison and was said to have charged campers for water at his summer basketball camp.) In addition, John Calipari coached the Vacated 2008 team and, previously, had coached the University of Massachusetts to the 1996 Final Four, only to have that team wiped out of the record books because players were getting paid by various hangers-on. This makes Calipari the only coach to have two teams Vacated, which is certainly a distinction for the ages.
In 1984, George Orwell created the concept of the unperson, someone who had been executed and of whose existence all records were erased. While we can all thank our personal lords and saviors that the “death penalty” as regards the NCAA is only a metaphor, these attempts to barber history are most akin to those old photographs from the Soviet Union in which people like Trotsky, who’d fallen out of favor, were removed from subsequent publication. But, nevertheless, and in keeping with longstanding NCAA tradition, the concept of the Vacated is both a crime against history and an extended exercise in hilarious tinpot moralism.
Consider, for example, the Vacated UCLA team that lost to Louisville in 1980. That team was coached by Larry Brown, and its title was vacated due to the fact that two of his players had received money from a booster named Sam Gilbert. It was an open secret in college basketball for decades that Gilbert was a sugar daddy cum bagman for the UCLA program, and that he functioned as such even during the reign of the saintly John Wooden. (This was the very first thing that drove the late Jerry Tarkanian into a rage at the NCAA.) Gilbert was not only a conduit for the UCLA underground athletic economy, he also was something of a crook, having been indicted on federal racketeering charges by prosecutors who were unaware that he already had died. So Larry Brown’s 1980 squad is Vacated largely for the sins of John Wooden’s program because the NCAA didn’t want to sully Wooden’s iconic memory.
Or, in another case, there are the 1997 Minnesota Golden Gophers. They lost to Kentucky in the national semifinals and then were Vacated due to a massive academic scandal in which over 400 essays were written by a basketball manager for various players in various classes. OK, but where does that leave us with North Carolina? In 2012, an independent investigation revealed that, since 1999, athletes, including basketball players, had been enrolled in “paper” classes, had committed plagiarism, and had generally committed academic fraud on a number of levels. Much of this occurred within the university’s African American studies curriculum, but athletes also skated by in a Naval Weapons class to which they were directed by their academic counselors.
The university fought the charges with remarkable vigor and then, last October, the NCAA announced that it would not be punishing North Carolina at all over what had been uncovered, claiming, very lamely, that it could not do so because the “paper” classes were open to all UNC students. In other words, the NCAA decided it could not punish UNC for academic fraud among its athletes because all students at the university could have pursued academic fraud as well. If the punishment of Minnesota were applied as precedent over the length of the scandal at North Carolina, however, the Tar Heels would have lost four appearances in the Final Four and two national championships. The Sam Gilbert precedent leads the suspicious mind to believe that the NCAA had no stomach for bringing the Hammer of Vacancy down on one of its premier gate attractions.
On Sunday, Michigan coach John Beilein was asked about his university’s entanglement with the Phantom Zone–both as a team that had lost to a Vacated team, and as the university with the most famous Vacated teams of all, the Fab Five squads of the early 1990’s. Beilein tap-danced enthusiastically around both examples. Of the Louisville loss, Beilein said:
“No, we didn't win that one. It was fair and square. They didn't have six guys on the court. They didn't have Rick's brother-in-law reffing or something like that. There was nothing going on in that game. We lost the game. They won it. I'm going to leave it like that and that's the way it should be. And we had our chance, and we couldn't quite get it done. And we didn't get breaks in that game. Maybe it all said, Coach, you're not going to get any breaks in this game, but you don't know it, but in five years Jordan Poole is going to hit an incredible shot to give you another opportunity.
"So it was a great basketball game. It was really a great game. When you think Luke Hancock, who was virtually unrecruited in high school, and Spike Albrecht, unrecruited out of high school, that's all anybody talked about at halftime. The rumor was Spike's Twitter account went from 5,000 followers to 20,000 followers at halftime. It was a great event, but we didn't win it. And we'll not say we're national champs.”
As for the Fab Five, Beilein was even more discreet. The members of that team, including Jalen Rose, have made no secret of their anger at the university for what they see as its complicity in their exile—in particular, Michigan’s refusal to hang the banners honoring their two Final Four appearances. At the time that the Fab Five was at Michigan, Beilein was coaching at Canisius, a distance down the college basketball food chain. So, his reluctance to wade into a messy issue is perhaps understandable.
“The university acknowledges that team. Right? The NCAA has just put certain restrictions on that team for what we can do. The university is—we love the Fab Five, and we continue to reach out to the Fab Five and that team,” Beilein said. “It wasn't just five guys on that team, now. That was a team of champions as well. But we have embraced every part—that period is over with. But we are doing everything we can and then everything else lines up to—we have a lot of things still going on in the future. We have more banners to raise. We have more jerseys to raise over time. Just stay tuned to all that.
But the university, when you have the NCAA violations in there, that's a time that it takes some time to heal. But I'm looking forward to the times when we get everybody in that group together and all of that isn't under our control, if you understand that. That's not all under our control. And if invitations are sent and they're not accepted, then that's okay, we just keep doing it. But one day, The Supremes, one day we'll be together. We'll get it all together at one time. In the meantime, we're not going to dwell on it.”
It’s more than past time for the NCAA to release the prisoners of the Phantom Zone. Sure, take the revenue away. Levy the punishments at the time the violations are discovered, at least until college sports finds a way to govern itself without being so idiotic. But set the history free. Reinstate the Vacated teams to the record books. Let people look back on their play warmly and honestly. Let Howard Porter be a Most Outstanding Player again. His memory deserves at least that. Don’t hang an asterisk on his tombstone forever.