New Mexico: more tremors

Already rocked by a scandal involving a phony transcript, New Mexico lost six more players in a growing probe centered on attendance in a mysterious class
December 17, 1979

The scandal that hit the University of New Mexico basketball team (SI, Dec. 10) spread alarmingly last week. On Dec. 6, six days after Coach Norm Ellenberger and his assistant, Manny Goldstein, were suspended for their alleged involvement in the forgery of Guard Craig Gilbert's junior college transcript, five other players were declared ineligible for having credits on their New Mexico records for a summer course none had ever taken. A sixth player, who claims he did take the course, was suspended.

Including Gilbert—the apparently unwitting pawn in the JC transcript scam, who was suspended on Nov. 30—the absence of the seven players left the Lobos with, in effect, a four-man team. By the end of their game against New Mexico State at Las Cruces Saturday night, which New Mexico lost 68-58, the Lobos had one senior and one freshman basketball player on the floor, along with two quarterbacks from the football team and a student trainer.

Five of the ineligible players—Larry Belin, Larry Hubbard, Andre Logan, Larry Tarrance and Paul Roby—had received three hours of credits, which each needed to retain his NCAA eligibility, for supposedly completing a summer course entitled "Current Problems and Principles in Coaching Athletics." The course was an "extension" class, administered by Ottawa (Kans.) University, but taught in the Los Angeles area by a member of the physical education faculty of Los Angeles Valley College in Van Nuys. The five New Mexico players signed a press release stating that they had no knowledge of how they became enrolled in the course and were unaware that they had received credit for it. The suspended player, Jerome Henderson, of Los Angeles, claims he did take the course, though he told New Mexico officials he wasn't sure where in Southern California the class had been held.

As of last Sunday, Henderson was not the only person mystified by the course. Ottawa is a small (600 students) Baptist university that operates an extension program it calls "College without Campus" out of offices in Kansas City and Phoenix. According to Harold Germer, dean of the Phoenix center, the program is designed primarily as a service to adults seeking to complete work toward varied degrees. Accredited courses can be taught anywhere, using local instructors, or a teacher in, say, Los Angeles, can propose courses to Ottawa. Germer acknowledges that these extension courses—at $25 per credit—are an important source of income for Ottawa.

Who enrolled the New Mexico students? Who apparently forged their signatures and paid their tuition, which wouldn't have been covered by their athletic scholarships? And who were the other members of the class?

There apparently were 49 students enrolled and Earle P. Durley, 33, the Valley College phys ed instructor who taught the class in a colleague's garage, which was converted to a den, remembers the names of six New Mexico players being on the rolls. He says, "Someone was present for the class hours. I saw a copy of their press book afterward. There was no one in the class that bore any resemblance to them. Someone did sign them in. Someone did do the work. Someone took the exam. And they each got a grade. Tuition was paid for each of them by someone from New Mexico, I assume...I wasn't bribed in any way, shape or form. The only fee I got was $400 for teaching the class."

Many other questions were being raised last week. The commissioner of a major athletic conference said that an investigation is currently under way of a so-called "merchant" operating in Southern California who, for a price, will place names of athletes on school rolls and get them credit. And the University of New Mexico Athletic Council resolved to call upon the NCAA for a full investigation of such "credits for cash" schemes.

One way that such a "merchant" could operate is with a computer terminal at a remote location. A great majority of universities maintain transcripts in computer files, the University of New Mexico among them. After grades from written registers have been transferred onto computer forms and the computer printout has been checked against the registers, the registers are discarded. Thereafter a computer expert with the proper code could dial his terminal into a university's system and do whatever he wanted to a student's grades. The NCAA says it has no information about the operations of any such "merchants."

One person who is familiar with shady dealings between recruiters from major universities and junior college officials says, "For the NCAA to cite every instance in which a junior college manipulates a player's grade to make him eligible for transfer to a four-year school would be like the police ticketing every person who drives over 55 miles per hour or arresting every person who enters an office football pool."

The practice of universities "farming out" high school graduates who cannot meet NCAA eligibility standards is commonplace. It is done extensively with football, basketball and track athletes. But the system can backfire, as in the case of Ron Brewer, the All-America basketball player at Arkansas two years ago who's now a member of the Portland Trail Blazers.

Arkansas Coach Eddie Sutton wanted Brewer badly after he led his powerful Northside High School team in Ft. Smith, Ark. to a 30-0 season. But Brewer didn't achieve a 2.0 grade average, which is the NCAA minimum. Brewer insisted on following his high school coach, Gayle Kaundart, to Westark Community College in Ft. Smith. Westark went 32-4, but much to Sutton's and Brewer's dismay, Brewer's grade-point average wasn't high enough. Brewer's impression was that Kaundart didn't mind. The coach told Brewer that Westark could win the national JC title the following year. Sutton wanted to get Brewer to Arkansas, but to do so Brewer needed to get A's in nine credits of school work. So, at Sutton's recommendation. Brewer enrolled for some summer courses at the College of Southern Idaho. "Sutton once coached there and he had friends there," said Brewer last week, "and he told me it was the only place where I'd get a fair chance." Brewer got his three A's. "One course was American Government," says Brewer, who added that he couldn't recall the others. The following autumn he was playing for Arkansas. Sutton says he has a "clear conscience" on the matter.

The NCAA's enforcement policies have come under question before, and those policies are again being questioned in the New Mexico case. Officials at New Mexico admit that the NCAA has been investigating its basketball program for several years—at least since 1974.

During the last several years the NCAA received information charging the New Mexico basketball program with such violations as grade fixing, illegal travel arrangements for players and cash payments to players from boosters. The NCAA also received suggestions in writing that several Albuquerque gamblers were closely associated with the coaches and the team. By the end of 1977 the NCAA had compiled a lengthy list of allegations—according to one source, upward of 100—yet it wasn't until this past September that the NCAA formally presented its list of charges—some 57 of them—to New Mexico. None of the allegations concerned gambling.

Why did the NCAA wait nearly two years before serving the charges? Bill Hunt, assistant executive director in charge of enforcement, said, "Some cases take longer than others to complete. And the two principal reasons are the replacement of the staff member in charge of an investigation who leaves the NCAA and must be replaced, and the uncovering of information as an investigation goes on that leads into new areas and lengthens the investigation." The staffer in charge of the New Mexico probe for a while, Brent Clark, did leave the NCAA at the end of 1977, but a long list of infractions already existed. As for the new information, New Mexico's own release of the 57 allegations states that none involves current Lobo players.

As to the tip on the alleged involvement of gamblers with the team, the NCAA again refuses to comment. But New Mexico law-enforcement agencies have had several known gamblers under surveillance since at least last spring, and on Nov. 19 the Albuquerque police and State Attorney General's office conducted 13 gambling raids, including two at the homes of men reported to be friends of Ellenberger's.

Yet another development came Saturday, when The Albuquerque Journal reported that records from the Citizens Bank of Albuquerque showed two series of loans to Lobo basketball players. One, to three players for $2,000 each, was made on Dec. 22. 1976. Loans to three other players for $1,700 each were made on Nov. 25, 1977. Investigators are trying to determine if the loans were ever repaid or if the notes were met by someone other than the players. One former Lobo player told Mike Gallagher of the Journal that loans have been a "regular part of playing basketball at New Mexico for years."

All of this weighs heavily on Ellenberger and Goldstein, who will appear before the UNM Athletic Council shortly to answer questions about the allegations, Meanwhile, federal and state investigations into the matter are continuing.

At the moment those who seem to be suffering the most are the seven suspended or ineligible players. Because of the NCAA's policy that prohibits it from even confirming that a particular school is under investigation, a perfectly innocent athlete can stumble into a rat's nest of wrongdoing, and then take the fall, right along with the guilty.

PHOTORival State fans didn't let the Lobos forget. PHOTOFootball player Derwin Williams (12) was a puzzled fill-in.

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