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THE BIG TEN'S BIG MESS

May 25, 1981
May 25, 1981

Table of Contents
May 25, 1981

Stanley Cup
NBA Finals
The Big Ten Mess
Baseball
Golf
A.J. Foyt
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

THE BIG TEN'S BIG MESS

Harsh penalties following a bizarre series of events have made some Illini clamor to get out of the conference

By Douglas S. Looney

The Big Ten forgot to rape us after they finished pillaging us," an enraged University of Illinois alumnus wrote the other day to the school's athletic director, Neale Stoner. This is typical of the rhetoric following the May 2 announcement that Illinois was being put on three-year probation by the Big Ten. That action was the culmination of a year-long brouhaha between Illinois and its conference colleagues over Illini Quarterback Dave Wilson. The sanctions were unexpectedly harsh, and neither the verbiage nor the tension has diminished since. Among the words that have been bandied about in discussions among the gentlemen of the Big Ten are: liar, cheater, phony transcript, high-handed, sanctimonious, deception and bad faith.

This is an article from the May 25, 1981 issue Original Layout

Indeed, there are those who think the conference forgot nothing in slamming the jailhouse door on the entire Illinois sports program—and in particular on Wilson. A transfer student from Fullerton (Calif.) College, a junior college, Wilson blossomed last year into an almost certain first-round NFL draft choice by setting six NCAA, 11 Big Ten and 15 Illinois records. Against Ohio State he passed for 621 yards to become the first quarterback in history ever to better 600 in a game.

Many Illinois fans feel that the school, a charter member of the Big Ten (which dates back to 1895), should drop out of the conference. As a Mattoon, Ill. fan wrote, "We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore." Illinois Chancellor John E. Cribbet calls the punishment "excessive and punitive," but he also says "far too many people have said far too much," and concedes, "We're in a bad bind." Two weeks ago the faculty-student Urbana-Champaign Senate rejected the sanctions with a resolution that read in part, "We believe the integrity and principles of the University of Illinois and its faculty, students and alumni are more important than is our relationship to the Big Ten."

The only positive development for Illinois came last Tuesday when University President Stanley O. Ikenberry and Cribbet went to Bloomington, Ind. and persuaded the Big Ten faculty representatives—each school has one and they are the final authority on conference sports questions—to delay implementation of the sanctions from July 1 until Sept. 1. This grace period will give hot tempers time to cool but putting the toothpaste back in the tube is another matter. Robert Auler, Wilson's lawyer, plays down the significance of the Bloomington meeting. "It doesn't mean a damn thing," he says. "Cribbet and Ikenberry went there and people were nice to them and gave them cookies. That's all."

It was those same faculty reps who put Illinois on probation after examining these questions: Did Wilson use up a year of his eligibility by taking part in three plays in one game at Fullerton? Is he a good enough student to be at Illinois in the first place? Is he making normal progress as a student? And above all, did Illinois deceive the conference in its efforts to make Wilson eligible to play football last fall?

The representatives answered these questions Yes, Maybe, No and Yes, and besides ordering the three-year probation, barred the school from participating in any postseason event in any men's sport for two years—a devastating blow to recruiting—and cut off conference revenue that Illinois would have received for the next two years, a sum estimated to be about $2 million. That's a loss of almost 20% of Illinois' $5.8 million annual sports budget.

Slumped in front of his locker after a workout two weeks ago, Dave Wilson shook his head and said, "I expected a little mercy." But in discussing the matter a few days later in his Chicago offices, Byron Gregory, an attorney for the Big Ten, said, "Wilson's problem is that he concentrated on an athletic career at the expense of academics."

Nevertheless, there seems to be little evidence that Illinois did anything wrong, other than some bureaucratic and clerical bungling. And, assuming the school did do everything the Big Ten accuses it of, its crimes appear to be small potatoes in comparison with those revealed in the eligibility scandals that have erupted elsewhere in the past 18 months.

The Big Ten action is all the more galling to Illini faithful because, when it comes to football, few schools have worked as hard as Illinois to field such lousy teams. Only once in the past 15 years has Illinois had a winning season. It appeared that Coach Mike White (3-7-1 in 1980, his first year) might turn things around. Not, mind you, that championships were on the horizon, but at least respectability was.

But, it seems, those concerned with athletics at the rest of the Big Ten schools, and the commissioner's office, for years hadn't liked the way Illinois was operating its athletic program, and certainly don't now. Attorney Auler says, "They [Big Ten officials] don't realize there are different rules for Kick the Can, depending on where you grew up."

Further, the conference evidently is telling Illinois, without specifically saying so, that it doesn't care for junior college transfers—especially from California, where scholarship standards and eligibility requirements aren't always perceived as being top-drawer. It would seem that it irks the Big Ten that 13 of White's 22 scholarship recruits this spring are junior college transfers, with half a dozen more expected in the fall.

Finally, some observers feel, the faculty reps want to cast in concrete that what they say goes and that a good conference member gets along by going along. Indiana's Jack Wentworth, chairman of the faculty group, says, "We're the ultimate authority, and our view is that these people are in school for an education. The vote against Illinois was 9-zip so there's got to be something down there that causes concern."

William Ferguson is executive secretary of Illinois' mathematics department and also the school's faculty representative. "The reasons for all this [the sanctions against Illinois] are conspicuous by their absence," he says. "I think there must be an undercurrent of something, some hidden agenda."

Could be. It seems to gall the Big Ten, for example, that Illinois fired Cecil Coleman as athletic director in 1979 after seven years in office. Then Illinois, in the view of much of the rest of the conference, compounded the error by hiring Stoner from California State-Fullerton. Illinois also fired Coach Gary Moeller (Ohio State '63), a Big Ten old boy who had logged eight years as an assistant at Michigan, and signed up White, who had coached at Stanford and Cal and for the 49ers. More California. Even worse, word was going around that White might have played fast and loose with the rules when he was head coach at Cal. He was fired in 1977 after a 7-4 season. The fact was that he had a personality conflict with California athletic director Dave Maggard, who, among other things, wasn't thrilled with the borderline academic qualifications of some athletes White was recruiting. (A friend of White's says, "Mike will play up to the limit of the rules, but he won't go beyond.") Moreover, Cal players were labeled cheap-shot artists during White's six-year tenure, and that reputation has been hard for the Illinois coach to shake. Against this backdrop, White hired two Illinois assistants from Arizona State and two others from Oregon—and both those schools were penalized by the Pac-10 last August for accepting unearned credits and falsified transcripts. Then White recruited Wilson.

The Big Ten believes Illinois has loose faculty control of athletics, which may well be the case. If so, it isn't unique in this regard, even in the Big Ten. Academicians talk about faculty control; in reality, athletics are controlled—for good or ill—by athletic departments.

Only 14 years ago Illinois was severely penalized by the Big Ten. When a slush-fund operation was discovered, the school was ordered to fire its football coach, Pete Elliott, and both of its basketball coaches, Harry Combes and Howie Braun. That action so crippled athletics in Champaign-Urbana that its effects have been felt to this day.

But all these things are intangibles, and Big Ten Commissioner Wayne Duke vigorously denies that they have anything to do with the Wilson case. "You don't take pride in enforcing the rules," he says. "You take pride in protecting academic standards."

Ironically, no one accuses Wilson of doing anything wrong. The blots on his record are that he didn't hit the books as hard as he should have in high school and that he is always doing what well-meaning adults tell him to.

Two weeks ago in Champaign, Wilson was eating pizza with fellow quarterbacks Kris Jenner, Tim Damron and Tony Eason and the quarterback coach, Walt Harris, and discussing his plight. "I remember when I was little, a coach showed me a sign," he said. "I still remember it. It said: Rule No. 1: The coach is always right. Rule No. 2: If the coach is wrong, refer to Rule No. 1."

Wilson has subscribed to that maxim in spades. Further, his red hair and wide-eyed innocence make him look like an overgrown (he's 6'3", 215 pounds) Dennis the Menace. But he isn't. What comes through is candor. "Of course I wouldn't be here if it weren't for football, to be honest," he says. "Football is first and education is second. I know I haven't used my academic talents to their fullest. I could be a lot more intelligent than I am now. I am an underachiever. But I go to class. I go to lab and cut up a few rats and frogs. I'm relatively intelligent. I'm not a dumb jock." The proof is in the numbers. At both Fullerton and Illinois he has made passing grades. His average is 3.57 on a 5.0 scale, a C+.

Wilson grew up in Anaheim, five minutes from Disneyland, and went to Katella High. "My grades weren't very good," he says, "but nobody told me they were supposed to be." His average for grades nine through 12 was 2.11 on a 4.0 scale, a C. He gravitated to football "because I could throw nice spirals. But when you're quarterback of a high school team that is 3-6 and 2-7, a lot of recognition doesn't come."

So not a single university was interested in Dave Wilson for football reasons, although academically he met the NCAA standard of at least a 2.0 grade point average in high school.

In 1977 Wilson enrolled at Fullerton. A backup quarterback, he was sent into the Hornets' first game of the season against Citrus College, a J.C. in Azusa, Calif., with 3:16 to go in the second quarter. On his first play Wilson was forced to scramble and fell out of bounds, landing on and breaking his right wrist. He stayed in for two more plays. Wilson thought the wrist was merely sprained, and it was taped at half time, but when he returned to the field to start the second half, "I couldn't grip the football." He wore an arm cast for 12 weeks.

Because Wilson couldn't play football or write in class, his coach, Hal Sherbeck, advised him to drop out of school for the time being. "They said it would be like I had never even gone out," says Wilson. Sherbeck, who says he checked with various people, assured Wilson he could still play two years at Fullerton, and if anybody wanted him, two more at a four-year school.

That was only partly true. While the smaller NCAA schools in Divisions II and III do subscribe to this philosophy, the bigger schools in Division I don't accept medical redshirts from junior colleges. Contrary to what many believe, however, it is not an NCAA rule in football for Division I, although it is for all other Division I sports. In football, the decision rests with the conferences, although the conferences have routinely claimed—as the Big Ten did in the Wilson case—that it is an NCAA rule.

All of which led attorney Auler to grump, "[The Big Ten] is saying there are three kinds of breaks—simple, compound and Big Ten."

Wilson's wrist healed, so he came back in the spring of 1977-78 and took a part-time Fullerton class schedule of eight hours. At times the Big Ten representatives have counted this school term as a full year and noted Wilson's lack of progress. In 1978-79 and 1979-80, Wilson played football and went to school full time at Fullerton. But after seven games plus five plays in the eighth, he was again hurt. This time, as he stepped up into the pocket to pass, he was grabbed and twisted down. His left ankle was dislocated and the fibula was fractured. While a few schools had shown some interest in Wilson—including Minnesota and Michigan State of the Big Ten—that interest waned with Wilson on crutches.

Enter Mike White. Before he took the job at Champaign, he looked over the Illini roster, discovered there was little talent, and figured his best hope was a J.C. quarterback who could come in and play—and throw. White called Sherbeck, who gave Wilson high marks but not raves. "I wasn't a superstar in anybody's eyes," says Wilson, "not even mine."

And to White's credit, he told Wilson that it looked as if he would only be eligible for one year of Big Ten football because his three plays for Fullerton in 1977 would use up a full year of eligibility. The NCAA ruled in January 1980 that Wilson probably had only one year of eligibility remaining, but left the final decision up to the conference. On May 4, 1980 Illinois made its case to the Big Ten eligibility committee—four of the faculty representatives—which ruled that Wilson could play in the fall if he had 51 hours of academic credit, the Big Ten minimum for a student going into his junior year. (Wilson was allowed to transfer 36 hours from Fullerton, with an average of 3.639 on a 5.0 scale, a C+.) The committee also ruled, however, that it wouldn't give a medical-hardship waiver on Wilson's 1977 injury.

At Stoner's request, Ferguson appealed the medical-hardship decision to the full body of faculty representatives. They not only reaffirmed that Wilson had only one year of eligibility left but also that instead of using it up in 1980, Wilson would have to acquire senior status (a minimum of 78 credit hours) and couldn't play until 1981—thus "helping" him get closer to his degree before playing.

A stunned Wilson was informed of the decision by Stoner. It isn't clear whether it was Wilson or Stoner who broached the idea of getting a lawyer to fight the eligibility decision. But in any event, on Aug. 19 of last year, Wilson, represented by Auler, filed a request for an injunction against the NCAA and Big Ten decisions on his eligibility, citing deprivation of equal protection against the former, and failure of due process and disregard for conference rules against the latter. Stoner says he made it clear to Wilson that if the matter went to court, Wilson was on his own and Illinois would be no party to the litigation. The Big Ten is of the firm opinion that Illinois was behind the suit. Says Stoner, "They don't believe us. I don't know why. They have chosen to ignore the truth."

The Big Ten dug in its heels, trying to prevent Wilson from playing last fall. But the Champaign County Circuit Court granted the injunction, the Illinois Fourth District Court of Appeals and the State Supreme Court kept the injunction alive, and Wilson kept throwing—although until late in the season he was usually uncertain whether he would be able to play on a given Saturday.

Now came the matter of The Phony Transcript. Those words strike terror in the hearts of college administrators after the abuses of academic record-keeping in the Pac-10 that came to light in 1979-80. It seems that when Wilson's petition for a waiver of the academic progress rule was filed a year ago, in the space for high school grade average, the figure 2.67 was inserted. Then, although it wasn't required, academic adviser Terry Cole asked Ferguson about attaching the high school transcript Illinois had received from Katella. Said Ferguson, "Why not?" Cole explains, "We did it because we were trying to be thorough and we had nothing to hide."

Alas, the transcript wasn't of David C. Wilson, quarterback at Fullerton, but of David B. Wilson, wide receiver at the same school. Both athletes not only went to Fullerton but also had attended Katella High. David C. had a seven-semester high school average of 2.11, counting all but the final term of his senior year (but only 1.81 for six semesters from 10th through 12th grades); David B. had a 2.67. David B. says he was asked by Katella for permission to send his transcript to Illinois. "I told them they had the wrong one," he says. "I don't know myself if they sent it anyway, but it sure looks like it." It sure does—but there is no evidence of any ulterior motive.

After all, David B.'s high school grades weren't markedly better than David C.'s. In fact, Patricia E. Askew, an admissions official at Illinois, says Quarterback Wilson, in terms of the nature of courses taken, may have been better prepared for college than Wide Receiver Wilson. Says Auler, "Why put in a less favorable transcript to deceive someone?" Askew points out that Quarterback Wilson enrolled in 31 courses of college-preparatory merit in high school and took 199 hours altogether, while Wide Receiver Wilson enrolled in 22 such courses and earned 175 hours. Ultimately, when the transcript error was discovered and the proper one arrived at Illinois, it somehow didn't get to the Big Ten faculty reps for approximately three weeks. The faculty reps must have felt they were getting a fast shuffle. And this is the only serious infraction Illinois seems guilty of: ineptitude. Says Cribbet, "Nobody can put up with cheating. We didn't cheat. We may have lacked good procedures, but we didn't lack good faith."

The fact is, Illinois doesn't require a high school transcript for the acceptance of an incoming junior college transfer, choosing instead to rely entirely on his J.C. achievement. Nor did it make any difference to the faculty representatives, their protestations now notwithstanding, whether Wilson had a 2.67 high school average or 2.11. The magic figure is 2.0. It seems to weaken the entire Big Ten position when the conference insists on saying, as it does, that Wilson had a 1.81 high school average in his final six semesters at Katella when they know that Illinois always includes the two ninth-grade semesters in analyzing an application. With them, the correct figure is 2.11.

But, triggered by The Phony Transcript, the Big Ten launched an all-out attack on Illinois, and on April 27 of this year accused it of deliberately submitting the inaccurate transcript, failing to deal in good faith in the matter of the lawsuit and being "in violation of conference rules and principles." Five days later the Big Ten lowered the boom on Illinois.

Big Ten attorney Gregory says the central issue is "What responsibilities does a member have to a voluntary association?" Commissioner Duke answers, "Being a member of a voluntary group means you voluntarily observe club rules." Another Big Ten official says, "Illinois should have sat Wilson down and said, 'Son, the Big Ten says you're not eligible. Now, you work hard, get your grades in order and maybe you will be. But now you aren't and that's final.' " In any event, you probably don't sue, and although Illinois didn't, Wilson did.

With their sanctions, the faculty representatives have backed Illinois into a corner, seemingly providing no alternative to accepting the punishment other than leaving the conference. "The principle of the truth underlies the whole thing," says Stoner. "We're telling the truth. And we cannot accept sanctions for telling the truth."

But for Illinois, the school of Red Grange, to leave the Big Ten seems almost unthinkable. It belongs there, geographically and in terms of academic philosophy. Illinois is one of the finest universities in the nation, private or public (four of its graduate programs are regarded as being among the top five in the U.S.). Thus, Illinois is irate at the faculty representatives' charge that "the ultimate solution to these problems must be found in a renewed dedication by the University to Conference principles which place academic standards ahead of athletic interests."

While the Big Ten appears to be highhanded in this instance, Illinois is not without fault. The transcript mess was inexcusable. And Illinois' manners haven't been the best. Indeed, at one court hearing last September, an exasperated lawyer for the University of Illinois Athletic Association, George Miller, referred to the Big Ten and its officials as "self-righteous hypocrites." Which isn't the kind of statement that makes for a conciliatory mood in either the courtroom or the groves of academe.

The focus of the controversy, David Wilson, is a youngster who bought the theory that attendance at college is merely another requirement toward a career in professional sports. Which leads to some questions: How good a quarterback is he? Has his single-minded pursuit of a career in sports been a delusion, or has it just been a star-crossed trip down the same road traveled by many other athletes, a trip that might yet result in a fat NFL contract? Gil Brandt, vice-president for personnel development for the Dallas Cowboys, says, "It's hard to evaluate a quarterback who plays for four years in college. After only one year, it's mighty hard. Wilson has the physical talents but he has to learn how to read defenses and make adjustments, and you don't learn that watching films and looking at blackboards." Mike White, who has a genius for developing passers (Jim Plunkett and Mike Boryla at Stanford, and Craig Morton, Steve Bartkowski and the late Joe Roth at Cal), says, "What makes Wilson so good is what he sees before the ball is snapped and then how he evaluates as he is dropping back to throw. He has all those quarterback intangibles, including unbelievable temperament. I don't see how he got through last year." He not only got through but he also was 10th in the Heisman Trophy voting.

In any case, the entire matter must be settled by Sept. 1. Is there any common ground for negotiation? There may be. There may not. One Big Ten faculty rep, Frank Remington of Wisconsin, said in an interview in the Wisconsin State Journal, "The University of Illinois merited what it now claims is harsh treatment." It would seem that if justice is to prevail, the faculty representatives must control their egos, the rest of the Big Ten athletic officials must ease away from their hard-line stance, and Illinois must calm down and be reasonable.

A perfect example of the Illinois hysteria is a letter from a Decatur lawyer to Wayne Duke: "It is preposterous to me that the Ohio State players can year after year be paid high salaries to paint fences; that [certain coaches at] other schools can physically abuse and assault game officials and photographers, destroy field equipment and take swings at opposing players, all without any sanctions imposed against the schools."

The practical thing for Illinois to do now would be to concede that Wilson has used the one year of eligibility it was generally agreed he had. Never mind that the .J.C. medical redshirt rule doesn't really exist; never mind that Wilson clearly is making reasonable academic progress. If Wilson went along, as well he might, then the Big Ten could more or less gracefully reduce the punishment, perhaps putting Illinois on administrative probation for two years, in which school officials would have to give a thorough accounting of Illinois' athletic procedures and demonstrate that there is adequate faculty control. The rest of the football players thus wouldn't be penalized, not to mention the 230 male Illinois athletes in 11 other varsity sports. The financial penalties should be drastically reduced or dropped.

In any event, Wilson could be chosen in the NFL supplemental draft in early July. Meanwhile he is taking an upbeat stance. "I always wanted to play football at a big school and get a chance to play in the NFL," he says. "So all my dreams are coming true so far, and when that's happening, you're having a good life."

Would that the fans were so optimistic, because the most-seen bumper sticker around Champaign is GO BIG 9.

PHOTOThe focus of the controversy is Quarterback Dave Wilson, who last season sued successfully to play.PHOTOIllini A.D. Stoner says Wilson alone brought suit.PHOTOThis Dave Wilson's transcript caused a furor.PHOTOCoach White raised some hackles when he recruited Wilson.PHOTOWentworth, with Duke (left) and Illinois' Ikenberry and Cribbet, announces a delay of sanctions.