'All I Want Is To Be Happy'

Star player John Williams, under indictment in the Tulane scandal, is facing an unpredictable future
April 22, 1985

One day last week John (Hot Rod) Williams was walking across a dirt basketball court a few blocks from his home in Sorrento, La. He played on the court all the time as a kid. Now it was littered with trash, a torn balloon and a sneaker and was punctured with snake holes. The basketball hoop was attached to a slightly crooked tree trunk. The rim looked a little higher than the regulation 10 feet. Williams jumped up and drilled the weathered ball down, 'it's 10'2"," he said firmly. Williams took a couple more shots. "Playing on dirt taught me that you couldn't dribble the ball. So I had to learn to shoot without putting the ball on the ground. You bounce it in here and it goes right off this hump. Always has." And it did once again.

By honing his game under these sorry conditions, Williams ultimately became a star player at Tulane and appeared certain to be a first-round choice in the NBA draft in June. It was to be a crowning moment in the life of a young man born to a mother he never knew and a father he has a vague recollection of seeing once, perhaps as much as a decade ago.

But last month Williams, the Metro Conference Player of the Year in 1984, was one of five Tulane basketball players accused of involvement in a point-shaving scheme that, according to sources in the Orleans Parish District Attorney's office, paid them some $23,000 (SI, April 8 and 15). He was also reported to have accepted payments in violation of NCAA rules—$10,000 from a booster to attend Tulane and, after entering the school, as much as $100 a week, at times, from Green Wave coach Ned Fowler. Fowler and two assistants, Mike Richardson and Max Pfeifer, were forced by the school to resign. Tulane president Eamon Kelly also recommended to the school's Board of Administrators that the men's basketball program be dropped.

W. Kent McWilliams, 62, one of Tulane's biggest financial backers, says that Fowler confided to him. "I know I did wrong. Now I have to pay the price." SI has been told by an informed source that improper payments from alumni earmarked for Williams and other players totaled about $700 over a recent three-month period. And, McWilliams says, Fowler told him he dipped into his own pocket for more money. McWilliams also says that Fowler told him that he didn't hand out as much cash as "a lot of coaches do to one player."

That speaks volumes. For the burgeoning Tulane mess is being viewed as a bleak microcosm of what's rotten in college sports today. As though publicized allegations of point-shaving, payoffs from reputed gamblers in cash and cocaine and illicit under-the-table payments weren't enough, SI has found evidence of academic improprieties involving Tulane athletes.

Williams, the central figure in the scandal, had, unquestionably, a checkered career at Tulane. As a freshman, he was the league surprise and an all-conference selection. But as a sophomore, he had physical problems and a poor attitude. Says Jim Hart, president of a 200-member Tulane booster organization, the Tip-Off Club, and a confidant of Fowler's, "Many times Ned came close to kicking John off the team for missing practices and for being unreliable. John soured to everybody. It started his sophomore year and got worse as it went along. Why I don't know." A teammate says he thinks cocaine may have been the culprit in Williams's fall; that is vigorously denied by Williams's attorneys. Williams rebounded his junior and senior years, leading the team in scoring both seasons (19.4 as a junior, 17.8 as a senior). He ended his career just 10 points shy of the school record of 1,851.

Back home in Sorrento last week, Williams—who pleaded not guilty Monday to the charges of sports bribery that had been lodged against him—appeared almost oblivious to his predicament. Sitting in the trailer he calls home, Hot Rod was musing about his lot in life and his future. "I guess you learn from your mistakes," he said. As he sat and talked, he played and roughhoused with his son, John Jr., who was born two years ago to Rod and his girl friend, Karen Hardy. "All I want is to be happy," he says. "And so far I be happy."

On Aug. 26, 1981 Williams took the Scholastic Aptitude Tests, which are used by many universities as one of several criteria for admission. "I couldn't even read the English part," he told a Tulane assistant coach. Later, the coach told Williams, "Congratulations, you passed." SI's sources indicated that Williams-scored close to the 200 minimum on the verbal (English) portion and approximately 270, 70 points above the minimum, on the math. Anything below 250 verbal ranks in the bottom 4% of the one million high school students who take the test annually; anything below 300 math is in the lowest 6%. The national average SAT score last year was 426 verbal and 471 math; at Tulane, the average student entering the College of Arts and Sciences scored 538 verbal, 583 math.

Contacted on the subject, Williams's lawyers, Joel P. Loeffelholz and Alan B. Tusa of New Orleans and Michael J. Green of Chicago, all refused to confirm Williams's test scores. Green did fume, "This is a genuine tragedy. Tulane is a wealthy, white institution. You might just as well put him in a calculus class at Harvard. What the hell is Hot Rod Williams doing at Tulane? I blame it on the university."

Kelly was having none of that. "John Williams was recruited as a student-athlete to study and to play basketball," he said. Asked if Williams was, in fact, the kind of student Tulane wants in its self-proclaimed drive to national prominence, Kelly said, "I can't comment on individual students."

Williams's academic record as a physical education major at Tulane has been no less embarrassing than his SAT scores. His grade-point average is, according to SI's sources, only slightly below 2.0—a C—in a 4.0-point system. That is deceptive. (Williams said he didn't know what was meant by such terms as a 4.0 grade-point average, 3.0, and so forth). His college record is littered not only with failures (he has flunked the same psychology course three times) but with such decidedly non-academic course offerings as volleyball, weight training, soccer, beginning gymnastics, archery, first aid and CPR, beginning racquetball and driver education. Last fall he failed beginning golf. Says Green, "Rod Williams was put on this earth for one reason: to play basketball."

But at Tulane? As the school grappled with the scandal, there was more trouble. Athletic director Hindman Wall resigned last Friday, explaining that he was tired. He has been under constant pressure for everything from his choice of football coaches (first the aging Vince Gibson, then the hot-tempered Wally English) to a projected 1984-85 athletic department budget deficit of $983,000. "My problem," said Wall, "is I have to police the actions of people I can't control."

Amid all the turmoil came Kelly's announcement that the school would drop basketball. Tip-Off Club president Hart, for one, was miffed, saying: "I think it's terrible. I think Kelly overreacted." However, Kelly was coping with an incensed faculty, some members of which want to eliminate all sports. The day before his decision to can basketball, Kelly met with key faculty members of the University Senate. A source familiar with the meeting says, "They [the faculty people] told him they had a very strong vote to get rid of all sports on campus. So to head off that little rampage, Kelly axed the basketball program." Booster McWilliams, who made his fortune in oil and gas exploration, thereupon told Kelly that in about three years, "I'm coming back to ask for reinstatement of basketball." But last Friday Kelly insisted, "Permanent means permanent." One factor that may bear on how permanent is permanent: Last year alone McWilliams gave $1.7 million to Tulane athletics; in 1980 he gave $600,000 to the geology department.

The scandal has exacerbated the schism between Tulane's academic and athletic interests. Kelly insists "there's no rift," but William Gwyn, a political science professor who has been at the school since 1963, says, "The university got itself into a nightmare with intercollegiate athletics."

The bad dreams seem likely to continue. Two of the players, Clyde Eads and Jon Johnson, have been given immunity from state prosecution for their involvement in the point-shaving and will testify for the D.A.; Bobby Thompson, a little-used senior guard, pleaded guilty last week to one count of conspiracy to commit sports bribery; David Rothenberg, 22, a non-basketball-playing student, pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy and, in an unrelated case, one count of cocaine possession. Sentencing was set for July 9. On Monday player David Dominique pleaded not guilty to charges relating to point-shaving ("I just know somebody be lying on me," he had said earlier). Another student, Gary Kranz, 21, had entered not guilty pleas to 13 counts of sports bribery and conspiracy and nine counts involving distribution and possession of cocaine. Two non-students also facing criminal charges in the case pleaded not guilty Monday.

Yet, the focal point of the scandal continues to be Hot Rod Williams. He was, by far, the best player on the team and was treated with the deference due a pro-in-waiting. And he now has become a classic symbol; Tulane defenders insist there are hundreds of John Williamses playing basketball around the nation. Few dispute the claim.

While a student at St. Amant High School in Sorrento, a school that sends no more than 20% of its students to college, Williams had no plans to further his education. For that reason he failed to take the SATs in either his junior or senior year. He struggled for C's and graduated 182nd in a class of 261. But eventually basketball recruiters came knocking—LSU and SMU were the other finalists for Williams's services—and he took the SATs just before enrolling at Tulane. Hot Rod was ill-equipped for either the recruiting hustle or college. Henry L. Mason, a political science professor at Tulane since 1952, says, "We get these athletes from incredibly poor high schools, and it's getting worse."

The woman Hot Rod (he got his name when he was a baby because he had a habit of scooting backward on the floor making enginelike sounds) calls Mom is Barbara Colar, who raised him from the time he was nine months old. And, to her credit, she did encourage him to use basketball to get a college education. Through the years, she held down two jobs trying to keep things together and would often go for days without seeing Williams.

Life has always been a struggle for Colar. Last June the trailer she lived in was destroyed by fire. Many of Hot Rod's trophies were destroyed or broken; almost everything else was ruined. She was left with $1,600 in insurance money. Colar, a custodian at St. Amant Elementary School, had to buy another trailer for about $30,000 and pay for it with a mortgage that costs $290 a month. Her take-home pay, according to a source close to the family, is $400 a month.

The trailer has three bedrooms (the only item of note belonging to Williams is a rusty .22-caliber rifle), and there's a small house nearby with two bedrooms; 13 people share the two structures. Trash and decay abound. "Compared to people at Tulane, I'm way poor," Williams says. The other day, Colar had a slight stroke and was hospitalized. Nobody has any idea how the bills will be paid. Says Williams, "If I make any money, I'll pay off my mother's doctor's bills, put the rest in the bank and then work from there."

As Williams sits outside his home and chats, his engaging nature comes through. He is open. He has trouble expressing himself, but he tries. His love for his son is undeniable: "He's my heart."

Williams won't discuss the $10,000 he allegedly accepted to go to Tulane. Sources in the D.A.'s office maintain that Williams took the money and used part of it to pay doctor bills incurred by his family, then bought himself a used car. Once at Tulane he received, according to one source, payments of $20, then $30, then $40, all on an irregular basis. It was not until the trailer burned, the source says, that Williams occasionally received $100 a week. McWilliams says Fowler told him, "I gave John money because he had a baby, his house had burned down and he was penniless. How can I look a boy in the face without a dime in his pocket and say, I'm sorry, but I can't help you'? In my case, I did the right thing, and it turned out wrong." Contacted by SI, Fowler said, "If you think the players were lined up outside my office like [it was] a cash window, that's just not right."

McWilliams, who back in 1940 received one of the first five basketball scholarships ever awarded by Tulane, says he understands the dilemma. He told Fowler, "Coach, the whole thing came tumbling down once you started doling. You lost discipline, then control of the situation. Most of all, you knew you were breaking the rules." Fowler, according to McWilliams, then told him, "You're right."

Meanwhile, not much of anything seems right on the Tulane campus. (Even assistant coach Pfeifer's name is misspelled on the basketball office door.) As a group, the faculty definitely is not a bunch of happy campers. The main object of disenchantment is University College, one of 11 colleges and schools that make up the institution. University College is the continuing-education arm of the school and mainly serves adults and part-time students. But physical education majors also matriculate in University College. Some of the faculty consider the college an academic joke; SAT scores are approximately 200 points below the campus-wide average. Some 80% of the football and basketball players are enrolled in the college. The only two degrees the college confers on full-time students are in physical education and general studies. Boatner Reily, the chairman of the Board of Administrators, thinks the physical education major is "academically suspect."

The university is well aware of the college's image, and Kelly says that even before the current scandal broke out, the administration had decided to impose, beginning this fall, a campus-wide minimum combined SAT of 700 for admission to Tulane.

Says Frank Birtel, a longtime professor and a faculty rep to the Board of Administrators at Tulane, "Students in University College are both academically and socially alienated, misfits in their own institution."

The explanation for the presence of alienated athletes at Tulane, says Gwyn, is that coaches "get fired if they don't have winning seasons. That means they have to get the players, and all that is inherently corrupting."

Clyde Eads says he had been repeatedly warned about profiting from point-shaving by his father, Clyde Sr., who used to talk often about the similar scandal that occurred at Kentucky, among other schools, in the '50s.

Sitting on a weathered bench outside the physical education offices last week, Eads was distraught. "It's so tough to go home [to Tampa] and see your mom cry. I'm the only one in the family that would have finished college, and now this. My parents have been through so much. Now they're disgraced. They told me to lay low, and maybe it will go away."

It won't. It will always be with Eads, with Tulane, with Kelly, with college basketball. And certainly with Hot Rod Williams. But as he sat outside his Sorrento home next to a dilapidated basketball goal that had been torn down, Williams still saw rainbows: "I'm a good cabinet worker, so I can get me a good carpenter job. I can paint houses. I can fix stereos, and that's good because you know there's always trouble with them things. I'd like to live here the rest of my life. Just sit under the tree. You can see how great this place is."

PHOTOJERRY LODRIGUSSWilliams, with son John Jr., says he will be happy back home if things don't work out. PHOTOJERRY LODRIGUSSRothenberg, second from the right, pleaded guilty last week to charges of conspiracy. PHOTOJERRY LODRIGUSSGwyn, left, and Mason claim that athletics and academics are in conflict at Tulane. TWO PHOTOSJERRY LODRIGUSSWall resigned, as did three others listed on the door. Saulny was an exception. PHOTOJERRY LODRIGUSSHart believes that Kelly has overreacted in calling for the elimination of basketball. PHOTOJERRY LODRIGUSSA victim of the system? Williams had few problems on the court, lots in the classroom.

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