In Kentucky, where Adolph Rupp is held in reverence and men like Frank Ramsey, Cliff Hagan and Dan Issel are treated like saints, folks are highly protective of Wildcat basketball. Last week University of Kentucky fans from Pikeville to Paducah were riled over a two-part newspaper report alleging widespread booster payments to players and other violations of NCAA rules during the 13-year regime of former basketball coach Joe B. Hall, who resigned last March. Few Kentuckians seemed displeased with boosters or players or with the administrators and coaches under whose noses misdeeds had allegedly taken place. But they sure were miffed at the Lexington Herald-Leader, the paper that published the stories.
By the time the NCAA announced its intention to investigate the reports, the Lexington daily had fielded two bomb threats. Among the 300 Herald-Leader readers who canceled their subscriptions was one who threatened to take a baseball bat to the delivery boy if he showed up the next morning. Some rival local media assailed the newspaper. "Don't let the Herald-Leader's self-serving sensationalism get you down," editorialized William Service, vice-president and general manager of Lexington's WTVQ-TV, where the Wildcats' All-America forward, Kenny Walker, worked over the summer. Service's commentary on the newspaper's many charges was a resounding "So what?"
Passions ran even higher at a "Back the Cats" rally on Wednesday. About 100 fans gathered in a Lexington club to sign anti-Herald-Leader petitions, buy CHEAP SHOT GAZETTE caps and provide a Louisville Courier-Journal subscription agent with brisk business. At the UK-East Tennessee State football game, hundreds of students held up copies of the Herald-Leader with Ghostbusters-type symbols superimposed on them.
The Herald-Leader's stories were the result of a seven-month investigation that included interviews with 33 former Wildcat players. Several ex-players told of being approached by boosters in the locker room after games, receiving a handshake and having $50 and $100 bills pressed into their palms. Some said they got free meals and discount clothes at Lexington businesses, including a restaurant partly owned by Hagan, the Wildcat athletic director. Others said they had booster "sugar daddies" they could go to for cash. Many told of receiving large fees for public appearances. Several said they resold complimentary season tickets for up to $1,000 each. One former player, Jay Shidler, was quoted as saying he made $8,400 in three years during the late '70s by selling his comps to Cecil Dunn, Hall's attorney, who was so close to the team that he frequently sat on the bench.
November 11, 1985
Taken together, the charges painted a tawdry picture of a once-proud program. Assistant coach Leonard Hamilton, the only major holdover from the Hall era retained by new coach Eddie Sutton, was among those implicated by the Herald-Leader. Former Wildcat Scott Courts was quoted as saying that Hamilton explained the "sugar daddy" arrangement to him. The paper also ran an assertion by an unnamed player that he saw "a couple" of current Wildcat players receive money last season in the team's locker room from Dr. Elmer Prewitt, a Corbin, Ky., physician. The paper also said that four former Kentucky players told of receiving money from Prewitt.
But the allegations in the Herald-Leader were scarcely the last word on the subject. Hall, Hagan and university president Otis Singletary all denied knowledge of any violations, and Sutton said, "Until it's proven, I'm going to believe there's been no wrongdoing." Prewitt said he never gave money to players. Dunn and Hamilton declined to comment, and several of the former players claimed they had been misquoted or quoted out of context. One of them, reached by SI, became angry when asked about the allegations attributed to him. "I was never offered any money," he said. "Just print what I tell you now. This is my statement."
But the Herald-Leader was not alone in evincing interest in Hall's tenure at Kentucky. Three months before Hall resigned, it became known that the university was looking into his handling of his personal allotment of 323 season tickets, which had a value in his final season of at least $24,000. The probe turned up no evidence that any of Hall's tickets were sold for more than face value, although one booster wrote a letter to the university alleging that this was the case. And when Hagan and Singletary announced in June that Sutton's allotment would be cut to 64, they acknowledged that public "questioning" of Hall's tickets was a factor in their decision. Two law-enforcement sources told SI that the IRS was "monitoring" the situation.
Allegations of wrongdoing also dogged Kentucky in 1976 when the Wildcat football and basketball teams were put on probation for recruiting violations and 12 boosters were disassociated from the school's athletic programs. Former Notre Dame forward Dave Batton told SI last week that in October 1973 one of the 12 boosters, Seth Hancock, the owner of Claiborne Farm, offered him $20,000 to go to Kentucky. Batton said he was to receive the money for four summers' work on the horse farm. "Kentucky was illegal from Day One," Batton said. Hancock denied Batton's allegations.
Four other former college players who attended school elsewhere, all of whom asked not to be identified, have told SI that while being recruited by Kentucky, they were assured they would be "taken care of" if they enrolled there. Each took the reference to mean something improper. And a former Wildcat football player now in the NFL told SI last week, "They kept my pockets lined at Kentucky." He asked not to be identified, adding, "I don't think it's right for these guys who took the money to come out now and admit it."
Yet another view, perhaps the most defiant of all, was expressed at the pro-Cats rally by Mrs. Coburn Cashman, an alumna and Wildcat supporter. "I've been bred here like a fine horse, and if I want to give them a thousand dollars, if I want to give them a car, so be it," she said. "If the boosters are going to give them something, that's great. I think those boys work their tails off."