College Basketball now understands what happens when you sic the No. 1 team in the land on a bunch of guys who can't dribble without first conferring with counsel. In its 10 seasons of existence, the Tip-Off Classic in Springfield, Mass., has been the occasion for close finishes, so at first blush Duke's 80-55 dismantling of Kentucky last Saturday seemed a disappointment. But as a morality play—Blue Devils versus Devil Blue—the game was instructive.
The story wasn't the Wildcats' 29 turnovers in the face of Duke's Velcro defense. It was the Blue Devils' regnant team—happy students who happen to play ball and who sit atop the national polls with serenity—showing up the currently abject lot of Kentucky basketball.
You recall how it all started last spring: An Emery Worldwide overnight envelope, bound from the Kentucky athletic department to the home of elite high school prospect Chris Mills, came open in transit, revealing $1,000 in crisp 50s. But the Mills 'n' Bills Affair proved to be only the beginning of the Cats' travails. Allegations of another 17 violations have been handed down by the NCAA, and while some are trifling, many are substantial, involving cars, cash, academic fraud and/or the providing of false and misleading statements to investigators.
The NCAA doesn't visit Duke unless it needs to film a public-service spot, but it's fed up with alarms going off at Kentucky. Director of enforcement David Berst assigned some 10 investigators to the Wildcat detail and even went so far as to have an emissary ask archenemy Jerry Tarkanian—the UNLV coach whose very job the NCAA is trying to take away in an ongoing case that will soon be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court—what he knew about potential abuses at Kentucky. Berst is still embarrassed by the outcome of his department's last investigative bout with the Wildcats—the one in 1985 that ended with the Lexington Herald-Leader winning a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on Kentucky's recruiting practices and with Berst's gumshoes, who were conducting what should have been a simple mop-up operation, getting flummoxed at every turn. The Cats escaped with a reprimand for only grudgingly cooperating with the probe, and Berst bristles at the talk, widespread in college hoops, that the Wildcats are untouchable. "The NCAA is so mad at Kentucky," said Tarkanian, ever the cynic, "that they'll probably slap another two years' probation on Cleveland State."
November 28, 1988
But Berst and his boys have pointed loaded guns at the Wildcats this time around. To help cope with what he calls "this horrible experience," Kentucky coach Eddie Sutton is reading a book, the gift of a fan, called Tough Times Never Last, but Tough People Do! "This investigation is unlike any other in the history of the NCAA because it's all in the open," Sutton says. "They're just charges. Nothing has been proven. The way the media is playing them up, you'd think we'd already been convicted and were getting ready to be hung."
Unfortunately, Sutton's son Sean has come to symbolize the Cats' plight. It was Sean who accompanied teammate Eric Manuel, last year's star freshman, to a Lexington high school to take the ACT test, a college entrance exam, on the day Manuel is alleged to have cheated, a charge that may keep Eric sidelined for the rest of the season. To make things worse, Proposition 48 sit-out Shawn Kemp, a blue-chip freshman center, was identified by police as having pawned gold chains stolen from Sean, thus precipitating Kemp's self-imposed exile to a junior college in Texas. And it was Sean's right cheekbone that imprudently found teammate Derrick Miller's elbow during the first scrimmage of the season, resulting in a fracture that kept Sean out of Saturday's game.
It's a measure of how far the Cats have fallen in recent months that a question often asked last season by hypercritical Blue bloods—whether Sean had the skills to lead a big-time college team—by last week had given way to consternation over how Kentucky could possibly break the Duke pressure without Sean's steadying hand.
The answer to that latter question was held at bay through the first half, which ended with Duke leading by only 39-37. But early in the second half, with the score tied at 43, the Blue Devils' Quin Snyder sank a three-pointer to begin a 16-0 run. Danny Ferry, the forward who looks like he was put on this earth to model lettermen's jackets, scored eight points in that stretch. Ferry, who would finish with 23 and win the game's MVP award, also directed traffic on the Duke man-to-man, which Kentucky had solved in the first half with a shrewd spread offense. Embattled or not, Sutton can coach.
Alas, his team, once the product of annual trips through the McDonald's High School All-America Drive-Thru, now looks like a collection of french-fry chefs. Only 6'10" forward LeRon Ellis, surprising sophomore forward Reggie Hanson and Mills (eligible at least until the NCAA Infractions Committee hands down its verdict, probably in February) are of the thoroughbred caliber Kentuckians are used to. But Mike Scott, the 6'10" starting center, is painfully slow, and even Bülend Karpat, a Turkish coach on sabbatical who observes Kentucky practices, can only say, "Work, work, work. Scott is good player in four or five years." In four or five years is exactly the point. Even hillbilly hero Richie Farmer, the state's 1988 Mr. Basketball, of Manchester, Ky., to whom Sutton offered a scholarship last spring because of popular demand, isn't the hardnosed guard some observers had touted him to be. With Manuel, Kemp and Rex Chapman (now an NBA Charlotte Hornet) all unexpectedly gone, the Cats roster includes three walk-ons, including Jeff Ginnan, who once warmed the bench at crosstown Transylvania University. Seems everyone who wants Kentucky's blood is getting it.
The resignation last week of Wildcats athletic director Cliff Hagan only stoked speculation about Sutton's future—and future replacement. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski's name came up. "I'll give you an all-purpose 'I'm-not-interested,' " he said. "I've got DUKE tatooed on a part of my anatomy I can't show you." More serious speculation centered on North Carolina-Charlotte coach and athletic director Jeff Mullins. Mullins, who happens to be a Duke graduate, denies having had any contact with Kentucky on the subject.
Even as Hagan exited, Sutton's fate threatened to become the focus of a statewide political struggle. Former governor and nonagenarian power-broker Happy Chandler let slip that Sutton and Governor Wallace Wilkinson had met at Chandler's Versailles estate, a meeting at which Wilkinson purportedly pledged his support for Sutton. At present Wilkinson is weighing three new appointments to the university's board of trustees, the panel that hired president David Roselle, and whose support Roselle needs as he tries to transform the university into an institution along the lines of, say, Duke—which also happens to be Roselle's alma mater.
So, was Wilkinson aligning himself with Sutton in an effort to curb the power of Roselle, whose pledge to purify the Wildcats' basketball program is considered by many Kentuckians to be the sports equivalent of unilateral disarmament? Evidently not. No sooner had Chandler spoken than Wilkinson was backing away from any pro-Sutton promises like a Kentucky guard in the face of a Duke two-on-one. Even Oscar Combs, the avuncular editor and publisher of The Cats' Pause, a fiercely loyal weekly devoted to University of Kentucky sports, was speculating openly about Sutton's departure. "For Eddie to lose Oscar on this," said one Lexington insider, "is like LBJ losing Cronkite on Vietnam."
Meanwhile, Sutton has issued increasingly tepid statements of support for Dwane Casey, the assistant coach who sent that overnight package, and has continued in other ways to try to distance himself from the mess. As practice opened in October, Sutton said, "I know I'm innocent. I just hope the program is." More recently, he said he didn't want to be "the recipient of past sins." Last week he added, "Certainly any head coach has to shoulder part of the responsibility—a large part, you might say. But you can't be held completely responsible."
In fact, if the corruption among Kentucky boosters is as pervasive as many basketball insiders believe it to be, it is unfair to hold Sutton entirely accountable. But in a place where the basketball coach is an absolute monarch, folks frown on uncertain rule. Attendance at the Cats' preseason scrimmages in backwaters around the commonwealth, normally SRO affairs that set bandbox gyms a-rockin', was alarmingly low. In Rupp Arena on Nov. 14, a smattering of boos sounded when Sutton was introduced before Kentucky's exhibition against a Swedish club team. And the running joke in Lexington these days refers to Sutton's team as "the young and the Rexless."
There's a clause in Sutton's contract stating that any violation of NCAA or league regulations "shall be cause for termination." It's not an uncommon provision in college coaching contracts, and was at the root of a comment by ESPN provocateur Dick Vitale as the broadcast of Saturday's game got under way. "The perception of Kentucky basketball is at an alltime low," Vitale said. "And something has to be done. They need a new fresh breath of air. They should have made a change when Mr. Hagan went to the sideline and resigned. The president should have asked for the resignation of the coaching staff as well."
Vitale had agonized over whether to make that remark and had wanted to tell Sutton of his intention to do so. He couldn't reach the coach on Friday, but he found assistant James Dickey at the hotel the day of the game and told him of his intentions. Then, just minutes before the tip-off the next afternoon, Dickey waved Vitale over to the Kentucky bench, indicating that Sutton wanted to speak with him. Sutton pleaded with Vitale not to go on the air with his opinions and argued that in light of Vitale's influence, his remarks would have outsize ramifications. Sutton asked Vitale whether he still intended to call for his resignation. Vitale said yes, and an agitated conversation ensued. "Eddie was upset," says Vitale, who after the final buzzer hurried off with a police escort to catch a flight.
Having Vitale on his case may be just what Sutton needs to generate sympathy among the Wildcat faithful. But the plight isn't Sutton's so much as Kentucky's, and it's Roselle's opinion, not Vitale's, that counts. No one will turn Kentucky into another Duke; in Durham they think Prop 48 is an antique airplane. But Roselle is committed to making changes that go beyond merely finding a new overnight-delivery service. He admires how Krzyzewski runs his program and, however disingenuously, can't understand why the Wildcats can't run theirs the same way.
Just what is it about those Dookies? "The key word is perspective," Krzyzewski says. "If it weren't, I'd have been fired after I went 11-17 [in 1982-83]. Danny Ferry has played great basketball for three years, but they're not erecting statues to him on campus."
Ah, perspective. A statewide poll conducted a couple of years ago by the Louisville Courier-Journal asked 800 Kentuckians to name their favorite aspect of winter. The most popular answer? Basketball. In second place: the holidays.
"What's next for you guys?" someone asked Krzyzewski after Saturday's game.
"Thanksgiving," he said.