Memo to Billy Packer, Bucky Waters, Joe B. Hall, Al McGuire, Dick Vitale and all other former college basketball coaches now working as TV analysts: Stick to the X's and O's, guys. Stay away from the issues. The reason? Your credibility is about as good as Coppin State's chances of winning the NCAA tournament, maybe less.
Every fan knows that underneath its shiny veneer of color, fun and excitement, college basketball is a sewer full of rats. Lift the manhole cover on the street of gold, and the odor will knock you down. Look at this season: The programs at North Carolina State, Florida, Illinois, Missouri and Nevada-Las Vegas—to cite only the most prominent examples—are up to their backboards in scandal.
The misdeeds allegedly committed by college basketball programs today are the same stuff that has plagued the game for decades—buying players, cheating in academics, shaving points, etc. And the NCAA is powerless to stop it. Make a statement by coming down hard on a Kentucky or a Maryland, and what happens? Nothing, really. The filth merely oozes from another crack.
The coaches turned analysts cluck their tongues over all this. They pay lip service to the notion that there is no place for such shenanigans in college sports, and that coaches such as Dean Smith of North Carolina and Mike Krzyzewski of Duke prove that it's possible to do it right. Blah, blah, blah. Yet when N.C. State's Jim Valvano or Florida's Norm Sloan or Illinois's Lou Henson becomes involved in a scandal, the commentators close ranks and prove again what we already know: They're still card-carrying members of the coaching fraternity, not journalists.
March 26, 1990
How many times have you heard one of these so-called experts talk about what a shame it is that coach (fill in the blank) is getting such a bum rap from the (boo, hiss) media? That the coach shouldn't be blamed if one or more of his players took money to sign a grant-in-aid or to shave points? And that you should remember that these vile charges against coach (fill in the blank) are only allegations and that nothing has been proved?
Of all the analysts, CBS's Packer is the best at dissecting the action, but he also has the least credibility as to values. Packer has said that when he was an assistant coach at Wake Forest in the 1960s, he altered a prospect's high school transcript so that the player would be eligible. In the past year, Packer has spent almost as much time attacking newspapers for their aggressive coverage of college basketball's various scandals as he has defending his pals the coaches. "I empathize with Jim Valvano," he told USA Today last week, "because there have been a lot of great coaches who had [point-shaving scandals] in their programs and had no knowledge it was going on.... If it turned out Jim didn't know, he shouldn't be held culpable." Packer would have us believe either that nothing is seriously wrong in college ball or that the coaches are simply innocent victims of forces beyond their control.
He is by no means alone. NBC's McGuire recently criticized an Iowa assistant for tape-recording a recruit's assertion that he had been offered improper inducements from Illinois. Apparently, McGuire, who has been out of coaching for 13 years, still believes that violating the coaches' unwritten code—you don't rat on me, I won't rat on you—is more serious than cheating. Vitale, who works for ABC and ESPN, has never met a coach he didn't like. Hall, whose career at Kentucky was marked by penalties for numerous rules infractions, was heard recently sympathizing with Henson, whose team could get the death penalty for recruiting violations. And Waters said this about Valvano's problems: "I don't think you can hold a coach accountable for every character flaw."
This whitewashing insults the intelligence of viewers. It's also an affront to coaches who are trying to obey the rules, and it becomes more difficult for those who are trying to clean up the mess. All in all, it makes the analysts part of the problem—partners in deceit and dishonesty.
Analysts do have the right to express themselves. However, network executives should insist that commentaries be clearly labeled as such and be rooted in more than cronyism. In addition, before shedding crocodile tears for poor coach (fill in the blank), an analyst should be required to state what, if any, business connections he might have with the individual in question—off-season clinics, contracts with the same sneaker company or whatever.
The best solution would be for the analysts to stick to the games and leave the issues to real TV journalists. Sorry, guys, if your pals have gotten themselves in trouble. Maybe they didn't love the game and the players and the universities as much as they led us to believe. Come to think of it, maybe all of you don't, either.