We can usually count on College Basketball to mirror the times. Just look around. Want evidence of the end of the Cold War? Virginia Commonwealth expects to fill the pivot with 7'2" Konstantin Pepeliaev, who would become the first Russian citizen ever to play college ball in the U.S. Heard of the "nesting" trend? Check out Oklahoma, where husband-and-wife transfers Tommy French and Cecilia Harge join the Sooner men's and women's teams in an act that could be billed as twentysomethingagame. Wonder about the lot of public education? One out of four high school juniors at the 1990 Nike/ABCD All-American Camp tested at a sixth-grade reading level or below.
Yet in one crucial count, college basketball is sorely out of touch with the rest of society. While most of the nation stares at a recession, the caretakers of the sport suddenly have more cash than they know what to do with—$1 billion. That's how much CBS has agreed to pay for the right to televise the NCAA tournament over the next seven seasons.
Oh, some people think they know how to spend the dough. An ad hoc NCAA committee recently convened to determine just that. The first meeting came 10 months after four teams mourned their defeats in the final eight of the 1989 NCAA tournament because the losses cost their respective schools about $250,000 each, the difference that year between losing the regional finals and reaching the Final Four. "We want to go back to playing for the trophy," says NCAA executive director Dick Schultz, "not playing for dollars."
Alas, the committee didn't adopt the simple and equitable proposal made by Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote, which called for divvying up 80% of the loot into equal shares among the 293 Division I universities, regardless of their NCAA tournament record, their Nielsen ratings or the number of sequins gracing their cheerleaders' uniforms. The Heathcote plan also gives 10% each to schools in Divisions II and III, and 10% to such things as drug education programs. Instead, the $112 million the NCAA will get from CBS for the 1991 tournament and various other NCAA championships will be distributed among Division I schools according to a formula that takes into account the number of varsity teams fielded by a school, the performance of a school's conference in the tournament over the previous six seasons and the number of athletic scholarships provided by a school. Clearly, the haves still have an unfair advantage over the have-nots.
To its credit, the committee did adopt several proposals likely to have a salutary effect on the game. One is a plan to award $25,000 grants to every Division I school for "academic enhancements," including necessities like tutors and computers. Another provision will set up an emergency fund for impoverished athletes, to cover such exigencies as travel back home for a relative's funeral. Yet by tying, even indirectly, the amount of a school's share to its tournament performance, the NCAA has ensured that television dollars will continue to feed the vicious cycle of ills bedeviling college basketball. "What causes the problems?" asks Xavier coach Pete Gillen. "Money. Take away the source. The source is money."
This is how it goes: TV dangles the money. Athletic directors pencil an amount into their budgets. Then if a coach doesn't win often enough to deliver the expected cash, he walks. Hence, coaches rustle up players any which way. Now, with the dividends so dependent on the success of an entire league, a conference member can't afford to drop a dime on cheating brethren.
When the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band asked to play the national anthem at the Final Four in Denver last spring, it was turned down. The Duke band played because, as the gentleman from the NCAA said, "That's college basketball." If you're trying to reflect college basketball faithfully, fellas, hand the mike to 2 Live Crew.
In that spirit, here's one budget—by turns whimsical, serious and peevish—for the Basketball Billion. No rules. No fine print. As spendthrift as we wanna be.
•$3,500, to hire a persona timing crew for Heathcote. Four years ago a clock mal function gave Kansas an extra 0:15 with which to come back and beat the Spartans in the Midwest Regional semifinals. Last spring a referee's misjudgment let stand a Kenny Anderson after-the-buzzer shot that forced OT and helped push Georgia Tech past Michigan State in the semifinals of the Southeast Regional.
•$300, for shock treatment for Dr. Gordon Gee, Colorado's former president. "We don't expect to be in the Final Four in five years," said Gee when he announced last spring that former Long Beach State coach Joe Harrington would replace the fired Tom Miller. "We expect to be there sooner." The Buffaloes have finished in the Big Eight cellar five years in a row.
•$3,000, for a hairpiece and wardrobe for Princeton coach Pete Carril. Don't change on us, Pete. We love your '40s news-reel offense and postgame stogies. But if you're going to be on national TV so much this season (at Rutgers, Dec. 15; at UNLV, Dec. 19; and hosting Loyola Marymount, March 10), we're going to have to hook you with a rug and some natty haberdashery.
•$879, for memberships in the Coaches' Book of the Month Club. Just because Bob Knight books are, mercifully, no longer all the rage, don't think we'll be spared tomes on the rest of clipboarddom. No fewer than three John Thompson books are in the works, Jerry Tarkanian is shopping around his second book in three years, former Florida coach Norm Sloan was rumored to be holed up for a while in the hills of North Carolina penning an embittered screed and Jim Valvano is completing a manuscript. Meanwhile, the public awaits the definitive exegesis of Digger Phelps and Notre Dame, entitled Coaches Who Coach Too Much...and the Players Who Play for Them.
•$10,000, for the winner of the Jeff (Monkey Jesus) Shepherd Award, to be conferred annually on the basis of a player's name, nickname or combination thereof. Rodell (House) Guest of Colorado takes the prize this season, but only because Hassan (Hoss) Duncombe of Penn has quit the Quakers to improve his grades, and because New Orleans's Louweegi Dyer hasn't come up with a nickname—yet.
•$950,000, as price subsidies for tickets to the ACC-Big East Challenge. Last year these two leagues, probably the game's wealthiest, asked for an extortionate $30 a seat for this four-doubleheader event. Fans stayed away en masse. Costs have come down a little this year, with organizers leaving pricing up to the four host arenas—Syracuse's Carrier Dome ($20), Richmond's Coliseum ($24), North Carolina's Dean Dome ($22) and the Capital Centre ($25) in Landover, Md. But those tariffs are still unconscionably steep. Our program would pick up half the cost of each ticket. Next year, we do what the government does—we pay them not to play it.
•$35,000, plus a $75,000 travel budget, to send John Wooden to every Division I campus. Remember that old Abe Lemons crack about how coaches these days can't eat in a restaurant that doesn't revolve? Now they can't eat in one that doesn't offer an annuity appetizer and a sneaker deal entrèe. The most Wooden ever earned in a season was $32,500. His overcompensated descendants sorely need to hear from him now concerning how to teach the game. A Wizard-Over-America Tour would profoundly elevate the dignity of a once proud profession that can use more than a little gussying up.
•50 cents, for a Hershey's bar, in honor of the Notre Dame-Temple game to be played in Hershey, Pa., on Feb. 16. Hershey is where Wilt Chamberlain had his 100-point game, in 1962. Chamberlain needn't sweat this one out; the only person capable of scoring 100 on the 23rd is Owl guard Mark Macon. But as a career .417 percentage shooter, Macon would need 120 shots to do it.
•$125, for a weekly dose of Thorazine for Dick Vitale. We can take Vitale on ESPN, where he's safely quarantined and women and children are spared his adenoidal excesses—unless they get lost hunting for Lifetime or Nickelodeon. But an unsedated Dickie V on ABC places an otherwise pleasant Sunday afternoon at grave risk.
•$100,000, as bounty money for the capture of those well-fed bureaucrats who are shamelessly trying to reserve college basketball's fruits for themselves. Mainly, they're the members of the NCAA Committee on the Billion who dismissed Heathcote's proposal. "I don't think you should have a socialistic, communistic sharing of the wealth," says Georgetown athletic director Frank Rienzo, a member of the NCAA cost-reduction committee. "They tried that in Eastern Europe, and it didn't work." Sorry, Frank. That's blatant self-interest masquerading as free-marketeering.
Meanwhile, the NCAA tournament committee wanted to banish the champions of the three weakest leagues from the forthcoming tournament, thereby reserving the revenue derived from three additional at-large bids for the traditional powers. The committee didn't dare, fearing a backlash if the MEAC and SWAC, which are composed of historically black institutions, were excluded by the ruling. So the committee adopted the unsatisfactory play-in system rather than preserve a few automatic bids to the 64-team field.
A question: Who decides who sits on some NCAA committees? Why, the NCAA committee on committees, of course.
•$200, to Murray State junior Ronald (Popeye) Jones for a season's supply of Ultra Slim-Fast. A gentle 6'8", 258-pounder who once weighed 309, Jones got the weight off last year. This is to help make sure he keeps it off.
•$500,000 for Valvano. Let's see now: He picks up as much as $600,000 as a settlement from North Carolina State, the school he disserved. He bagged another $900,000 from ABC and ESPN to be a commentator. They should have known better, especially ABC, which carried a damning report about alleged point-shaving by players under Valvano. "ABC News ran that story," says ABC Sports president Dennis Swanson. "Not us." Whew. Good we cleared that up.
Why kick in another half mil? It's the least we can do to push V's golden parachute to an even deuce—a nice, round figure by which to remember TV's complicity in the sordid aspects of the college game.
•$50,000, for Valvano's successor, Les Robinson. Robinson has proposed that $50,000 of the money he receives from his sneaker contract with L.A. Gear be placed in a scholarship fund for Wolfpack players seeking to continue their education after their eligibility has expired. Consider our 50 grand to be a matching grant.
•$1 million, to produce a weekly 30-minute women's highlights show for cable. If you haven't noticed, women's basketball has attracted a host of players with film-at-11 potential. Top-ranked Virginia has four on the verge of dunking. Andrea Stinson of N.C. State bobs, jukes and hangs in ways reminiscent of a fellow Carolinian, Sir Michael.
In addition to televising the women's Final Four, CBS is committed to three regular-season women's broadcasts. The women have also worked their way into a number of cable packages. Both developments represent progress. However, a highlights show would provide continuity and context.
•$2,000, to hire a video hacker who would infiltrate the TV sets of former Oklahoma governor Henry Bellmon and the troglodytes in the Sooner athletic department, all of whom collaborated in the shameful—and, thankfully, unsuccessful—attempt to kill off women's basketball in Norman. May Bellmon, who actually suggested that the women take up mud wrestling as an alternative, and Sooner athletic director Donnie Duncan see nothing but the aforementioned women's highlights show, 24 hours a day, on every channel on their cable boxes, for as long as they both shall live.
•$3 million, to hire more NCAA enforcement agents, increase the salaries of the senior investigators already on staff and appoint three retired judges to sit year-round on an infractions panel. Missouri and Illinois, which each waited more than 16 months before their cases were resolved last week, know all too well that justice delayed is justice denied.
•$100 million, to ESPN, so it can buy back from CBS the rights to the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. Can CBS match ESPN's ability to cut in, whip around and capture the feel of the tournament's manic beginning? No way. Can CBS jawbone its affiliates into broadcasting Winthrop-Syracuse at the expense of The Young and the Restless"? Forget it. And while we're dispatching gifts to Bristol, Conn....
•$20,000, for a gilded, 12-line telephone for ESPN's college-hoops programmer, Tom Odjakjian, who is known as the Frank Capra of the college game for his determination to get airtime for even the little guys. That strategy has made sound financial sense. Over the same six-year period (1985 to '90) when CBS and NBC saw their regular-season college basketball ratings decline, ESPN's prime-time numbers for hoops climbed by 40%. To Odjakjian, there are no small-time teams.
•$4 million, to buy out the contracts of NBC's Dick Enberg and Al McGuire, two thirds of the best college basketball broadcasting team ever. Neither man can be delighted with the dwindling commitment to college basketball shown by NBC, which will air only four regular-season games during the 1990-91 season. Let's reunite them with Billy Packer at CBS.
We're out of space, and, try as we might, we have barely spent [1/10] of the $1 billion windfall. That leaves only one thing to do: Disperse the rest equally among the 3,500 players at Division I schools—but only after setting enough aside to send each of them to the Hoosier Dome at the end of March to enjoy the sweet culmination of all that their sweat has wrought. And if, as our honored guests settle in for the semifinals on Saturday afternoon, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is allowed to perform the national anthem, that's fine by us. So long as the band does it for free.