During a four-year period when Barton County Community College had one of the nation's most successful junior college basketball programs, the winning formula was as unremarkable as the school's campus, a cluster of drab brick buildings surrounded by hay and corn fields. ¬∂ Barton won because it had the most talent. ¬∂ Coach Ryan Wolf recruited players from all over the nation to the 2,500-student school in Great Bend, Kans., 90 miles northwest of Wichita. He signed kids with academic troubles. He brought in players with checkered backgrounds. Barton became known as a way station for mercurial athletes like Ricky Clemons, Randy Pulley, Travis Robinson and Robert Whaley. ¬∂ From 1999-2000 through '02-03, Wolf's teams went 111-25 and won two Western Division titles in the Jayhawk Conference, a league made up of 19 Kansas jucos. Sixteen of his players went on to Division I programs. But even as he was winning, Wolf was transforming Barton into what one of his peers called America's most "infamous" junior college program.
After a one-year federal investigation of Barton and Wolf, it is a label likely to stick. "Embezzle," "fraud," and "scheme" appear frequently in the 38-count indictment handed up by a Wichita grand jury in December. It alleges 34 counts of felonious criminal activity by Wolf. The most serious charges--two counts of bank fraud--together carry a maximum 30-year prison sentence.
The details from Wolf's indictment have passed through the juco ranks like celebrity gossip and will no doubt be a prime topic during the four-day Jayhawk Conference tournament, which will take place beginning on March 13 in Salina. Some Jayhawk coaches have called Wolf's actions an anomaly. Others say that Barton under Wolf was typical of the conference's frontier atmosphere. At the very least, the scandal has shed light on the unsavory and, some say, endemic practice of playing fast and loose with work-study programs for athletes.
No other coaches have been accused of wrongdoing, yet suspicions are being raised about their programs as well as the quid pro quo that exists between Division I assistants and juco coaches. "Right now, a lot of coaches are taking a look at their programs and realizing that they better make some changes fast," says Dave Campbell, who succeeded Wolf at Barton and has coached at three other junior colleges in a 26-year career. "If they don't, they know they could end up like [Wolf]."
Kansas is the heart of juco basketball. The NJCAA Division I Championships are held each March in Hutchinson--this season's five-day event will begin on March 22--and the Jayhawk is consistently among the strongest conferences in the country. Since 1992 a Jayhawk school has either won or finished second in the national tournament five times. NBA players Tony Allen and Lee Nailon (Butler County C.C.) and Reggie Evans (Coffeyville College) played in the conference.
The schools are situated mostly in rural communities where game night is a unifying event. At Fort Scott College games are held in a divided Quonset-shaped building: One side is a basketball court, the other a rodeo arena. The stench of cow manure covers the court like a Rick Pitino press, yet fans still go.
Players from around the nation are lured to Kansas because it is where juco basketball matters and because the schools do not require students to pass an exit exam to earn a degree. The Kansas jucos don't offer full athletic scholarships; their stipends cover tuition and the cost of books. Athletes are responsible for room and board, but coaches offset that expense with a combination of Pell Grants and money from the Federal Work-Study Program (WSP) or a campus-employment program.
One of the accusations against Wolf--a guard at Minnesota from 1991 to '95 who took over at Barton when he was 26--is that he abused those two federal programs. On federal student aid applications for three players, he allegedly wrote that each had earned a high school diploma or GED (a requirement for funding) when he knew they had not. According to the indictment Wolf also filled out time sheets for seven players so they could receive WSP funds, but he did not require the athletes to work. In two cases Wolf allegedly represented that a player worked 100 hours in an 11-day period. He also allegedly enrolled two players in classes and in the WSP when they weren't on campus, then deposited their WSP checks into his personal account. (The bank fraud charges stem from allegations that Wolf falsely endorsed the checks.) In all, Wolf is accused of defrauding the government and Barton of $122,213.
Wolf pleaded not guilty to all charges in a court appearance in Wichita on Jan. 6. Through his lawyer he declined to be interviewed for this story, citing rules limiting pretrial comments in a federal case. A court date is scheduled for April 5.
Wolf's alleged work-study abuses are the talk of the Jayhawk, in part because Barton officials have intimated that other schools are committing similar offenses. "One wonders if those sorts of things are happening elsewhere and are either buried or unknown," says Barton president Veldon Law.
There is evidence to back up Law's surmise. Several former players at Jayhawk schools who were contacted by SI described work-study arrangements under which players were paid for tasks that could only loosely be considered work.
Two players from France, forward Seydou Kone and guard Mamadou Sy, enrolled at Cloud County C.C. before last season. As foreign students, they did not qualify for federal assistance and had to pay approximately $400 a month in room and board by working a campus job created by the coaching staff. "After practice or games we would put the [team's] jerseys in the washer, go to the weight room and work out, and then stop and go put the jerseys in the dryer and then finish working out," says Kone. "When we were done, we'd take the jerseys out of the dryer and put them in the lockers. That was all we ever did."
Kone says he and Sy, who is still at Cloud County, were paid enough money washing jerseys a few times a week to cover the cost of living in a Cloud County dormitory, though Cloud County's athletic director maintains that the players had other duties. "I know they did more. They refereed intramural games and shagged balls at soccer games," says Matt Bechard, who adds, "There are soon going to be mandates conferencewide that will clarify [the work-study rules] more. It should be run a little tighter."
Jasper McDuffus, a forward who played last season at Cowley C.C., says he got about $200 every two weeks for washing uniforms and cleaning the gym. Terike Barrowes, a forward who also attended Cowley, says he was also paid for cleaning the gym after games; most often he just swept the floor. "It wasn't really work," Barrowes says. Cowley AD Tom Saia declined to discuss Barrowes's and McDuffus's employment directly but said, "All of our kids work."
At some schools the work-study or campus-employment setup was such a sweet deal that players not involved felt slighted. "The rest of us wished we got paid for some of the stuff they did," says Trent Peter, a guard at Dodge City C.C. for two seasons beginning in 2002-03. Peter, from Tribune, Kans., says that out-of-state players at Dodge City got paid for cleaning up the locker room "for about 15 minutes" or going to a women's basketball game and working what coaches called "crowd control."
Athletic director John Rosetti believes Dodge City's work-study arrangement was proper. "I think there are times when the work is not taxing," he says. "Kids might be taking tickets at a game or sweeping a floor. Sometimes it's just busywork, but it's work that needs to get done."
"You hope coaches are doing the right thing. Not everyone is Barton," says Bryce Roderick, Jayhawk Conference commissioner. "Of course, that's not to say everyone is lily-white either."
When asked what might have motivated Wolf, Neil Elliott, Barton's athletic director, doesn't hesitate to answer. "It was clear to me that Ryan was doing everything he could to land a job at a Division I school," he says. "That was Ryan's focus above anything else."
Dan Sparks, president of the NJCAA Coaches Association, says that is the mind-set of many juco coaches. "We have a lot of them, mostly young coaches, who get tied up with assistants at four-year schools," says Sparks, the coach at Vincennes (Ind.) University since 1978. "They think that if they do the [four-year coaches'] dirty work for them it will land them a Division I job."
Before the summer of 2002 a coach at Missouri informed Wolf that Ricky Clemons, a guard who had signed with the Tigers after spending two seasons at another juco, the College of Southern Idaho, needed additional credits to be eligible that fall. Wolf signed Clemons up for six summer classes at Barton, all taught by the coach or another athletic department employee. According to the indictment, Clemons also took four Internet courses offered by other schools; Wolf paid for some of them with his personal credit card. By summer's end Clemons had accumulated 24 credits and was academically eligible at Missouri.
Why would Wolf work to get Clemons eligible when Clemons never had any intention of playing for Barton? "The only reason for [Wolf] to be doing those things is that it helps him further his career because he is doing someone a favor," says Randy Henry, the lawyer who led Barton's internal investigation of Wolf.
Wolf allegedly orchestrated a similar cascade of credits for point guard Randy Pulley. Pulley came to Barton in the summer of 2002 after a year at Saint Louis University, where he had amassed 21 credits but had a 1.0 GPA. He got A's in all three courses (Weight Training, Elementary Physical Education and Psychology of Sport) he took at Barton that summer despite spending no more than four days on campus, according to the indictment. He played the '02-03 season for Wolf, then followed Clemons to Missouri, leaving Barton with 70 credits and a 2.32 GPA.
In June 2003 Wolf landed a Division I job. A Barton athletic department employee stumbled upon a news release posted on the Murray State website. It announced that Wolf had joined the staff of new coach Mick Cronin. Wolf hadn't told anyone at Barton--not his assistants, not his players, not his boss--that he was leaving. Wolf's time at the Division I level was brief. With the federal indictment looming, he resigned after one season. But it is still worth following the trail that ends at Murray State. Cronin was the associate coach at Louisville when Barton center Nouha Diakite committed there in 2002. Earlier, Cronin was the recruiting coordinator at Cincinnati when that staff landed power forward Jamaal Davis, another of Wolf's players. (Cronin did not respond to SI's requests for comment.)
"The truth is, the four-year guys prostitute the junior college coaches," says Campbell, who worked as an assistant at Duke, Tulane, Clemson and Nebraska. "That's not a good word to use, but that is what is going on."
When veldon law talks about Barton's former coach, he refers to him only as "Wolf." It's fitting because Law and others at Barton portray themselves as lambs. "There was a betrayed trust," Law says.
There were abundant signs, however, that Wolf's program was out of control. During three months in '02, one Barton player broke a teammate's jaw at practice; another was suspended for spitting at an opponent; and after a home loss to Seward County C.C., four Barton players went to the parking lot, where one opened a door to Seward's bus and punched a player. Barton instituted a drug-testing program, but only after Campbell arrived and voiced concern.
Law, whose father, Vernon, won the 1960 Cy Young Award while pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates, has a portrait of his hero, Roberto Clemente, hanging behind his desk. "I believe in sportsmanship and honest, fair play," Law says, "not only in athletics, but in one's dealings in life." Law has made some changes at Barton. Coaches and their assistants no longer can teach courses taken by their athletes. Nor can they be academic advisers to their players or supervise their employment. Still, many of these practices are permitted throughout the conference. Law wonders if any amount of prohibition can clean up the Jayhawk. "Is this just how J.C. basketball is?" he asks.
He may already have his answer.
Less than a month after Campbell was hired to succeed Wolf, he paid $564 to a friend in Atlanta to house J.P. Batista, a Brazilian forward Campbell had recruited and who is now at Gonzaga. Batista needed a place to stay until he could get into Barton's dorms. But what does it say when the coach charged with cleaning up the program, a coach who was inducted into the NJCAA Hall of Fame the spring before he came to Barton, commits a major rules violation (for which the school suspended itself from the postseason and forfeited a scholarship) in his first month on the job?
It says that in the Jayhawk, the Wild West of juco basketball, there may be a little bit of Wolf in everyone. ‚ñ†