Fans, administrators forgive transgressions as long as coach wins

SAN JOSE, Calif. – Once upon a time, institutions of higher learning strictly sold academics. No $2 million-a-year football coach. No billion-dollar TV contract. No scandals.

Students played unorganized sports for fun. This led to intramural competition, which led to a “club” team that represented the school, which led to friendly little games against nearby schools.

But students and former students began to attend these games, which became less and less friendly. College administrators found to their shock and dismay that nothing could make these spectators feel better about their academic institution than beating a nearby academic institution in sports. Victories could make the scrawniest straight-A student feel like more of a man.

This was madness. This should have been curbed and controlled. What should winning football games have to do with a school’s academic excellence?

Soon, entire regions populated by people who didn’t even attend the school attached their self-worth to Dear Old U’s football team. Games began filling stadiums that seated up to 100,000. Reporters flocked from sea to screaming sea.

College administrators found to their shock and dismay that nothing could increase enrollment or alumni giving like beating rivals in football. College after college allowed semi-pro teams to grow like mutant beasts in their academic midst. Admission standards were finessed so high school stars who had no business at Dear Old U could be chased by groveling grown-man coaches.

Before pro football, alumni ran slush funds from which coaches could outbid rivals for the best players. But as the NFL took off, college football became a free feeder system for the pros. That’s when the NCAA fought to preserve the ivy-covered image it sells in its billion-dollar TV package: The all-American boy acing his English lit exam, then throwing the winning touchdown pass.

The NCAA began making “death penalty” examples of schools like Southern Methodist whose big-cigar alums were caught paying weekly salaries to players. Why should an institution of higher learning pay a player to risk his knees and neck playing nationally publicized games when he could eventually earn big money in the NFL? That’s what college administrators argued as player after player damaged his pro earning power all but dying for Dear Old U’s cause.

And you wonder why point-shaving scandals have stained college football and basketball after unpaid players who just wanted to make a little spending money betting on games wound up in the pockets of bookmakers.

Still, the salaries of coaches and the pressure to win spiral insanely upward. Coaches making millions must win at least eight or nine games and take Dear Old U’s fans on a holiday trip to a warm-weather bowl. Win, and they can be kings of regional kingdoms. Win, and they can have more groupies than a governor. Win, and their bosses and fans will look the other way.

Coaches have been taking advantage of this perk since before face masks. But now the night has a thousand Internet eyes.

Whispers of Alabama Coach Mike Price’s carousing hit Web sites, sending him packing before he had coached his first game. After a down year for Iowa State basketball, a picture of Coach Larry Eustachy at a sorority party hit cyberspace and newspaper offices. At Baptist bastion Baylor, the pressure to improve the Big 12’s doormat basketball program turned straight-arrow Dave Bliss into Tony Soprano.

Obviously, none of these schools can sell merely their educational experience. Now, it seems, many colleges have turned into the five-year vacation parents must provide sons and daughters who prepare for real life by going to more games and parties than classes. Now, a potential donor’s fondest college memory inevitably involves a football or basketball moment.

After all, TV ads constantly tell us that all a college student wants to do is drink beer, play spin the bottle with the Tri Delts and rush the field or court after big wins.

Luring players with sex has been a primary recruiting tool since Rockne invented the forward pass. Many colleges have had organized groups of female students – who just happen to be knockouts – to show visiting high school stars around. Anything for Dear Old U.

Coaches like Colorado’s Gary Barnett create Nixonian deniability by having assistants or “friends of the program” do what they have to do to entertain recruits. At the end of the weekend visit, when Barnett asks if the young man “had a good time,” he isn’t referring to the kid’s library tour. Like many coaches, Barnett knows recruits might wind up at alcohol-fueled parties with strippers, if they so desire.

See-no-evil Barnett doesn’t want to know the details. He just knows he has to somehow sell the fact that Colorado is one of the nation’s top party schools featuring some of its most beautiful babes. After all, rival schools are making potential stars believe they could have any girl on campus if they sign.

And you wonder why University of Colorado administrators are sifting through six rape allegations involving football players. You also wonder if the football team’s 5-7 record last season emboldened more women to come forward. Barnett is no longer godlike in Boulder.

You hope the media frenzy spotlighting Colorado’s scandal scares other schools into cleaning up their seamier enticements. The shock isn’t how many college scandals have been exposed. The shock is how many haven’t.