A different kind of March Madness sets in

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John Rowe
Tuesday, March 31, 2009

College basketball fans are feeling pretty smug this week.

They shouldn’t be.

Sure, compelling Final Four matchups such as Connecticut-Michigan State and Villanova-North Carolina are much more than warm-up acts for the main event next Monday night, the national championship game.

But any fan who’s concerned with the game he or she loves needs to pause for a moment and remember what’s happening off the court.

This past week’s allegations by Yahoo! Sports that Connecticut is guilty of recruiting violations are the latest smear on a sport that’s in danger of turning off a fan base that’s grown in leaps and bounds with the popularity of March Madness.

Or is it?

What’s most startling in the aftermath of the accusations is there has been no outcry from other schools, fans and even most media.

Makes you wonder if college basketball fans are like baseball fans who don’t care if their sluggers take steroids. Just as long as they hit tape-measure home runs.

So who cares if the basketball coach of the state university, the highest-paid state employee, is breaking NCAA rules?

Just as long as he’s putting together a national championship contender every year.

Maybe we should all take advantage of the break before the Final Four to question our priorities. Has college basketball become an out-of-control monster that can’t be regulated by an NCAA governing body that never would have known of the Connecticut allegations if it weren’t for two investigative reporters?

You might think that.

It’s mind-blowing to me that there is no public backlash in Kentucky as the state university, with plenty of help from well-heeled alumni and boosters, considers giving Billy Gillispie a $6 million payout not to coach the Wildcats. The heck with the sagging economy or tuition hikes, let’s get us a better basketball coach.

Now Connecticut is going to spend an unspecified amount to defend a head coach who’s accused of breaking rules. This after there was never any “We’re not guilty” responses after the Yahoo! report surfaced. First, Jim Calhoun tried to belittle the writers by referring to them as bloggers and then admitting he or somebody on the staff might have made a mistake, with a sly reference to the NCAA’s 502-page rules manual or “the distraction” he must deal with in his third Final Four.

Don’t expect the NCAA or Connecticut to throw the book at the Hall of Fame coach for making too many calls to a player who didn’t last at UConn, or for him or his staff for having contact with a former Huskies student manager who’s now an agent and reportedly help deliver two recruits to Connecticut.

Should the accusations be verified, Connecticut probably will get a slap on the wrist: maybe two less scholarships for a couple of years (like Calhoun ever is going to use more than eight players in a big game), and a reprimand for the coach. Because he doesn’t have Calhoun’s credentials, former Huskies assistant Tom Moore, who was the point man for the recruitment in question, probably will be fired as Quinnipiac head coach.

Along the recruiting trails, however, hardly anybody will notice.

Only the strong—and in some cases the rule-breakers—survive in the world of $1 million-plus-per-year head coaches. There’s little to no room for rule-following coaches who know their X’s and O’s but can’t recruit the quality players needed to carry them out.

Take a 1996 Sunday evening at the San Francisco airport. Seton Hall had lost to Stanford in San Jose earlier in the day and as I was waiting for the red-eye flight home, the Hall coaches arrived ahead of the players, who were eating dinner on Fisherman’s Wharf.

An assistant coach handed his cell phone to head coach George Blaney and told one of the game’s gentlemen to call Tim Thomas, the then-Paterson (N.J.) Catholic star and future NBA player.

Blaney, who ironically now is Connecticut’s associate head coach, refused, saying it was too late, because Thomas had classes the next day.

After Blaney walked away, the bewildered assistant coach said to me: “Can you believe that? Do you think Jim Calhoun would do that?”

Of course he wouldn’t. Blaney was devoured by the sharks in his brief Seton Hall stint. Calhoun was and still is one of the man-eaters.

As fans, we must decide if we want to invest anymore time or interest in a sport that often violates many of the non-enforced credos of the NCAA. Or do we just close our eyes and hope the alma mater can develop a Final Four contender, with or without compliance with the rules?

Just like the baseball fans who don’t care about steroid use.

Last updated: 9:46 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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