Monday, July 25, 2005

Holtz redux | by Jay

We haven't discussed the NCAA violations at South Carolina yet, but that's not for a lack of talking points from the chattering class. There's a lot of lazy kneejerking going around, lumping together the latest stuff at USC with what happened at ND and Minnesota, and laughably, even a few citations of Looney & Yaeger's book as some sort of document of record on all things Holtz.

So let's take a look at what actually happened at the two previous stops.

Minnesota remains a big black mark for Holtz, mostly because it was part of a wider NCAA investigation that eventually touched not just football, but also the Gophers' hoops program, the wrestling team, and the entire athletic department, and led to the imprisonment of University official Luther Darville, who was convicted of embezzling $186,000 from the school. Holtz's transgressions were relatively minor in the grand scope of the investigation; he admitted to giving a former player between $25 and $40 to cover the loss of his wallet during a recruiting trip and giving another $250 for a summer course. The report was released while Holtz was at Notre Dame, and the ND administration (including an on-the-record Father Beauchamp) gave him its full support and (obviously) kept him on.

The Irish scandal involves femme fatale Kim Dunbar, whose story you probably know. Dunbar had embezzled over a million dollars from her employer, and was lavishing the booty on some ND players, including Jarvis Edison, with whom she had a daughter (and whom she ended up actually marrying). The catch was that Dunbar was part of the Quarterback Club, a fan organization open to anyone for a $25 annual membership fee. As a result the NCAA ultimately deemed her a "Unversity representative", and under the flimsiest of pretenses, her gifts were seen as a violation of NCAA rules. Inexplicably, ND decided not to appeal the NCAA decision, and swallowed a 2-year probation and a loss of 2 scholarships with nary a peep of protest. (Still maybe the dumbest decision of Monk's tenure). Yet there was no connection alleged between Holtz and Dunbar, and this wasn't a case of the head coach arranging for a rich booster to pay off his players; rather, Dunbar was an out-of-control groupie who sabotaged the program all on her own.

Now we've got South Carolina, where the major allegations involve improper tutoring and academic support, some over-zealousness on the part of the strength coach making some 'voluntary' summer workouts 'mandatory', and some impermissible recruiting contact, including by the former governor of SC, Jim Hodges. The proposed penalties are a two-year probation and loss of two scholarships for two years. Obviously, this isn't good. In fact, the NCAA tagged South Carolina with the "lack of institutional control" label, and hopefully it'll get their attention and spur them to clean up their act. But Lou's role in all this is unclear; for his part, he's barely mentioned in the 80+ page document from the NCAA.

So let's not make any excuses for Lou, but let's at least be specific. Most of the articles in the past week (some linked above in the first paragraph; scores more available via a simple Google search) have been way over-the-top and wildly inaccurate. Not all NCAA scandals are created equally, and without some context, you'd think Holtz was as bad an actor as Barry Switzer, the University of Colorado, or the Michigan basketball program in the early 90's. Holtz has done some regrettable things in the past, but the conventional "wisdom" I've seen over the past week is much too flippant and amounts to character assassination. According to the company line, Lou is "shady"; he's "a con man" and he's "slimy"; and in a fit of really ridiculous hyperbole, he's even "the sweet widow in the old Andy Griffith episode who sells Barney Fife his first car -- the same widow who turns out to be Myrt "Hubcaps" Lesch running a car-theft ring." It would all be so silly if it weren't so irresponsible.

Except for one article, which I think hits it right on the head. Phil Mobley of penned a piece that I think perfectly encapsulates why things slid slowly out of control in Columbia.

...There's already been too much ink spilt debating Lou Holtz's responsibility for this mess, not to mention the spate of other issues affecting the program since the Clemson game. I can only offer an opinion based on my perception, but it is this: Coach Holtz failed to keep tabs on his team to the extent necessary by a modern Division-I head football coach. I do not believe that Holtz knowingly engaged in any unethical behavior, nor do I believe he condoned it among anyone on his staff (that goes for Mike McGee, too). I further do not believe that he intentionally took the course of plausible deniability. Even so, we have all been forced to confront the reality that Holtz was too much grandfather and not enough Godfather to his players. Whether due to lack of energy or an inability to recognize the severity of problems, the well-intentioned Holtz was too distant from his team. The argument that most of the NCAA trouble was in the athletic department, as opposed to the coaching staff, rings hollow. Who is the ambassador of a university's football team if not its head coach? Though the head coach certainly doesn't have authority over those outside his staff, he sure ought to know what they're doing with his players, even more so than the athletic director, whose attention is divided among multiple sports. The deceit could not have lasted as long had Holtz pried as a head coach must...
That's just an excerpt; the whole piece is well worth a read.

Lord knows, Lou's not perfect. And he should take his lumps for the things he's done wrong. But if he's guilty of anything, it's neglect, not malice.