Houston's rise threatens to turn cheats to champs


Some would suggest that Election Day is the perfect time to raise the issue of whether cheaters really do prosper. It is merely a coincidence that I'm doing so, but in the words of Bill Bidwill (I've never actually heard him say this, but I'm sure he has many times), "Sounds good to me."

Homer, the Greek poet and avid outdoorsman, first brought it up years ago, way back even before Artie Donovan was playing for the Colts. "Evil deeds do not prosper," he wrote. (An editor tightened up the language for him, according to legend.) These many years later, the issue remains very much two-sided.

There are, of course, many cheaters who have not prospered. The 1919 Black Sox wound up out of baseball. Ivan Boesky wound up making little rocks out of big ones. So did Pete Rose. Rosie Ruiz got caught. So did Mike Milken, although he has a terrific nickname -- the Junk Bond King; sounds like he plays for the Detroit Pistons -- so he prospered a little.

We tell our children that Homer was right. But there is a body of contrary evidence. Lyndon Johnson won election to the Senate with 87 stolen votes, and wound up president. Larry Brown coached Kansas to the NCAA basketball championship, then left for the San Antonio Spurs (and David Robinson) just before Kansas went on probation.

Joe B. Hall has a network television job. Tark the Shark isn't exactly hurting. Some would suggest that any lawyer charging $250 an hour certainly is prospering and, in theory if not literally, .. cheating. Oh, and that front-page story about those millionaires who don't pay taxes . . .

All of which brings us to college football, where the issue of a cheater's prosperity could be essential in deciding who is No. 1 this year. At the center of the debate is the University of Houston, which is a) the only Division I-A team without a loss or tie, and b) on probation for a multitude of violations.

The Cougars, as they are called, broke so many rules between 1979 and 1984 that the two local newspapers couldn't agree on how many. One said 250, the other around 200. You get the picture. The Cougars made other sporting scofflaws look as wholesome as Brooke Shields. They wore out the fine print.

Part of their punishment is they can't play on television or in a bowl this year. They also aren't eligible for the United Press International poll, in which coaches vote. They are, however, eligible for The Associated Press poll of writers and broadcasters, where they have become increasingly prominent.

Ranked 24th in preseason, they were up to No. 6 last week. Then four of the top five teams lost Saturday, and the Cougars blew out TCU, 56-35, in a game in which their quarterback threw for seven touchdowns and TCU's passed for 690 yards. The Cougars, who play in the Southwest Conference, are No. 3 this week.

Notre Dame is back to No. 1, which is fair enough; the Irish have fared well against the nation's toughest schedule. Washington, headed for the Rose Bowl, is No. 2. But what happens if those two lose and Houston continues to win? What then? If you are a poll voter, what do you do?

Do you follow standard procedure and elevate the next-highest team? Or do you find it difficult to pull the trigger on such a statement vote, awarding a team that has erred so grievously? Do you put another team ahead of the Cougars? Me, I don't think Houston should even be listed in the poll. But a lot of people do. It's a factor this year.

"If they're playing, they're eligible," said Beano Cook, the ESPN analyst. "I don't have a vote, but if you're letting them play, charging for tickets and reporting the scores in the newspaper, you should be able to vote for them. The idea is to determine the best team in the country, isn't it?"

Twice before have teams on probation finished first in the final AP poll. Auburn did so in 1957. So did Oklahoma in 1974. It was around Oklahoma's title that UPI decided to remove probation teams from its list. More than a few people were appalled that the cheaters had prospered.

"I think the public thinks it's hypocritical [to vote for teams on probation]," Cook said. "I think it's ridiculous that you can't vote for them in UPI. Only in college athletics can you have a slight case of pregnancy."

Houston's case is not without merit. The coach who committed the violations was fired. That was two coaches ago. No player named in the violations is on this year's team. The Cougars have the nation's longest Division I-Awinning streak (12 games), a quarterback who has thrown 34 touchdown passes, an offense averaging 43 points a game.

They have played weak nonconference opponents, but their overall schedule is stronger than that which BYU played in its championship season. They're going to get votes -- maybe enough -- if the games break right. "If they beat Texas on Saturday and Tennessee beats Notre Dame, they should be No. 1," Cook said.

Me, I just can't concur. I love the way the Cougars play ball, but one reason college sports has such problems is that troublemakers don't get in enough trouble. Teams on probation shouldn't be eligible for any collective ranking or honor. That may be a reactionary stance, but I see only one problem with it. It means I'm on the same side as the coaches who vote in the UPI poll. I worry about that.

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