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Byers' book blows whistle on college football

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The guess is that a typical sports fan turns to his haunt and peruses a few stories: Alabama appealing sanctions levied on it by the NCAA . . . Miami player locked up for resisting arrest and battery on a police officer . . . Tennessee drops a couple of starters for involvement in a telephone credit-card scandal. A yawn is swallowed and the reader moves on to the baseball box scores or something else. Ho-hum.

It's unfortunate. Anything goes. And it has been that way for so long that people who once used to recoil at stories such as these now simply shake their heads and realize another college football season is upon us.

Just in time for a sport beginning its 126th season -- and in time for the fabled Southwest Conference to start its 81st and last campaign -- a book entitled "Unsportsmanlike Conduct . . . Exploiting College Athletes" is about to hit the shelves.

Oh no, another expose, you groan. Hardly.

This is authored by Walter Byers, the perceived curmudgeon who served as executive director of the NCAA from the War of 1812 to 1987. Count up all the stories ever done on Walter and they would probably number 20 to 1, hatchet jobs vs. puff pieces.

One of the reasons for this is Byers took on a job with a dual mission back in 1951: Generate millions of dollars in revenue and keep intercollegiate sports clean (in that order). That's as impossible as someone breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games streak of 2,130 games.

To those with experience and trustworthy memory, 1951 screams of two things: Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World" giving the Giants a playoff victory over the Dodgers in the National League, and the college hoop scandals.

Byers' first enforcement case involved Kentucky's Fabulous Five, the lads who had won the 1948-49 national championships and served as the core of our 1948 Olympic gold-medal team in London. Later, evidence of point-shaving and illegal payments surfaced and, as the organization's first full-time executive director, he made the call.

Mighty Kentucky did not compete in basketball for the entire 1952 season. Imagine.

That gave Walter Byers the reputation as a "hanging judge" early on. Subsequently, the NCAA set up the mechanism to deal with enforcement, commercialization, rules, amateurism, television, etc., and he didn't wield absolute power, although many insist he did until the day he retired.

Byers argues that it was never the case, for it took 33 years before the NCAA got around to dropping the "death penalty" on another one of its members. He surely wouldn't have stood for such leniency. And that's where we pick up the story as the nostalgia begins tumbling forth about what a grand and glorious operation the Southwest Conference has been since it was formed in 1915.

It was at an NCAA gathering a decade ago, dubbed the "Integrity Convention," that it was decided the sins of some big-name Division I-A schools finally be treated as something more serious than "boys being boys."

Southern Methodist University was the defendant and the cases against football coach Ron Meyer, athletic director Russ Potts and president James H. Zumberge were so overwhelming a first-year law student could have prosecuted them successfully. Worse, in the middle of the long-simmering mess was William P. Clements, chairman of the SMU board who was on his way to re-election as governor of the great state of Texas.

With the heat on -- things like a linebacker getting a $25,000 "signing bonus" to matriculate to Dallas, plus $750 per month walking-around money -- Meyer, Potts and Zumberge took off in a sprint. The latter, incidentally, ended up at the University of Southern California as its president.

Donald Shields, Bob Hitch and Bobby Collins moved in as president, AD and football coach, respectively. After a spell, they learned of the multitude of indiscretions perpetrated by their predecessors but were slow to end the lawlessness. Unbelievably and actually upon orders from the man who would be governor, Clements, SMU decided to stick to its part of the bargain and continue providing illegal payments to athletes.

SMU, in hopes of taking some of the heat off itself, began investigating other schools in the conference through its athletes. Of course there were offers from other SWC schools. For instance, the $15,000 sports car Eric Dickerson drove around the school campus for years was paid for by Texas A&M.;

From 1962-72, SMU had established a huge slush fund, 20 boosters kicking in $20,000 apiece, so the Mustangs' coach could compete with Texas. This, from a school that already held the NCAA record for penalties, in 1958, 1974, 1976, 1981 and 1985. At one time, no fewer than four sports were being investigated at the school.

But then, that was the SWC. From 1985 to 1988, Byers reminds, "we hit seven of the nine schools in the conference for major NCAA violations."

The end result or current situation, according to Byers, "is today the NCAA structure with layer upon layer of administrators and managers is designed to obscure responsibility." Offending schools often adopt a never-volunteer-anything, never-give-an-inch approach toward investigations. The NCAA, because of the expense, usually goes only deep enough to make a case while schools answer with costly and high-powered attorneys constructing elaborate defenses and endless appeals.

The plain fact is, schools have made criminals of many athletes since they sign an eligibility form attesting to their NCAA amateur standing.

Meanwhile, Byers says, the fan is repeatedly "shocked so little indignation has been expressed within the wider collegiate community" at all this willful disregard for rules and regulations.

Amen.

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