It was a pleasant, late-March evening on the Duke campus and the tulips were blooming near the neo-Gothic chapel. But university president Richard Brodhead could hardly enjoy the night air.

As Brodhead, a silver-haired scholar of 19th-century American literature, stepped out onto a campus green he was immediately bathed in television-camera lights and swarmed by shouting, placard-waving female students.

For Brodhead it was just the beginning of a rolling tsunami of a scandal over allegations that three men's lacrosse team members raped an exotic dancer at a party.

But to the American public there might have seemed something familiar about what was unfolding. Anguished allegations and 911 calls. A media frenzy. A coach resigning under pressure. University handwringing. And, finally, athletic reforms.

Twenty years after the cocaine-induced death of basketball star Len Bias left much of the University of Maryland's athletic program in tatters, universities still seem not to have learned how to prevent athletic scandals from taking on image-damaging lives of their own. Part of the problem is that the schools' attention is typically divided between factions seeking reforms and others - often including deep-pocketed athletic boosters - worried that too much change will cripple sports teams. Campus administrators are often left playing defense in the face of a barrage of media reports and demands.

Maryland, Baylor, Colorado, Duke. Sports-related scandals at each school - and others - led them down long, harrowing paths. Each institution seemed to undergo a public cleansing process along the way that was painful to watch and yet somehow riveting.

The circumstances are different in each case, of course. Bias' death - "It's Len Bias. He passed out. His body is shaking," said a friend's haunting 911 call - led to an examination of drugs on campus and of academic and admissions practices for athletes.

Baylor basketball coach Dave Bliss left in 2003 after one of his players, Patrick Dennehy, was murdered. Another former Baylor player, Carlton Dotson of Hurlock, pleaded guilty to the murder and was sentenced to 35 years. An investigation found that Bliss had tried to cover up an improper tuition payment to Dennehy by asking players to say Dennehy had paid his tuition by dealing drugs.

At Colorado, where football team members have had numerous problems with the law, an independent investigation in 2004 concluded that some recruits were offered sex and alcohol arranged by players.

Losing control
While the circumstances vary, there is a sense in each case of a university having lost control, of the story galloping ahead while a campus is left gasping for breath.

"Colleges and universities frequently find themselves behind the eight ball when crises erupt," said David Carter, director of the University of Southern California Sports Business Institute. "The schools seldom have all the facts and find themselves searching to ascertain what is fact and what is fiction - and do so at the same time [as] the media. The difference being that the media is trained to smoke out the story, the witnesses, and any salacious details."

Other experts suggest another, more troubling reason why universities appear to lag in getting to the truth: They might be reluctant to upset the status quo.

Universities are often "guarded as to what gets seen," said Len Elmore, a Terrapins basketball standout during the 1970s who is now a member of the university's board of trustees.

"A lot of that obviously is self-protection. That's just a natural reaction. People don't want to lose their jobs," said Elmore, a lawyer with the LeBoeuf Lamb law firm in New York City. "I think the antidote is being proactive and taking preemptive action."

But acting boldly in a taut, scandalous environment is not easy, particularly if it means alienating boosters worried about the impact of public disclosures on recruiting.

Allen Schwait, who was chairman of the University of Maryland Board of Regents in 1986, said there was resistance to the broad athletic reforms proposed after Bias died.

Now a Baltimore Circuit Court judge, Schwait recalls leaving his law firm for weeks at a time to help manage the crisis on the university's behalf.

Schwait said he came to believe early on that the university needed to make "institutional" changes. He said it had to better monitor how athletes were performing in classes and the extent of drug use on campus. He also said there was underlying tension between coaches and the administration over admissions standards for athletes.

"I remember going to a university event and walking around and every other person would say, 'Great job, we're going to come out of this! But then the next person would say, 'Damn you, you're ruining this university. What are you doing to the athletic program?' " Schwait said. "The booster crowd wants to win ballgames. I had this silly notion we were educating kids. But I had played basketball [at the University of Pennsylvania], so I understood their passion."

Recovery process
By the end of 1986, athletic director Dick Dull, basketball coach Lefty Driesell and football coach Bobby Ross had all left a university in transition. There had been public and private doubts about whether Driesell - a campus fixture - was up to the challenge of a renewed emphasis on academics in athletic programs.

"It's a shame it had to take the death of a young man to stir up the pot," Schwait said. "I'd like to think out of the tragedy came a salutary effect."

Of scholarship athletes who entered Maryland in the fall of 1998, a school-record 70 percent graduated within six years. Maryland's graduation rate has been over 60 percent in nine of the past 11 years - a steady improvement from 54 percent in 1993. Graduation rates weren't compiled and released in the same way when Bias played.

Meanwhile, the men's and women's basketball teams have had notable success on the court, winning national championships in 2002 and this year, respectively.

Among those applauding those teams' performances was Lonise Bias, Len's mother.

Bias, a motivational speaker who still lives in Prince George's County, says she doesn't hold Maryland responsible for the tragedy that befell her son, who was doing poorly academically when he died at age 22. As far as she knows, she said, the cocaine that killed Len Bias was "his first time using." He was a first-round pick of the Boston Celtics and one of the NBA's most touted draft choices when he died.

"It was a very difficult thing in losing Len and I just could not get in a finger-pointing game [with the university] because the bottom line is that Len was gone," she said. "I had to press on because hardship is a part of life. Sometimes you go through things so difficult and tragic that you think you'll never breathe again, but you do. You do breathe."

She said she was thrilled that her son was able to do "more in death than he did in life" because his example helped educate people about the dangers of drugs. John Walters, the federal drug czar, said Bias' death "just changed the attitude overnight" about using cocaine.

But this is her toughest time of year. Tomorrow marks the anniversary of her son's death and Tuesday is the birthday of another son, Jay, killed in a drive-by shooting in 1990. It's also the month of the NBA draft, reminding her of Len being selected and trying on a Celtics cap. "Those days in June will be with me for the rest of my life," she said.

Divided loyalties
Although it has been 20 years since Bias died, academicians say universities still haven't figured out how to address a central issue: divided loyalties.

Consider the Duke situation, where Brodhead has painstakingly tried to balance the rights of lacrosse team members with assurances that the players - and the athletic program - are not being pampered.

In March, Brodhead criticized players' behavior, calling it "wholly inappropriate." The president said he wasn't referring to the rape allegations but rather was condemning team members for underage drinking and hiring a stripper for an off-campus party at which the sexual assault allegedly occurred. At the time, the campus and adjoining community were the scenes of numerous protests calling for "justice" on behalf of the accuser.

Somewhere, the players' interests got at least temporarily "lost," said Sally Fogarty of Chevy Chase, the mother of Gibbs Fogarty, a freshman last season on Duke's team.

"I think the university tread very cautiously and carefully in the beginning because they [university officials] had other constituencies to consider," she said. "What the alleged victim said had happened created a firestorm of much larger issues dealing with race, class and gender. I think, in the beginning, the lacrosse players got lost beneath the larger issues."

Like others before it, the Duke case illustrates the importance of universities finding impartial officials to judge and mediate rather than trying to investigate themselves, said Peter Roby, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society.

Some of those who Duke asked to examine the university's conduct are connected to the university, while others are not. Three players have been indicted after an investigation by the Durham County, N.C., district attorney's office.

"There's an inherent kind of a conflict of interest when you investigate yourself," Roby said.

He suggested that universities consider creating independent posts, akin to newspaper ombudsmen. "It might be just what people need in a time of crisis," Roby said.