TROUBLE AT ASU : Scandals in Sun Devil Athletic Department Bring Reform
It’s like looking at one of the scenes in a child’s play book, trying to find “what’s wrong with this picture?”
But this is a tough one. Not one of the athletes passing by has a pickle for a nose. There’s no boat flying through the bright blue desert sky. The lizards scurrying across the sidewalks are common, everyday lizards. No feathers or fins.
In fact, the athletic complex on the Arizona State campus seems picture-postcard perfect. Impressive even. A showcase.
Still, there is something wrong here, even if you can’t quite put your finger on it. Something feels not quite right.
It’s not just that the baseball, basketball and football teams all had losing seasons, a phenomenon that last occurred in 1932.
The losing baseball season for Coach Jim Brock was his first, and he’s been at ASU for 14 years.
The football team’s losing season was the first in nine years.
The phenomenon was only slightly different in basketball. For Coach Bob Weinhauer, the losing season was the second straight. ASU had not had consecutive losing seasons in basketball for 15 years.
The losing is bad enough, and the Arizona State fans are not at all pleased with it. But what really is hard for them to swallow is that the school has been cheating and losing . Think of it. They are embarrassed.
The embarrassment started with what they call the Kush thing in 1979, but it didn’t stop there. It has been one thing after another. If it’s not news of probation it’s news of a loss of scholarships. If it’s not a coaching change, it’s an athletic director being forced out. If it’s not anything else, then it must be a tempest in a teapot about baseball players using some never-before-heard-of drug.
In Tempe, the fans pick up the morning paper with “What next?” trepidation. A weekly Phoenix journal, New-Times, published a story in April headlined, “Going to Hell With the Sun Devils.”
Well, the Sun Devils haven’t gone all the way to hell. Not yet, anyway. But the athletic department certainly is no heaven on earth. Right now, the Sun Devils seem to be in limbo.
There’s a new athletic director, Charles Harris, due to report July 5, and that could well mean that a lot of changes will be made.
Harris is not an insider. He’s now the athletic director at the Ivy League’s University of Pennsylvania, and before that he was an assistant to Don Canham at the University of Michigan, highly regarded as an academic institution.
Harris is considered to be one of the president’s men. ASU President J. Russell Nelson is looking forward to the day that Harris takes over.
Until that time, Frank Sackton is the athletic director, and he has already started the purge known around the athletic department as the broom.
Sackton, 73, a retired general who served under Douglas MacArthur and a former business affairs vice president of the university, was lured out of retirement last June and assigned to the athletic department by the president. Dick Tamburo was still the athletic director at the time. And when Tamburo suddenly resigned--he was forced out, many believe--the president made Sackton the athletic director.
Although Sackton is serving only until Harris arrives, which in fact makes him an acting athletic director, Nelson specified that Sackton is not to be called an interim director. He’s the director, with full power, Nelson said.
That means that he has the power to fire people, or at least suggest that they resign. There have been several resignations recently and rumor has it that there may be more before Harris arrives.
There is a definite attitude of cleaning up and starting over in the athletic department, and that feeling is being strongly encouraged by the president’s office.
When did the trouble at Arizona State begin? When did a program that was winning big, making big money and growing by leaps and bounds suddenly become, by its own admission, a laughingstock?
Most point to the 1979 scandal involving football Coach Frank Kush. Kush, himself, said at that time that he thought the trouble began in 1976, when Arizona State was accepted into the Pacific 10. The university president thinks that maybe it began even before that, during all those early years when the athletic department was growing, gaining power and wealth and not answering to anyone.
In any event, the school has developed what columnist Joe Gilmartin of the Phoenix Gazette called “a public relations problem of massive proportions.”
That image is the result of a series of bad-news occurrences. A chronology of some of those lowlights of the last few years:
October, 1979--Frank Kush is fired, amid allegations that he punched punter Kevin Rutledge during a game the year before. There is more scandal involved in Kush’s attempt to cover up the incident than there is in the incident itself. The cover-up allegedly involved death threats, suspected arson, a private detective, a lie detector test, a beating and rumors of other intrigue. Kush eventually is exonerated of all charges, but a subsequent investigation into the football program reveals a grade scandal and the NCAA and Pac-10 put the sport on two years’ probation. Kush, who had compiled a record of 176-54-1 in 22 years at ASU, had brought the school national prominence with a No. 2 ranking in 1975.
November, 1979--John Rehfield, academic counselor, resigns after the suspension of eight football players in the Rocky Mountain College grade scandal. Arizona State was one of several schools that bought correspondence-school credits for athletes from Rocky Mountain College, a school that existed in name only.
January, 1980--Athletic Director Fred Miller is fired.
June, 1980--Joe Kearney resigns after just six months as athletic director, and the next month Dick Tamburo, former assistant football coach, takes over.
August, 1980--Arizona State is one of five conference schools--with USC, UCLA, Oregon and Oregon State--put on Pac-10 probation for various academic violations.
March, 1982--Ned Wulk, the Sun Devils’ popular basketball coach, is fired despite a 406-272 record at ASU and an overall record that included 495 victories. He wanted No. 500, but he was coming off a 13-14 season. He was subsequently replaced by Weinhauer, a not-so-popular guy who took the team to the NIT in his first season but has since put together two consecutive losing seasons.
August, 1983--The Pac-10 takes away one basketball scholarship because of a recruiting violation by assistant coach Henry Bibby.
August, 1984--The Pac-10 finds recruiting violations in the track program and also finds that Coach Len Miller has awarded too many scholarships. The conference also says that Miller is guilty of unethical conduct. The program is put on two years’ probation and loses five scholarships over two years.
January, 1985--The baseball program is hit with two years’ probation by the Pac-10, and has to forfeit its 1984 conference title. The team is banned from postseason play in 1985 for violations involving the work-study program, which allows non-scholarship athletes to have part-time jobs. The wrestling team and the men’s gymnastics teams are also hit with sanctions because of work-study practices, but the sanctions are less severe.
February, 1985--The Detroit Lions announce that they have hired football coach Darryl Rogers, who had replaced Kush. This is an embarrassment because Tamburo had told the media only hours earlier that Rogers had advised him that he wasn’t even talking to the Lions, a story that Rogers had also told reporters.
February, 1985--Five months after he had replaced Len Miller, who resigned after the track program went on probation, Coach Frank Morris is assigned to other duties when it is learned that he staged a non-sanctioned all-comers meet--which qualifies as an illegal tryout.
March, 1985--John Cooper of Tulsa becomes the third ASU football coach in six years.
March, 1985--Another investigation is begun by the Pac-10 into possible irregularities in the basketball program. It is still in progress.
March, 1985--The local newspapers run reports that some of the Sun Devil baseball players have been prescribed the drug Nardil by the team psychiatrist. Nardil, usually prescribed to treat serious depression, is reported to have dangerous side effects.
March, 1985--Tamburo, the athletic director, resigns.
May, 1985--Bob Gillett, the women’s swimming coach, resigns.
June, 1985--Roger Kerr, the women’s track coach, resigns.
That adds up to three athletic directors in less than five years. And, for various reasons, the top three assistants under Tamburo just a year ago also are gone.
It also adds up to sanctions against five programs over a span of 21 months.
The office of the president is on the other side of the campus, removed from the emotionalism and the factionalized gossip known to every athletic department.
It’s a different world on the upper floors of an administration building, where the pace is slower but more businesslike, where the conversation pieces are works of art instead of old trophies and faded photos, where voices are more subdued but never lowered to a whisper to share off-the-record “background.”
Thus removed from the trench warfare, J. Russell Nelson, president since 1980, is able to state his philosophies and expectations calmly and succinctly.
“My own view is that the athletic department must meet certain criteria, not necessarily in any particular order,” he says.
“It ought to be a credible program. It ought to be conducted with class and dignity. It ought to be in compliance with the applicable rules and with the expectations of the university. It ought to provide for the athletes, the student-athletes, a valid educational opportunity and experience. And it ought to win.”
That will be greeted as good news by a lot of ASU fans who are not sure that Nelson cares at all whether the teams win. There exists a common opinion that Nelson actually has disdain for the athletic department, that he is so irritated by the embarrassment it has brought upon the university as a whole, that he would like to see it fade in stature.
In an athletic department so riddled with paranoia that more than one person has expressed fears that the phones are bugged, there also is a feeling that Nelson is trying to take over the department so that he can control it with his own people.
Well, in a way, that’s true.
Nelson said, “You have to realize that the athletic department here had a tradition of not being a part of the university. That’s my perception of it. And I think it’s their perception, too. They had a degree of independence that is not appropriate, in my view.
“I have wanted to bring them into the university--not to smother them, but to make them a part of the university. They are, after all, a department of Arizona State University. They are employees of Arizona State University and the people who compete in the programs are students of Arizona State University.
“It is not clear to me that the athletic department has always reflected the spirit of the university with respect to the importance of students.”
Ideally--and college administrators are notoriously idealistic--big-time college athletes will, predominantly, be true student-athletes. Teams will win with top-notch students.
Nelson said, “I don’t think that you have to bifurcate (divide into two parts) to achieve both. Look at the models. The models that I have put out for our people to look at include Notre Dame, Penn State, Michigan and, within our own conference, certainly UCLA. There may well be others. But there are four schools that seem to have excellent athletic programs embedded in universities that are known for excellence.
“This university is intent upon becoming an excellent university and I want to see the athletic department here embedded in a first-rate university. I think if we go forth with the intent to recruit young people who have the ability and the interest in going to school and also have the ability and interest in competing at the highest level, those people are there.”
It is no coincidence that Charles Harris’ background includes six years at Michigan, nor that he is most recently the athletic director at an Ivy League school.
Nelson does not intend to allow the athletic department to continue to embarrass his university. But, he says, that does not mean that he wants to diminish it.
“It’s the most visible activity at the university,” he said. “It draws the biggest crowds to events. It is continuously in the public eye. Because we compete at a very high level, that audience is a national audience for a fair share of the time. It assumes an importance for that reason.
“It has the potential either to be an ornament to the university or to be an albatross around the neck of the university. I’m aware that things work better when the athletic department is doing well. So I want it to do very well.”
Always, he emphasizes, that success must come within the specified bounds. “To the extent that we’re still having trouble with violations, it’s not where I want it to be. We have been sanctioned by the conference for things that were described as willful. We have to change that.”
In trying to change that, Sackton has hired Jim Ferguson, formerly of the University of Oregon, to take charge of monitoring athletes’ academic progress and to be responsible for seeing that all coaches and athletes understand and accept responsibility for following every rule to the letter.
Whenever coaches ask Ferguson about what’s legal according to the NCAA or the conference, he puts the question in writing, he puts the answer in writing, and he puts the source of the answer in writing so that everyone is informed and protected.
It’s a bureaucratic, businesslike approach--and that’s the way things are going to be.
Winning is important, but, at this point, avoiding further embarrassment is the top priority.
In downtown Phoenix, Dan Devine, executive director of the Sun Angel Foundation, sits down to lunch in the Kiva Club, a private club steeped in the tradition of the city. He and his guest have a window seat with a panoramic view that reaches to nearby Tempe.
“What is going on at Arizona State?” Devine asks rhetorically. “That’s the comment I hear every day. ‘What is going on?’ And I really don’t know the answer.
“I don’t think the athletic department is rotten to the core, or that there have been really bad people there. But how can there be such a long list of separate instances?
“The only thing that makes sense, I think, is that because of some serious infractions in the past, every infraction seems to get blown out of proportion now.
“I’m not saying that there are no real problems or that our only problem is a public relations problem. I am saying that our national image is making it very difficult to deal with individual instances without bringing everything up every time.
“I know there are some people in the athletic department who feel that there is an effort being made to make us look bad, whenever possible. I’m not one of those. I think we’ve brought all this on ourselves.”
Devine should know about image problems. His Sun Angel Foundation, one of the biggest, strongest, most visible booster groups in the country, has had its share of bad press. The Sun Angels became the example of booster clubs out of control when Kush came under fire. Members of the Sun Angel club made statements and threats that left no doubt that they believed they, not the athletic director, were calling the shots. Devine was not here for any of that. He was coaching football at Notre Dame.
Now, though, in an attempt to clean up that image, Devine constantly stresses the donations that the foundation makes to the university itself. For example, the foundation has met a commitment of $1.25 million over five years to the College of Engineering. The foundation has provided funds for improvements to the library. And each year, the Sun Angels provide 40 academic scholarships to the university.
Still, it is true that most of the foundation’s donations go to athletic interests.
The Sun Angels came up with $4.5 million for the $11 million expansion of the football stadium. They gave $300,000 to resurface the track and field complex and convert it to metric measurements. They have financed a physical therapy unit, practice field lights, a camera tower, a public-address system and office improvements.
The Sun Angels also control 13,500 of the best football tickets, collecting “donations” for those tickets and passing out, in return, reserved parking, refreshments, game programs, all sorts of goodies.
It’s a very strong alumni group that was founded in 1946.
Devine was familiar with the group before he went to work for it, having once been the ASU football coach.
“Actually, it’s a real good group and, I’d say, a very loyal group through all of the embarrassment,” Devine said. “There are a lot of people not happy with some of the things that have been happening in the athletic department, but no one is pulling out. These latest events seemed to have had no adverse effect on donations.”
Devine said that the attitude among the boosters is much the same as it is in the administration. “The people I talk to are upset about the losing seasons, but they’re much more upset about the embarrassments,” Devine said. “I talk to people every day who say, let’s just weed out the bad apples, if there are any, and start over.”
The biggest personnel question, at the moment, is whether Jim Brock, the baseball coach, will survive the latest brouhaha, one sparked by several of his players’ use of Nardil, a drug prescribed by Dr. James Gough. Gough, a Scottsdale psychiatrist, is a paid consultant to the ASU athletic department.
For days the issue raged on with one side crying, “Drugs!” and noting that Nardil is potentially fatal. The other side argued that Nardil is not on the lists of substances banned by of the Pac-10, the NCAA or even the U.S. Olympic committee.
That ruckus followed the reduction of baseball scholarships from 13 to 8 because of the sanctions for the work-study violations, and the loss of those scholarships was largely responsible for the 31-34 season.
Despite all that, Brock expects to be back next season.
“I think that what is happening here is fairly clear,” Brock said. “I think that President Nelson and Frank Sackton want to have our house in order by the time the new athletic director arrives. There have been some changes made, but I think we’re pretty much at the end of that.
“If there were going to be changes made on the baseball staff, that would have been done at the end of the baseball season.”
Brock pointed out that the sanctions against the baseball team were the result of an administrative mistake by Pat Kuhner, an assistant athletic director since forced out. He said that Kuhner gave an incorrect interpretation of the rule, and that baseball was the victim of that interpretation, as were wrestling and gymnastics.
“Both the Pac-10 and the NCAA recognized that we were not attempting to cheat or get around any rules or hide something,” Brock said. “It was sloppy rule interpretation. Questions that should have been asked were not asked. I don’t think the baseball program or the baseball coach was doing anything except plugging along.
“As for the Nardil thing, that gave the impression that we were in trouble in even a more dastardly way. I think that was because of the play it got here and the way it was picked up nationally. Things always seem much more sensational when they first hit the fan.”
Gough, who said he prescribed the drug to more than 900 students while he was a consultant to the student health center, prescribed it for eight athletes. He describes the drug as “not an upper, downer or mood-alterer . . . it controls a destructive enzyme process that all individuals can have under too much stress . . . it allows a person to control stress and his personal ‘choke factor.’ ”
The Nardil flap, too, will pass, Brock believes.
“We’re hearing now about a commitment to rebuild,” he said. “But I don’t think the basis has ever been torn down. We’ve had some high-profile problems, but the traditions at Arizona State that made it great are still here.”
Brock has made another observation over the years: “In sports, things are never as bad as they seem to be when things are going bad and things are never as good as you think they are when things are going good.”
Brock has won more than 700 games, including two national titles for the Sun Devils.
He figures that his program went from top to bottom pretty quickly and may well go from bottom back to top just as quickly.
“The commitment has been made to go on here,” he said. “It’s time to lock arms and go kiss babies.”
Charles Harris is coming to Arizona State knowing that it will take some time to set things straight. On the day that he was hired as athletic director, he said, “You don’t become a winner overnight and you don’t become a loser overnight and you don’t get in trouble overnight. What we have to find out is what has happened.”
At least Harris will be able to take a fresh look at the situation, unlike Tamburo, who had been an assistant football coach at ASU years earlier.
Another unbiased assessment is expected from three outside consultants the school has hired to come in and make recommendations. Among those will be Bob Fischer, recently retired UCLA athletic director.
“The intent of that is to take apart everything you’re doing and look at it very closely,” Harris said. That will, of course, include evaluations of personnel.
“I am sure that there are quality people on this staff who, unfortunately, have been painted with the same brush as those who have caused problems,” Harris said. “Part of my job, in the early going, will be to sort through those things. We need to start to recognize our own qualities and our own strengths, and polish them.
“The perception of you can, in many ways, make a difference in how you are treated. We do have an image problem, but that’s very different from saying that we are bad people.”
Harris, who is becoming the first black athletic director at a big-time athletic school, played football and baseball at Hampton Institute in Virginia and earned a degree in business administration, and a master’s in journalism at Michigan.
He is very much aware of what image can mean.
“I realize that we are facing a challenge at Arizona State, but I also see great potential,” he said. “What convinced me to take this job is that I sensed a unanimous opinion from coaches, supporters, from administrators and from alums that no one wants to be embarrassed any longer.”