Un-Raveling at USC: A Failure to Communicate
Once former USC Coach Stan Morrison’s latest recruits began to assert themselves on the court during the 1985-86 basketball season, the media began referring to them as the Four Freshmen, alluding to a 1950s musical group that none of the young Trojans were old enough to remember.
Whether or not the four players could relate to the name, the one-for-all concept appealed to them to the extent that they naively began to believe they could have some influence on USC’s administration.
After Morrison had been relieved of his duties as the basketball coach to become an associate athletic director, the freshmen made an appointment with Athletic Director Mike McGee to offer their recommendations concerning Morrison’s successor.
There has been considerable confusion about the tone of that meeting March 21 in McGee’s Heritage Hall office. One of the freshmen, Tom Lewis, was quoted initially as saying that the four players had told McGee they would transfer from the university if certain conditions were not met. That version has been widely reported.
Since then, all of the parties involved, including Lewis, have denied that ultimatums were delivered. As for what actually was said, there are different versions even among the players.
One of them, Rich Grande, said that there had been an open exchange of views. “There were no demands or threats from either side,” he said, adding that he believed no one left the meeting with hard feelings.
But two of the others, Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers, said that McGee had done most of the talking, complaining that he had talked down to them. Kimble said the atmosphere during the meeting was “real cold.”
That hardly sounds as if the players had a unified position. The public perception, however, has lingered of the freshmen as a four-headed monster.
In reality, the Four Freshmen no longer existed, at least not collectively, from the moment the players walked out of McGee’s office. Lewis and Grande went their own ways, and Kimble and Gathers became a duo. But even within the duo, there was not always agreement. Each of the players had individual concerns.
It was the failure of USC’s new basketball coach, George Raveling, to make a greater effort to understand those concerns, and the failure of three of the freshmen to do anything at all that indicated a desire to play for Raveling that led to another disturbing chapter in USC’s recent athletic misadventures.
On April 28, Raveling recommended in a letter to McGee that the scholarships of Lewis, Kimble and Gathers not be renewed for the 1986-87 academic year.
Lewis, a 6-foot, 7-inch forward from Santa Ana Mater Dei, had been the team’s leading scorer. He and Kimble, a 6-4 guard, had been named to the Pacific 10’s all-freshman team. Gathers, a 6-7 forward, also had been a starter by the end of the season and was considered by teammates to be the Trojans’ most inspirational player. Grande, a 6-2 reserve point guard from Glendale, chose to remain at USC.
Kimble and Gathers, who are from Philadelphia, said last week that they will transfer to Loyola Marymount. Lewis is believed to be leaning toward UC Irvine, although he also is considering Kentucky and Syracuse.
According to NCAA rules, the players have three years of eligibility remaining, but they will have to sit out next season unless they win reinstatement through an appeal from the NCAA.
In general, the episode leads to questions about the responsibility of universities toward student-athletes who have been heavily recruited and the responsibility of those student-athletes toward their universities and the coaches who recruited them. Unfortunately for all parties involved, USC did not have the answers. What we had here was a failure to communicate.
That is hardly consistent with Raveling’s reputation as a communicator. But the demands on his time caused by the transition to USC from the University of Iowa, where he had been the coach for three seasons, made it difficult, if not impossible, for him to devote the attention required to understand the complexities of the situation.
Last Tuesday, almost six weeks after he had accepted the job, he said he was still confused. “For the life of me, I can’t figure out where the problem was,” he said.
It is possible, maybe even probable, that Raveling could not have solved the problems to the satisfaction of all three players even if he had known what the problems were. He said it was impossible for him to relate to the players one on one because of the advice they were receiving from people outside the university.
But it is also evident that the course Raveling took in regard to the three freshmen was doomed from the beginning.
For Raveling, it began March 26, when he looked through a folder of newspaper clippings about USC’s basketball team while flying to Los Angeles for a press conference the next day to announce his hiring. It was the first time he had read of the Four Freshmen and their reported demands of McGee.
According to the clippings, one of the criteria was that USC hire a West Coast coach, and another was that the new coach retain one of Morrison’s assistants, David Spencer, who had recruited Kimble and Gathers from Philadelphia.
Raveling, coming from Iowa, did not meet the first demand, although he had coached at Washington State in the Pac-10 for 11 years. He also did not intend to meet the second. He said that his allegiance was to his assistants from Iowa.
The players told McGee that they had heard from Chris Munk, one of the state’s top recruits, that he would not consider USC if Spencer was not on the staff. Munk later signed with USC.
The articles alarmed Raveling, as indicated by his response at the press conference to a question about the Four Freshmen. “You can’t let the Indians run the reservation,” he said. “You’ve got to be strong, too. Sometimes you have to tell them that they have to exit.”
He said last week that he never expected it to come to that, admitting that he was confident in his ability to communicate with the young people. “I never thought for the first two weeks I was on the job that this wasn’t going to work out,” he said.
By the time he began to realize otherwise, it was too late.
After the press conference March 27, he scheduled a team meeting for the next week. Grande recalls Raveling saying that the players had until May 1 to decide whether they wanted to remain at USC. That was more than enough time for Grande, who told Raveling during a private meeting two weeks later that he did not want to transfer.
Raveling also arranged private meetings with Lewis and Gathers. They were noncommittal, but Gathers told friends later that he liked Raveling. Kimble had an appointment with Raveling but did not show up. Nor did the player attempt to reschedule the appointment.
Around that time, Raveling said, he began to suspect that he was not the only coach pursuing the three freshmen. He would not elaborate on his charges that other schools had attempted to recruit the players while they were still under scholarship to USC, a violation of NCAA rules.
People close to the players say that Raveling’s suspicions were based on misinformation, innuendo and paranoia. When one USC alumnus recognized Kimble and Gathers on a plane returning from Las Vegas, a rumor spread through the athletic department that Coach Jerry Tarkanian of Nevada Las Vegas was recruiting the players.
But more than one source close to the players said that Kimble and Gathers had their expenses paid to Las Vegas by friends and were there for only eight hours to gamble.
Raveling said he also had received calls from coaches at six other universities, reporting that persons claiming to represent Lewis, Kimble and Gathers had contacted them about the possibility of the freshmen transferring before they received their letters from Raveling. That led Raveling to believe that the players, or their advisers, were soliciting offers.
At the same time, there was no small amount of paranoia on the part of the three freshmen. They thought it might have been a signal to them when Mike Canada, a redshirt freshman, reported that McGee had asked him to sign a release that would return the player’s scholarship to the university.
Canada left McGee’s office in tears, but McGee later said that the player misunderstood the purpose of the meeting and would remain on scholarship. “We are not in the practice of taking away grant-in-aids,” McGee said, an ironic comment in light of subsequent events.
The freshmen also noticed that Raveling had invited recruits to the campus and wondered if the coach was offering the scholarships he expected to regain from them. Raveling said he was engaged in “defensive recruiting,” meaning that he wanted to have players available if the three freshmen transferred. The three freshmen found it offensive.
On April 21, Raveling decided he wanted an answer. According to NCAA rules, he has only until May 15 to sign players to national letters of intent. Needing to know the number of scholarships he would have available, he invited Lewis, Kimble and Gathers to his office for a meeting at 3 p.m.
Raveling was late, however, and by the time he arrived at 3:45, the players had gone, although Lewis had left word that Raveling could find him in the weight room. Raveling found him there and told Lewis he had until Friday, April 25, to make a decision.
Raveling gave Kimble and Gathers the same message the next day. They returned to his office half an hour later and asked for another week to decide. When Raveling asked why they needed more time, Kimble told him that they did not yet have a “gut feeling” about the situation.
Believing they were trying to stall, Raveling did not give them an extension. He did give them a phone number where he could be reached in Iowa City the following Friday and told them to call collect.
Kimble and Gathers are from a ghetto area of Philadelphia known as the Jungle. When they came to USC on a recruiting visit, they were told that the area around the university was considered a slum. They thought that was a joke. “In Philadelphia, this would be a suburb,” Gathers said.
The two players were not friends until they were seniors at Dobbins Tech High School. But they became so close that when Gathers decided to got to USC, Kimble followed.
They had the blessing of Dave Hagan, a parish priest who virtually raised Gathers and also was influential in Kimble’s upbringing. Hagan is a 6-4 “Hell Town” sort of priest who has gone to the mat both for and with the young men who frequent the playgrounds of his parish.
When Raveling issued the deadline to the two players, they were at odds. Both players liked USC, were surviving in the classroom under a support system that required them to attend study halls and provided them with tutors, and found the idea of the “Trojan family” appealing. Their own families had not been so cohesive.
Later, after the two players had been released from their scholarships at USC, Hagan told them to stay on the West Coast instead of returning to Philadelphia for fear that they would forever be trapped by a ghetto environment he considered unhealthy, maybe even deadly.
Gathers felt the USC family disintegrating when he learned that Morrison would not be the coach next season. Voted by his teammates to a committee of four players that was supposed to meet with coaching candidates and make recommendations to McGee, Gathers refused to go to the meetings. The committee met with only one coach, Gene Bartow, before disbanding.
Gathers was encouraged when Raveling was hired. Raveling also was from Philadelphia, knew about the streets and coached a style of basketball that was more suited than Morrison’s to the games of Gathers and Kimble. Upon meeting Raveling, Gathers decided he wanted to stay at USC.
Kimble did not. He broke down and cried when he learned that Morrison would not return as the coach next season, blaming himself because he believed that the Trojans would have won more games if he had not had a late-season shooting slump.
He believed that McGee had pressured Morrison to resign and was bitter toward the athletic director, a sentiment that, to his way of thinking, was reinforced during the March 21 meeting. He also was resentful toward Raveling.
Both Kimble and Gathers were upset because Raveling had chosen not to retain Spencer. But Gathers thought he could live with that. Kimble did not. They argued about their differences in opinion, almost coming to blows one night in a restaurant.
Undecided, they allowed Raveling’s deadline to pass. It was suggested to Gathers that he could remain at USC even if Kimble did not. Gathers rejected the idea. “Kimble made Gathers, and Gathers made Kimble,” he said. “We’ll stick together.”
On the Saturday after the deadline, Gathers persuaded Kimble to call Hagan. The priest advised the players to remain at USC.
Kimble said he would think about it.
Gathers was relieved to hear that much of a concession from his friend.
Like Kimble, Lewis also felt alienated, but not so much out of loyalty to Morrison as because of distrust of Raveling.
There was no guarantee, though, that Lewis would have returned to USC even if Morrison had remained the coach.
A high school All-American at Mater Dei, Lewis was recruited by numerous schools from throughout the country. He narrowed his decision to USC and UC Irvine because he wanted to stay close to home, then chose USC because he considered the Pac-10 a more prestigious conference than the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn.
But as much as he grew to like USC, he quickly became disillusioned by the small crowds for the Trojans’ games at the Sports Arena and complained openly about what he believed to be special treatment for some of his teammates, junior Derrick Dowell in particular.
Lewis told friends that he might not return next season if Dowell were on the team. Coincidently, Kimble and Gathers recently told friends that they would not transfer to a school that also took Lewis because, they said, he was not a team player.
There is speculation that Kimble and Gathers eventually want to play on the same team with Gathers’ brother, a freshman last year at Taft Junior College. Gathers’ brother and Lewis play the same position.
Perhaps Morrison could have persuaded Lewis to stay, but Raveling was not familiar enough with the player’s background to know where to begin.
A product of a broken home, Lewis was a problem child who moved out of his mother’s and stepfather’s home in San Juan Capistrano when he was a high school sophomore and moved in with Pat Barrett, a 32-year-old part-time forklift operator, part-time student and full-time basketball junkie who lives with his parents in Garden Grove.
Lewis was in the eighth grade when he met Barrett, who was coaching a team in a junior league. Barrett is credited with giving Lewis direction on the court and off.
Friends of Lewis say he is cautious about trusting anyone outside of Barrett and his family. Raveling and his staff did not get off to a good start when one of the new assistants, Brian Hammell, approached Lewis on campus last month and asked if he was on the basketball team. Raveling had not introduced his staff to the players.
The same assistant coach found Lewis outside of his Russian class on April 28, three days after Raveling’s deadline, and told him there was a letter for him in McGee’s office. A student manager, Jerry Spar, was dispatched to inform Kimble and Gathers of the letters.
Meantime, Raveling was in Connecticut to visit his family. He had been in Iowa City on the previous Friday, the day of the deadline, and said he had called his office four times to find out whether the freshmen had tried to reach him.
Lewis said that he had called Raveling’s office, discovered that the coach was out of town and was not given another number to call. Kimble said he had called the number in Iowa City but was unable to leave a message because there was no recorder.
Raveling said he does not believe Lewis or Kimble tried to call him. He said that he has a recorder but that no messages were left. He also said that he left instructions with his secretary to forward all calls from the three freshmen.
“If any of the three had called and said they had to see me, I would have gotten on a plane and flown to L.A. to meet with them face to face,” Raveling said. “I told friends I had to be prepared to go back at a moment’s notice.”
When Lewis read Raveling’s letter outside McGee’s office, he was stunned. He had not been sure up to that moment whether he wanted to return to USC, but he had always thought it would be his decision.
“He was shaking when I saw him in the weight room later,” said Grande, Lewis’ roommate. “A lot of people assumed that Tom wasn’t coming back, but I don’t think he had made up his mind. Regardless whatever problems we might have had on the team, he really liked it here. He liked the school.”
Asked whether the letter ended whatever hope there might have been that Lewis would return, Grande laughed.
“If the scale was balanced before, that tipped it,” Grande said.
Gathers also was shocked when he read the letter, but he left open the possibility that he still might be able to return by blaming McGee and not Raveling. Gathers still believed he could play for Raveling.
But for Kimble, the letter confirmed his feelings that USC had deserted him when it took the coaching job away from Morrison. After learning of the letter’s content from Gathers, Kimble never went to get his.
When Gathers and Kimble later called Hagan, he advised them to begin looking for another school.
On Thursday, May 1, Gathers and Kimble received their releases from USC, which gave them the freedom to begin talking to other coaches. Lewis received his release the next day. But on Friday, Kimble, feeling guilty because he believed he had forced Gathers into a corner, told a television interviewer that they would reconsider returning to USC if given the opportunity by Raveling.
After hearing of the interview, Raveling arranged a meeting with Kimble and Gathers last week. He said he would return their scholarships to them. Ironically, Kimble, for the first time, said later that he was impressed with Raveling, but Gathers said he felt Raveling was insincere. They told Raveling there was an 85% chance they would transfer.
At a press conference the next day, Raveling said the episode was finished.
Raveling’s critics say it did not have to end that way. They say that Raveling could have found a way to reach the three freshmen simply by walking to the other side of Heritage Hall and spending a few moments with Morrison, who knows the players as well as anyone and could have explained the nuances of their situations to the new coach.
Perhaps Morrison should share the blame because he did not approach Raveling. But as the former coach, he was in an awkward position.
Raveling admitted that he might have made a mistake by not consulting Morrison.
“I felt like I’d be dragging Stan into something that wasn’t his problem,” Raveling said. “It wasn’t fair to Stan. I felt like I should protect him. Maybe that wasn’t a good judgment. I felt like the last thing Stan needed was to get himself involved in this.”
Raveling said he also was opposed to the idea of catering to the three freshmen.
“I wasn’t going to recruit those people,” he said. “They were already enrolled at USC.”
But didn’t USC owe the three players more?
The players, two of whom had come to USC from 3,000 miles away, were recruited by a coaching staff that was replaced a year later. Then, the university gave the players less than a month to decide whether they wanted to remain under a new coach and they were told to make the decision while they were studying for final exams.
In response to that line of questioning, Raveling had questions of his own. “Are you suggesting that responsibility is a one-way street?” he asked. “Or would you say that the students also have some responsibility?”
“To be perfectly honest,” he continued, “I’m not sure what it is that they wanted. They say they really love the university. They say they feel they were part of a family here. They told me they didn’t have any problem with me. To this day, I don’t understand what the problem is or what the problem was. I tried to solicit the information from them.
“I think they are good kids who received bad advice along the way. I’m confused by it all. I think they’re confused. I feel sorry for them. I feel sorry for all of us.”