The firing of Iowa State football Coach Jim Criner on Wednesday night climaxed a stormy 21-month period that began when he kicked his two starting wide receivers off the team, included the arrest of several players on criminal charges and an NCAA investigation of his program.
Criner’s troubles started in February of 1985 when he dismissed second-team All-American Tracy Henderson and Robbie Minor from the team for unspecified disciplinary reasons. The NCAA already may have been investigating Criner’s program at that time, although the disclosure of the probe wouldn’t come for more than a year.
Henderson, who set school and Big Eight Conference receiving records, left Iowa State, but Minor’s dismissal later was changed to a one-year suspension. Then, in a highly publicized case, Minor appealed to a student-faculty board, which reduced his suspension to six months.
That action allowed Minor to rejoin the team in August of 1985, but Criner kicked him off again a short time later for allegedly violating training rules. Later, in a surprise move, Criner allowed Minor back on the team. Minor never played in a game that fall, but he’s the Cyclones’ leading receiver this year.
Criner’s actions involving Minor were questioned in some quarters because quarterback Alex Espinoza was been allowed to stay on the team even though he was charged with assault in connection with two fights in April of 1985. Espinoza pleaded guilty to two assault charge and and was placed on probation and ordered to perform community service.
Criner defended his actions, saying the two cases were different and thus had to be handled differently. He also said he had punished Espinoza by taking away some of his privileges.
Also that fall, defensive end Lester Williams was sentenced to two days in the Benton County Jail after being convicted of drunken driving.
News of the NCAA investigation broke this past July, when the school announced the organization had made 34 allegations of wrongdoing in the football program and 10 in Coach Johnny Orr’s basketball program. The more serious charges involved football, including allegations that coaches gave cash to players and recruits were given rides and meals.
In early August, redshirt freshman Clint Riggs committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. His mother said Riggs was depressed when told he would lose his scholarship for academic reasons.
Later, starting defensive back Terrance Anthony and reserve defensive end Matt Boles were charged with forging stolen checks to buy merchandise. Their cases are pending and both have remained on the team.
Then, the night before Iowa State’s season opener with Iowa, the university declared starting middle linebacker Jeff Braswell ineligible because of recruiting violations uncovered during the NCAA investigation.
The suspension originally was to have lasted only two games, but an NCAA committee later banned Braswell permanently and another committee upheld the action.
Shortly after the season got under way, Criner removed starting wide receiver Hughes Suffren and reserve defensive end Marcus Rodgers, a former starting tailback, from the team. There were reports at the time that the two were involved in a police investigation and they later were charged with breaking into assistant coach Ed Lambert’s house and stealing some items, including a credit card.
Another starting defensive back, Milon Pitts, pleaded guilty to simple assault after getting into a fight with an Iowa State student following the Cyclones’ 64-9 victory over Indiana State. Pitts spent two days in jail and Criner suspended him for one game.
Ironically, the problems that have occurred this year have come during the most successful of Criner’s four seasons at Iowa State. The Cyclones are 5-4 and a victory over Kansas State on Saturday would assure them of their first winning season since 1980.