In what is normally an upbeat time here, serious questions are confronting the University of Kentucky basketball program. A looming probation, the future of Coach Eddie Sutton, the possibility of forfeiting 26 of last year's 27 wins and the slim chances of attracting any top recruits in the near future are all very real concerns for a legion of Wildcats fans who usually spend the fall boasting of their dominance of college basketball.
In addition to those concerns, raised after an NCAA investigation into allegations of improper recruiting, there is the unthinkable prospect--brought up for the first time by Kentucky President David Roselle at a news conference -- that any subsequent violation would bring the death penalty, suspension of the program for as long as two years.
To Lexingtonians, a winter without basketball simply cannot be imagined.
"It's definitely the number one topic of conversation here," said Lexington's popular mayor, Scotty Baesler, who played for the Wildcats during the 1960s. "Basketball may not be the most important thing to Lexington . . . but it's certainly in the top three."
Kentucky faces 18 allegations by the NCAA, from minor transgressions such as handing out free T-shirts to major infractions involving cash payments of $1,000 and more. If found guilty, the nation's winningest basketball program would face at least two years probation, a penalty that could cripple its recruiting efforts well into the 1990s.
If Kentucky committed any serious violation after that sanction, it would qualify for the death penalty.
With the charges has come the growing realization--even among the most zealous boosters--that the Wildcats likely have been playing above the rules as often as they have been playing above the rim.
And with that realization, fueled by the disappointment with the lackluster current 2-3 record, has come an erosion of support from the fans.
Of course, 99% of NCAA Division I schools would love to have a base for such erosion: only 9,500 attended a pre-season scrimmage in Louisville in November compared to 18,127 a year ago, and only about 100 faithful met the team at the airport last Tuesday when players returned from the Great Alaska Shootout (compared to the 500 to 2,000 that turned out after each away game last year).
To be sure, this Kentucky team is still worshipped, but the current players haven't achieved full deification. And Wildcats basketball doesn't appear to be the mandatory statewide religion it was only a couple of years ago.
The erosion of support may be affecting Sutton as well. During ESPN's telecast of Kentucky's season opener, an 80-55 routing by Duke, commentator Dick Vitale said Sutton should step down. The suggestion brought an eruption of protest in Kentucky.
That's the way it is. While it is not unusual for college teams to rate a police escort for bus trips to and from an airport, Kentucky's entourage looks more like that of a visiting head of state, complete with motorcycle police stationed at strategic points along the route.
There are signs, however, that even armed guards cannot protect Kentucky's athletic officials from all their problems. The school's athletic director, Cliff Hagan, a basketball all-America during the 1950s, resigned under pressure last month and there have been more calls for Sutton's ouster -- most recently by the Kentucky Kernel, the student newspaper.
Wednesday, the Kernel published a lengthy editorial calling on Sutton and his entire coaching staff to resign effective at the end of the season. Such a move, the newspaper said, would "restore honesty and integrity to (the) program." Sutton, who declined to be interviewed for this story and directed his staff and players not to talk, said at a press conference that the Kernel editorial was "a little unusual." Said Sutton, "I plan on coaching here a long time."
Kernel editor Jay Blanton said the editorial had brought surprisingly few calls. And of the 10 to 15 the newspaper received, he said, several were in support of the editorial.
Blanton said the modest response is probably an indication that the steady dose of NCAA allegations has taken its toll. "I think people have had so much of the NCAA stuff thrown in their laps that everybody is tired of it," Blanton said.
So much indeed. Since the first reports in April of a cash payment to the father of recruit Chris Mills, there have been stories about cheating on a college admission test by a player, the promise of a car to another recruit and cash payments to another player.
In the meantime, Sutton has dampened expectations about the team's prospects for the season, and for good reason. This Kentucky team can be competitive, even within the unusually weak Southeastern Conference, only as long as its starting five stays healthy and out of foul trouble. The team is so weak, in fact, that some pre-season analysts predicted the Wildcats could have their first losing season since 1927.
None of last year's starters is back. Of the two who might have been, Rex Chapman skipped his remaining two years of eligibility to join the NBA's Charlotte Hornets and Eric Manuel withdrew from the team after it was disclosed that he met Proposition 48 college-admission test-score minimums only after retaking the test in Lexington. His score improved remarkably on the retest, and United Press International reported that Manuel's answer sheet was almost identical to that of another student who took the test with him. If Manuel is declared ineligible for last season, Kentucky could forfeit the 26 victories in which he appeared.
Kentucky has weathered four NCAA investigations since 1976 with only minor penalties. Skeptics who doubted the NCAA's will to punish such a powerful program said it would take a smoking gun to topple the Wildcats.
That gun seemed to appear in April with the Emery Air Freight package sent by Kentucky assistant coach Dwane Casey to Claud Mills, father of Chris Mills. Emery employees in Los Angeles found $1,000 in $50 bills in the opened package, and the NCAA moved in.
Since then, Casey has sued Emery and its employees and has threatened to sue the NCAA and the university if he is fired. Casey, who played for former Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall, has denied sending money to Mills. But his problems don't stop with the package.
In its list of allegations, the NCAA has named Casey as the assistant coach who promised Sean Higgins of Los Angeles a $300 monthly allowance and two cars if he signed with Kentucky, according to Kentucky newspaper reports. Higgins, a teammate of Mills, chose Michigan instead.
In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Casey called Higgins "not credible at all."
"He supposedly told the NCAA I offered him a 735i BMW and six figures to his stepfather . . . those charges are totally false," Casey told the magazine.
It goes on. Along with the 18 allegations, the NCAA said two more might be filed later. According to reports, the NCAA is investigating whether Emery packages sent by Casey to Barbara Brown, the mother of recruit Sean Kemp, contained cash and whether other cash payments were made to Brown.
Kemp signed with Kentucky, then transferred to Trinity Valley Junior College in Texas after he was implicated in the disappearance of two gold necklaces from Sean Sutton's room in Wildcat Lodge, the custom-built dormitory for Kentucky basketball players. Sutton is the coach's son and plays point guard for the team.
Throughout Lexington, fans are wondering whether the university will offer a defense to the allegations and if so, what it will be.
One common theory on the alleged payment to Mills is that the money was actually placed in the package by either UCLA or Nevada-Las Vegas, Mills' other chief suitors. Sutton himself advanced that theory in an October interview with Sports Illustrated, although he later claimed the magazine had made up the quote.
Kentucky president Roselle is also denying interview requests, but his spokesman, Bernie Vonderheide, says the university is committed to rebuilding its damaged image. Vonderheide said Kentucky is under a Dec. 12 deadline to respond to the allegations but may need extra time. If the university seeks an extension, it could mean that a final resolution might be delayed beyond the NCAA Infractions Committee's next meeting in February.
Through it all, Sutton tries to concentrate on preparing his team for its schedule, and he grows visibly angry at the press for its continuing interest in the alleged violations. The Lexington Herald-Leader reported Friday that Sutton sought to restrict a group interview to questions on basketball and to ban the use of tape recorders. The reporters refused.
Oscar Combs, publisher of the Cats' Pause, a weekly newspaper devoted to Kentucky sports, says the reason for Sutton's loss of support is simple.
"Most people believe Kentucky can field a top-level team without being dishonest," said Combs, who said he will publish the results of a poll of more than 600 Kentucky fans in his next issue.
The poll is not scientific, Combs said, but the respondents are probably among the strongest fans in the Kentucky stable. At least half of those responding said they believed the Emery envelope contained the $1,000 in cash.
It's not necessary to commission a poll to test public sentiment. Every day, fans gather at Scores, a downtown sports bar, and the topic is almost always Kentucky basketball. Last week, Kenny Allen enjoyed a pitcher of beer with his two cousins as the three analyzed Kentucky's problems on and off the court.
"The team is weak, and they're definitely going to go on probation," was Allen's terse summary.