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This Decision Is Hard to Figure

TIMES ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR

What a long and strange journey it has been for the NCAA and Nevada Las Vegas.

A journey right back to the big-time bucks, it turns out, for UNLV.

And a journey to nowhere for the NCAA, whose ultimate cave-in could serve as a model to wafflers everywhere.

We had to wait nearly 14 years for this?

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For a penalty that is, basically, no penalty at all?

For the opportunity to see Jerry Tarkanian walk, as they say on the cop shows?

Unbelievable.

Was this the same NCAA that handed Southern Methodist’s football program the “death penalty” a few years ago?

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Was this the same NCAA that barred Kansas from defending its national basketball title in the 1989 tournament?

What didn’t happen to UNLV and Tarkanian makes a wrist slap look like cruel and unusual punishment.

And the message it sends to the college sports world is that you can do whatever you want and get away with it, as long as you make enough noise for a long enough time. If the NCAA had set out to sabotage its proposed reforms at next January’s convention, it couldn’t have done a more thorough job.

What’s so amazing is that the NCAA had everything going for it.

It had long since--way back in 1977, in fact--found Tarkanian guilty of recruiting violations and ordered that the school suspend him for two seasons.

It had withstood a long, drawn-out court battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was ruled that, as a private organization, the NCAA had every right to insist on Tarkanian’s suspension and exact penalties against the school, a voluntary member of the organization.

It had even softened its original punishment, setting aside Tarkanian’s suspension and ordering, simply, that UNLV would be ineligible to defend the national title it won last spring.

All it had to do was stick to its guns.

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But no. Too simple. Too honest. Too right.

UNLV, you see, has an excellent basketball team this season, probably a better team than won the championship last spring. The Rebels, many figure, could win it again, given the chance.

So after years of blustering, years of sniveling, years of suing, UNLV tried another time-honored tactic. The Rebels and Tarkanian went to the NCAA and said, “Let’s make a deal.”

They suggested all kinds of far-out compromises to get “the kids” back into the tournament, pointing out that today’s players certainly had nothing to do with whatever might have happened in 1977, for pity’s sake. Tarkanian was going to sit out the tournament. . . . Tarkanian was going to forfeit his tournament bonus money. . . . Scholarships would be reduced. . . . The team would sit out the tournament after the 1991-92 season if only the Rebels could play in next spring’s. . . .

And the NCAA bought it!

Countering with its own far-out compromises, the NCAA offered UNLV a choice: You can give up your live TV appearances in 1991-92 and sit out the tournament in the spring of ’92, or you can set Tarkanian down for it but play in this season’s tournament, then skip it in ’92.

Goodness, such a hard choice!

So, UNLV goes to the tournament next spring, Tarkanian goes to the tournament next spring. And by 1992, the Rebels probably will have come up with another have-we-got-a-deal-for-you proposal for the NCAA.

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Think they’re feeling real good about all this at Kansas?

“I sure wish they’d given us a multiple-choice penalty,” the Jayhawks’ coach, Roy Williams, said to the Associated Press.

Said Del Brinkman, a vice president at Kansas, “I didn’t think it was possible to negotiate with the NCAA.”

Neither did anyone else. Just goes to show what can happen if you ask pretty please with sugar on it. Or make a pest of yourself long enough.

And what does the NCAA get out of all this? Beats the heck out of most everyone. A heaping helping of scorn? Rebellion in the ranks? A laugh-a-minute convention at Nashville in January?

Ah, well, there’s more to life than retribution. Think how good UNLV’s Stacey Augmon and Larry Johnson are feeling this morning. They passed up early starts at their pro careers to spend the season with the Rebels.

But then think how bad UCLA’s Shon Tarver and Ed O’Bannon must feel. They were supposed to be stars at UNLV, in future seasons if not this season, choosing the Bruins only because of UNLV’s apparent tournament ban.

What’s even more disconcerting is that this whole smelly business might just have been a dress rehearsal. There is another case pending against UNLV for possible recent recruiting violations. It should be settled about 2005. Unless the NCAA feels like dealing.


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