College basketball, already losing bodies to the NBA at a rapid clip, has now lost its soul.
Dale Brown, who coached some pretty good basketball at Louisiana State, in between tackling world problems, stepped down from his soap box last week when he tendered his resignation--effective when the season ends--at 61.
Losing had something to do with it, no doubt, what with Brown staring down the barrel of his fourth consecutive losing season. Brown was always more than a coach, though, a reason you could forgive him for not winning a national title with Shaquille O'Neal, Chris Jackson and Stanley Roberts on the same team.
Brown was the sport's conscience, the coach who shined the light on the rats. He was boom-box loud, controversial, outspoken and sometimes irrational--and that was on his drive to work.
Brown motored into Baton Rouge in 1972 in a Volkswagen Beetle, with $800 in his pocket, and sold deflated LSU basketball--post-Pistol Pete Maravich--as hard as he could, handing out purple and gold nets to drum up interest.
Along the way he led the Tigers to 13 NCAA tournaments, including 10 in a row, and two Final Fours. He took on causes, railed against apartheid, fed the homeless, climbed the Matterhorn, invited Mother Teresa to sit on the bench, walked a death-row inmate to his execution and taught the box-and-one defense.
The sad part was, in the end, even Brown could no longer stand, or stand up to, the game to which he dedicated his body and soul.
Rather than walking off with a gold watch, Brown leaves with a bad taste.
"I'm embarrassed," he said this week of his profession. Asked if had any second thoughts about retiring, Brown said, "I feel exuberant, like a weight has been taken off."
Too bad, because there goes the town crier.
Brown was an eyewitness to a profession that became blood sport, a primordial battle for flesh and money in which he was a willing participant.
"We've all created these young Frankensteins, but no longer," Brown said of today's player. "I'm shutting down my clone machine in Transylvania. I'm done with it."
Brown would not mention any monsters by name, but here's one name: Lester Earl.
Earl was Brown's most important recruit in years, a program-saving 6-foot-9 freshman forward from Baton Rouge's Glen Oaks High. Earl was the Class 5A MVP in Louisiana last year.
Brown was under intense pressure to keep Earl at home and away from Kansas and Kentucky, other schools in hot pursuit.
When Brown landed Earl, it was Mardi Gras II. Brown had two years left on his contract and felt confident he could get the program back on track before leaving.
He bent over backward to get Earl, maybe too far backward. In a package deal, he agreed to bring along Lester's older brother, Louis, and Leroy Womack, Earl's high school teammate.
What did get in return?
Lester quit the team, without explanation. One rumor circulating is that one of Earl's youth coaches was not happy with the basketball instruction the gifted Lester was receiving at LSU.
Earl returned briefly and apologized to teammates, although a bystander overheard him comment on his way out, "Well, I haven't decided I'm coming back."
Earl, in fact, did not return and was suspended for the rest of the season.
"I'm probably more disappointed than I am upset," Brown said diplomatically.
Brown might have retired at the end of the season anyway, but it probably wasn't coincidence that he made his announcement only hours after the Earl debacle.
See if you (Lester) can (Earl) read between the lines as Brown waxed about his disdain for recruiting today's athlete:
"It's all changed. All of a sudden now there were too many deals to be made. When kids had agents, when the AAU programs were putting the fix on you to give them money to run their programs for summer. . . . If they don't, another school might. When kids are flown all over the country, to Las Vegas, in lavish style. The all-star summer camps are just so demeaning to go to."
On his way out the door, Brown:
--Questions whether universities should offer scholarships at all.
"I'm not sure we shouldn't do what the Ivy League does," he said.
--Favors making freshmen ineligible for varsity sports.
--Says coaches should have more job security.
"Why aren't coaches tenured, like any other teachers?" he said. "We're evaluated on nothing but victories. I think that's a shame, the monumental hypocrisy of running a clean program. Most of the coaches fired run clean programs. They didn't win enough games or make enough money, that's what it's all about."
--Favors proposed NCAA legislation that would rescind the rule allowing college players to declare for the NBA draft but return to college if they are unhappy with their draft position.
"The current rule, I think, is really a silly rule because it encourages players to be tampered with by agents," Brown said.
It can only be hoped that Brown stays within shouting range of the college game. His voice, shrill though it can be, is needed.
As for Lester Earl, well, who cares?
Expect him to end up where most runaway renegades flee these days, Jerry Tarkanian's halfway house at Fresno State.
Kentucky might take another crack, although the last time the Wildcats sent their private jet for Earl he stiffed them on the runway.
Potential suitors should also be reminded that, in the LSU media guide, Earl says his favorite athlete is Albert Belle.
WHAT'S A COACH TO DO?
After bad-boy Iowa State forward Kenny Pratt ran afoul of the law again--he was charged Dec. 28 with drunk driving and assault on a police officer--Cyclone Coach Tim Floyd acted swiftly and suspended the player.
Floyd cited a new code of conduct at the university for his decision, but was overruled by a seven-person "impartial" athletic committee, which voted 7-0 for Pratt's immediate reinstatement.
What kind of message does this send?
"From a coaching standpoint, it's darn near a no-win situation," Floyd said.
He tried to send a tough message but also understands due process.
"By not playing him, then I'm convicting him, OK?," Floyd said.
Pratt has been a 15-point, six-rebound headache since he arrived on campus. Last year, he was arrested on sexual assault charges, which were later dropped, and has also missed time this year for academic reasons.
Why can't college coaches do what they do in the restaurant business, stick a sign in the window that says, "We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to Anyone."
COACHES KNOW BEST
Xavier began the week 10-0, the best start in school history. But when asked about going undefeated, Coach Skip Prosser responded, "We don't talk about it, don't think about it."
Good thing. Tuesday night, Dayton beat Xavier, 98-91.
Mississippi State, which upset Kentucky in last year's Southeastern Conference tournament to kick off its Final Four run, is the ghost of Mississippi State this season.
The Bulldogs had no starters from last year's team for Tuesday night's rematch against Kentucky at Rupp Arena.
"The only similarity between last year and this year is the names on the uniform," Bulldog Coach Richard Williams said before the game.
Right again, Coach. Kentucky won, 90-61, and Williams' team dropped to 7-8.
--Arizona junior guard Miles Simon will either be back on the court against Arizona State on Saturday or redshirted. Simon has not played this year because of poor grades but took makeup courses over the Christmas holidays. The results will be known this afternoon. Simon was the only returning starter for the Wildcats, who have done quite well without him.
--If you're looking to broaden your horizons, learn a second language, or maybe bone up on the post-Iron Curtain world, you might consider joining the Peace Corps--or the Atlantic 10 Conference. At last passport count, the Atlantic 10 had 24 foreign-born players.
--Arkansas' 0-2 start in the SEC was the team's worst since joining the league six years ago, but Razorback Coach Nolan Richardson was there to comfort.
"All I can say to our kids is that all sickness is not death," he said.
--Texas Tech Coach James Dickey issued a news release last Saturday, saying he would have no comment on his being considered for other job openings until after the season. Dickey has been mentioned as a possible successor to Brown at LSU.
LSU did not issue a statement saying it would have no comment on Dickey.
--Brat pack: UCLA interim Coach Steve Lavin, 32, is the sixth-youngest Division I coach. The kiddie corps is headed by East Carolina's Joe Dooley, 31, followed by James Flint of Massachusetts and Florida's Billy Donovan, also 31, and 32-year-old Steve Alford of Southwest Missouri State.
--Hoping to lend inspiration in tough times, former USC coach George Raveling recently gave Lavin a copy of "High Hopes," the autobiography of Northwestern football Coach Gary Barnett's climb from darkness.
--Make plans to see Duke win another national title at the Alamodome on March 30, 1998. Mike Krzyzewski has assembled what is acknowledged as the nation's top recruiting class for next season, led by Chris Burgess of Irvine Woodbridge, Shane Battier of Detroit, and Elton Brand of Peekskill, N.Y., all ranked in the top 10 of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook's list of top 44 high school recruits.