Georgia stopped short of firing Jim Harrick as its basketball coach Monday, suspending him with pay pending the outcome of its investigation, but the university took the dramatic and unexpected step of pulling its team from the Southeastern Conference and NCAA tournaments after determining two current players were involved in academic fraud.
School officials said three players -- starters Chris Daniels and Rashad Wright and former player Tony Cole, Harrick's chief accuser -- were given improper credit for a physical education class, "Coaching Principles and Strategies of Basketball," taught by assistant coach Jim Harrick Jr. Harrick Jr., the coach's son, was fired last week after Cole had made numerous accusations of NCAA violations, including improper payments and academic improprieties, saying he received an A in the physical education class despite having never attended.
Daniels and Wright were pulled from practice and questioned about the same class last week.
"We're not talking about allegations. We're talking about findings of the most serious nature," Athletic Director Vince Dooley said in announcing that the players had been ruled ineligible and the 21st-ranked Bulldogs -- considered a Sweet 16 contender -- would not participate in postseason play.
Harrick's future will be determined after the investigation is complete, said university President Michael Adams, a friend of Harrick's from the days both worked at Pepperdine who is now caught in a personal and professional bind.
Though firing Harrick's son technically was only a matter of suspending him until his contract expires in June, firing Harrick will require a thorough legal review. He has three seasons left on a contract that pays him $700,000 a year.
Harrick, who declined to comment Monday, has denied anything other than "minor" violations, and Dooley pointedly did not implicate Harrick.
"The evidence and the findings presented to us indicated there was academic fraud," Dooley said. "There's no evidence at all that Coach Harrick knew about what took place."
However, Dooley added, "Coach Harrick has ultimate responsibility for his program."
On a broader scale, Georgia's decision marked the third time this season that a school has preemptively declared itself out of postseason competition because of NCAA or academic infractions, partly in hopes the NCAA will go easier on penalties later.
Michigan self-imposed a postseason ban and purged much of its history from the Fab Five era based on improper payments to players by booster Ed Martin, and Fresno State recently announced it would not play beyond the regular season because of academic fraud during the Jerry Tarkanian coaching era.
In addition, St. Bonaventure recently forfeited its final two regular-season games and university President Robert Wickenheiser resigned under pressure Sunday after the school was banned from the Atlantic 10 tournament because a transfer player was allowed to compete, despite not having received a junior college degree.
Georgia's case is higher profile because the Bulldogs (19-8) were certain to receive an NCAA at-large bid, and the decision raises questions about how it affects players who were not involved, as well as the competitive integrity of the Southeastern Conference tournament and the NCAA tournament.
A team that had been "on the bubble," such as any of several SEC teams or one of a number of mid-major teams, will now make the field, claiming Georgia's spot. In addition, the SEC reconfigured its bracket to reflect Georgia's absence, giving Tennessee a bye rather than giving the Bulldogs' scheduled opponent, Arkansas, a bye into the quarterfinals.
NCAA President Myles Brand -- who faced controversial decisions involving the firing of coach Bob Knight when Brand was president at Indiana University -- expressed support, not misgivings, over the spate of self-imposed bans.
"He is sensitive for the presidents facing these situations and also applauds the ones taking strong, decisive action," said Wally Renfro, senior advisor to the NCAA president. "He thinks it's an indication presidents are stepping up and getting involved, and he particularly had praise for Michael Adams at Georgia, John Welty at Fresno and Mary Sue Coleman at Michigan.
"If there's a silver lining in this sort of unusual string of developments, it's that college presidents are in fact being decisive and swift."
That players who were not involved face the severe penalty of postseason bans, sometimes because of actions of adult employees of the university, is "an age-old problem," Renfro said.
"The bottom line is, you have to look at the framework of intercollegiate athletics, which is institutional responsibility."
Georgia is the third school at which Harrick has been accused of improprieties.
He was fired at UCLA in 1996 for lying after filing a false expense report and asking an assistant to lie about the number of players present at a recruiting dinner in order to cover up a minor NCAA violation.
UCLA later faced mild sanctions and was put on three years' NCAA probation for violations under Harrick.
Harrick also has been accused of a range of NCAA and ethical violations at Rhode Island in documents related to a sexual harassment suit against the university that was settled out of court last month. Rhode Island is investigating those charges.
Beverly Hills attorney Robert K. Tanenbaum, a close friend of Harrick who represented him in the UCLA matter and represented Jim Harrick Jr. when he was accused of improprieties at Rhode Island, objected to what he called "the presumption of guilt."
"I watched the press conference, and they said some interesting things -- that Jim Harrick has not breached his contract, that they have some alleged findings and that he was not involved in wrongdoing," Tanenbaum said. "My question is, how do you suspend him if he hasn't violated his contract?
"This is academic McCarthyism. There has been a series of serious allegations and a lot of pressure is put on these administrators at these academic institutions, and they simply fold and punish someone for accusations. They're meting out serious sanctions, and defamation occurs.
"As we saw from [initial erroneous reports that Harrick had been fired], the rush to judgment is not always in the best interest of seeing that justice is done."
At Georgia, players were left to contemplate the sudden end of their season.
Forward Damien Wilkins called the decision "unfair," and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is reporting that junior forward Jarvis Hayes, an All-American candidate, will make himself eligible for the NBA draft.
Assistant coach Jeff Dunlap expressed sympathy for the players.
"It's not fair to the kids," he told the Journal-Constitution. "Punish the staff, but not these kids."
Times wire services contributed to this report.