Full-Court Mess

Victor Merina, a former Times staff writer, is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism.

In the university town of Athens, Ga., with its blend of Greek revival architecture and antebellum mansions, a Civil War relic sits in front of City Hall, a symbol of Southern ingenuity and misplaced imagination.

The local inventor of the world's only double-barreled cannon designed it to fire two balls connected by several feet of chain. Unleashed, the chain was supposed to act like a scythe, cutting down Yankee soldiers in its path. But when test-fired, the chain snapped, hurtling one cannonball into a distant field, killing a cow, and the other into a farmer's chimney, leveling it.

After all the hype, the much-touted weapon served only to bring havoc to Athens, an outcome akin to the turmoil the Harricks have caused in the hometown of the University of Georgia.

Jim Harrick Sr. is the head coach of Georgia's basketball team. But for how long is debatable: He was abruptly suspended with pay last week when university officials unearthed possible academic fraud and "unethical conduct" in his basketball program.

Harrick's son, Jim, has already been terminated as an assistant to his father after a former player accused the younger Harrick of providing improper benefits and academic assistance, including giving college credit to several players who never attended the physical education class he taught.

Now, the team the Harricks coached -- the once-proud Bulldogs, or Dawgs, as they are affectionately called -- has withdrawn from the Southeastern Conference and NCAA tournaments in the latest twist of what has been a season of uncommon scandal.

The basketball brouhaha in Athens and on other college campuses transcends sports-page headlines because this is the time of year when basketball fans and non-basketball aficionados alike reclaim their alma maters or discover previously unknown colleges. We take note of odd team nicknames or athletes with marvelous jump shots and revel in our knowledge of basketball trivia and statistics. We make out our office pools, hold water-cooler arguments and gamble, both legally and illegally, on the outcome of the NCAA tournament. All in the name of March Madness.

But these days, there is more than talk of what is happening on the hardwood. The sport's focus has gone from playful madness to institutional insanity.

In addition to the Georgia scandal, over the last two weeks, Fresno State officials have confirmed academic fraud charges in their basketball program under former coach Jerry Tarkanian and have withdrawn the team from NCAA tournament consideration. Villanova University suspended 12 players for unauthorized use of a telephone access number and then juggled the suspensions so it could field a team to finish the season.

Players of St. Bonaventure, a small Catholic university in Olean, N.Y., refused to complete their season after the school was forced to forfeit half a dozen games for playing an academically ineligible junior college transfer. Later, the college president, whose son is the assistant basketball coach, resigned amid disclosures that the father had overruled the university's compliance office to admit the junior college player, who didn't have the required associate's degree, although he had a welder's certificate.

All this comes on the heels of a decision last November by the University of Michigan to bar its team from postseason play because of improper payments from a booster to players on one of the school's storied teams: the Fab Five, the early '90s squad that helped popularize long shorts and loud talk.

It is enough to make you welcome baseball.

There have been college basketball scandals before, but what makes the current ones different, aside from their number and timing, is that college presidents and administrators are being caught up in them.

One in the crosshairs is University of Georgia President Michael Adams, who lured Harrick away from the University of Rhode Island in 1999 and who curtailed the current season. Both have been friends from their days working at Pepperdine University. At UCLA, Harrick was fired in 1996 for lying to conceal a minor NCAA violation connected to a recruitment dinner. When he arrived in Athens, he said all that was behind him. What was important was snaring an NCAA championship for Georgia, as he had done for UCLA.

I was on campus during those days when Harrick took the Dawg faithful by storm. "The first dunk we get," he said, "people will come." He was right.

The dunks and victories came. The recruits came. The fans followed. And the controversy at UCLA was forgotten -- until this season, when scandal tainted Athens and Fresno, Ann Arbor and Olean, and Kingston, R.I., where investigators are probing allegations about the Harricks' tenure at Rhode Island.

A faded, old guidebook once described Athens as a place "far from the sins of city life and the harmful vapors of the coast." But this March, no college town seems immune from the tempting whiff of the win-at-any-cost philosophy and the wreckage that usually comes with it.

As a reminder, for the Harricks and the rest of us, we need only listen for the sound of that double-barreled cannon with a Southern drawl.

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