It’s not all that surprising to see the UConn Huskies raise a trophy, cut down the nets, and win a national title. The odd part was that there weren’t more ponytails. Or perhaps some make-up.
At the start of the 2010-2011 season, all signs pointed to the UConn women’s team being a likely title-winner. The men? They were little more than a footnote in the powerful Big East. And yet now that the dust has settled, it is Jim Calhoun’s bunch that is victorious while Gino Auriemma’s was bounced from the Final Four.
Lost amid the drama of having two Cinderellas in Houston was how amazing the UConn men were in finishing the year. First the Huskies won five games in five days to capture the Big East Conference Tournament. Then, despite the fatigue that surely accompanied such a run, the team peeled off six more wins, navigating its way through the Tournament field and emerging as the proverbial last man standing.
Let’s take nothing away from the players. Led by the outstanding Kemba Walker– the real National Player of the Year– UConn did everything it had to do in order to be the best. It was a magical result. But tempering the moment is the dark reality that Jim Calhoun and his program are guilty of significant violations.
Think about it. How much media coverage have you seen focused on UConn’s transgressions? I’d wager it was very little. Former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl was found guilt of major recruiting violations and endured an eight-game suspension, ceaseless criticism, a harsh media spotlight, and, ultimately, termination of his employment.
Football programs like Oregon, Auburn, and especially Ohio State have been raked over the coals all year, their coaches and other officials repeatedly slammed for alleged and actual improprieties.
And yet off to the side sits Jim Calhoun.
Somehow Calhoun and UConn suffered little blowback for their crimes even though the NCAA found the program guilty of providing former recruit Nate Miles with improper benefits.
Improper benefits. They are the hot new buzzwords in college athletics. But have you reflected on what really happened here?
As an example, compare and contrast UConn’s rule-breaking to Ohio State’s. Both programs were guilty of allowing improper benefits. Buckeyes players sold personal possessions in exchange for cash and tattoos. Coach Jim Tressel apparently knew about the behavior, but reportedly didn’t act on it. Or lied. Or covered it up. Pick the angle that suits you best.
Now UConn. The Miles situation was, in essence, a pay-for-play scheme, arguably the single worst thing a program can do. Huskies staff offered Miles cash in exchange for a commitment to UConn. There were hundreds of impermissible phone calls and text. There was “help” on his SATs. And, according to Miles himself, all of this happened with Calhoun’s knowledge.
There were improper benefits ofa far more egregious nature than those enjoyed by the Ohio State players. And just like Tressel, Calhoun evidently lied. Covered it up. Did nothing.
Yet while one man is excoriated by fans and pundits alike, the other simply goes about his business, suffering only the most minimal negative attention.
Of course Calhoun knew about the payments and other services to Miles. Of course he knew about the illegal recruiting. Did anyone believe that such a legendary fixture would be unaware of what was happening beneath his very nose? Can anyone believe that anything happens in his backyard without his approval?
Of course Calhoun knew. And the odds of this being a one-time misstep are smaller than the odds that VCU would be playing Butler for a shot at a ring. If it happened with Miles, it happened before Miles. Probably numerous times.
In basketball more than in any other team sport, one key recruit can dramatically affect a team’s fortunes. What UConn did could, should, and would have had a serious impact on the landscape of college basketball. Granted, other programs are very likely doing the same thing. But UConn was the one that got caught this time.
Calhoun will indeed pay for his crimes. A three-game suspension has been ordered for next year. The program will also lose a scholarship.
This year? Well, this year the Huskies are your National Champions. And that categorically proves that cheaters do, in fact, prosper.
It also proves that there is no justice in sports. If there were, Calhoun would have gone home empty-handed, and Butler would have finished what it started last year. The scrappy Bulldogs accomplished something unprecedented in reaching back-to-back Finals as a mid-major. Often overlooked, these underdogs outplayed the nation’s elite with a 5-seed and an 8-seed hanging heavily around their necks.
Having to go through a series of power programs didn’t phase Brad Stevens or his players in 2009-2010, and repeating the feat after losing their best all-around athlete? No problem.
But in Monday night’s tilt, the only one that truly mattered, Butler was awful. Mustering only 41 points in one of the ugliest title games ever witnessed, the Bulldogs fell just short. Again. The rich got richer, and the little guy got only the satisfaction of knowing that he can play with the big boys.
So instead of justice, we saw the spoils and congratulations go to a dirty program. Instead of justice, we saw first-hand what a hypocritical joke the NCAA has become. In what should be a shining moment, it’s hard for fans to find much joy in that.