In the doghouse

At UGA, balancing books and basketball is no slam dunk

Heard the one where Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Michael Adams go into a bar? No? Well, give it a few days and some angry University of Georgia alum undoubtedly will come up with such a zinger.

Given the nature of the job, it's the rare college president who commands the universal respect and adoration of his students. But last week's outpouring of anti-Adams sentiment in and around the Athens campus was so extreme, you'd have thought the guy had sold Uga VI to a Korean restaurant.

Student protesters carried signs demanding, albeit with courtesy title: "Resign, Dr. Adams." Editorial pages and Internet chat rooms — including the ad-hoc website FireMichaelAdams.com — buzzed with fan outrage, name-calling and such pithy foreign-policy suggestions as, "Bomb Adams, not Iraq." Even a handful of UGA faculty members have thrown caution to the wind in publicly criticizing their boss' handling of the hoops scandal.

On the one hand, his critics have a point: Adams' cancellation of the basketball post-season following ex-player Tony Cole's revelation that he and two teammates were given A's for a no-show P.E. class does seem a tad reactionary. Plus, there's reason to suspect that craven self-interest played a sizable role in the president's decision.

"It's just really obvious that Adams is trying to save his own ass," says UGA senior Brent Lanier.

But the sound and fury underscores another point well-known to anyone familiar with the phrase "March Madness": Woe to he who benches a top-25 team on the eve of the conference tournament for any reason short of nuclear war. (At press time, no such war had yet begun.)

When Dr. Arnett Mace, UGA's new provost and Adams' second-in-command, tried last week to explain to students gathered in protest outside the administration building that the action had been taken to preserve the school's "academic integrity," many in the crowd booed.

"We've placed athletes, both professional and college, on a very high level in this country," Mace later told CL. "And I believe UGA has done an outstanding job of balancing academics and athletics."

Present snafu excluded, presumably.

But the unfortunate reality at most major universities is that the balancing act of maintaining academic standards while running what are essentially big-budget minor-league teams is cynically perceived as just that: an act.

Many students and alumni readily accept the notion that their school may cut a few corners to attract star talent. If the result is a tournament berth or a bowl game, everybody's happy. But if someone lets the bulldog out of the bag, there's hell to pay.

While Lanier says he believes "athletes should be held just as accountable as anyone else," he adds that he doesn't blame suspended basketball players Chris Daniels and Rashad Wright for accepting no-look passes for a P.E. class they were told they could skip.

"I guarantee that Coach K pulls some strings at Duke," he says, referring to championship-winner Mike Krzyzewski. "No school is totally clean — it just comes down to who gets caught."

As one young resident of Fraternity Row succinctly explains the compromise: "I'm a sports fan, so I wouldn't hold it against an athlete if I got a B in a class and he got an A without doing as much work because they bring a lot of money to the school."

The irony is that UGA has come a long way since the mid-'80s, when remedial reading instructor Jan Kemp blew the whistle on the school's separate grading curve for meat-headed jocks.

New football coach Mark Richt is hailed not only for winning games but for doing it while running a squeaky-clean program. Students and faculty members report that it's common practice for Richt's assistants to drop in on classes unannounced to confirm that players are showing up.

History professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ed Larson says he receives calls nearly every week from coaches in a variety of sports asking about their players' progress, with nary a peep about bending the rules. Most athletes he's taught have been decent students, he says.

"We've really made a lot of progress over the last 15 years, academically speaking, in both the students and faculty," Larson says.

But perhaps the most telling indicator comes courtesy of Will White, whose Classic City Saloon is the preferred hangout for UGA basketball's starting five.

"Any bar owner in town can tell you that students here don't drink as early and as often as they used to because they're studying more," he says.

Credit much of the increased emphasis on book-learning to the HOPE Scholarship, which for UGA, has been both a blessing and a curse.

The lure of a free in-state education has kept thousands of top Georgia high-school scholars from heading off to other East Coast colleges. The academic competition has caused admission standards to toughen and closed the book on UGA's reputation as a repository for good ol' boys who care only about sports and defending their ranking among Playboy's "Top Party Schools."

Mace proudly asserts — without naming names — that UGA's student-athletes are more capable academically than those at some other SEC schools. But, as any coach can tell you, that won't earn you a slot in the Sweet Sixteen.

A large part of Adams' current PR nightmare is due to the fact that, at the same time he was touting UGA's academic surge, he was cutting corners and bending rules to make the school's athletic programs more competitive.

After Adams took over in 1997, the number of special athletic admits — lowering admission standards on a case-by-case basis — more than tripled to include about half of all new athletes.

The most notorious such recipient, of course, is former star forward Tony Cole, who'd been kicked out of a half-dozen schools for poor grades and thug-like behavior before being recruited by UGA and admitted on Adams' say-so. We now know that Cole's ball-handling skills are exceeded by his ability to carry a grudge.

It likewise doesn't help that the imperious president went over the head of UGA demigod Vince Dooley in hiring now-twice-disgraced basketball coach Jim Harrick. Previously sacked by UCLA for breaking NCAA rules and lying about it, Harrick clearly wasn't a first-stringer when it came to ethics.

Add in the fact that Adams waived the school's nepotism policy to put Harrick's son on the payroll — allowing him to "teach" bunny P.E. courses to his dad's players — and you've got a heavily compromised situation in which Adams' pious defenses of academic integrity ring hollow.

For a former and reputed future congressional candidate who earned all of his higher degrees in communication, Adams likewise has done an alarmingly poor job of managing the scandal. Basketball players and a clear majority of students are enraged that Adams apparently made no effort to contact the team before announcing UGA's withdrawal from tournament play.

Bar owner White says senior starter Ezra Williams said he first learned that his college hoops career was over from watching ESPN. White also says that junior star Jarvis Hayes, who last week announced he was leaving Georgia for the NBA, previously had planned to graduate from UGA.

It will likely be months before we learn whether Adams' admitted gambit for leniency from the NCAA was a smart move that spares the school from further sanctions or a hasty, self-serving, hypocritical attempt at ass-coverage. In the meantime, however, he may want to discover the benefits of telecommuting.