UCLA, 1964-75: Wooden’s Little Helper
“If the UCLA teams of the late 1960s and early 1970s were subjected to the kind of scrutiny Jerry Tarkanian and his players have been, UCLA would probably have to forfeit about eight national titles and be on probation for the next 100 years.” Who would so slander UCLA, particularly during the era of saintly coach John Wooden? Their own legendary center, Bill Walton. Booster Sam Gilbert funneled so much money to players that NCAA probationary poster boy Jerry Tarkanian quipped, “The only team with a higher payroll was the Lakers.” The NCAA didn’t take action until 1981, by which point Wooden and his ten titles had been retired for six years.
North Carolina State, 1973: The King in Exile
College football is notorious for seasons in which the top teams don’t play each other, leading to national champions seemingly determined by monkeys and/or sportswriters throwing darts. In 1973, college basketball got in on the act. Led by star David Thompson, the Wolfpack went 27-0. But recruiting violations kept them out of the NCAA tournament, leaving the championship to UCLA (who would never stoop to such measures). Eligible again in 1974, NC State took the title, knocking UCLA out of the Final Four along the way.
Memphis State, 1985: The Least Fairytale Ending Ever
When Memphis State reached just their second Final Four in 1985, it was a magical story. Unfortunately, they ran into a story boasting more magic, as Villanova beat them before stunning Georgetown in a legendary title game. Then everything went to hell. Players from Memphis State would go on to commit a murder-suicide, die in an unsolved carjacking, and serve a still-ongoing prison sentence former Detroit Piston William Bedford is scheduled to be released in 2013 while their coach would be jailed for tax evasion, after first being fired for recruiting violations that resulted in the NCAA vacating the Memphis State (now known as the University of Memphis) Final Four run, meaning none of it ever happened (except the bad things).
UNLV, 1991: Rebels Without a Pause
It was a busy year. Banned before the season even began, defending champs UNLV managed to get reinstated and rack up a 45-game winning streak that ended with Duke’s upset in the Final Four, inspiring allegations both of point shaving and officials biased in favor of the Blue Devils. Oh, and there was a photo on the front page of the Las Vegas Review-Journal featuring three players in a hot tub with a man called Richie “The Fixer” Perry. Nevertheless, coach Tark the Shark got the last laugh in 1998, when the NCAA paid him $2.5 million to end an epic legal battle that ultimately involved the Supreme Court, numerous lower courts, multiple state legislatures, and even Congress.
University of Michigan, 1992-93: The Flawed Five
They didn’t win a title not even a conference title but the Wolverines sure captured our hearts. Freshmen Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson came out of nowhere to reach the 1992 championship game and returned in 1993, when Webber infamously called a timeout he didn’t have. But that wasn’t his only questionable decision; in 2003, he pled guilty to criminal contempt for lying about his dealings with booster Ed Martin, who gave Webber at least $280,000 (Martin’s lawyer called that sum a “low, low estimate”), erasing the Wolverine achievements. Happily, the Final Four is in Detroit this year, and in its honor the quintet plan to reunite… at the Motor City Casino. So suck on that, NCAA Infractions Committee.
UCLA, 1995: The Bruins Are Back
How quickly the stained can become clean and then stained again. In 1981, the NCAA finally ordered UCLA to cut all ties with Sam Gilbert, leading to fourteen mediocre seasons. In 1995, however, coach Jim Harrick won the school’s eleventh (and first non-Wooden) title, with nary a hint of scandal even allowing for star Ed O’Bannon having transferred from UNLV after the Rebels went on probation. A year later, Harrick was fired. Why? He lied to the university about an expense report. Harrick quickly lost all sense of ethics and settled at Georgia University, where it was revealed his son Jim Jr. taught players a class featuring exam questions like this one: “How many points does a three-point field goal account for?” Even worse: It was a multiple-choice test. The players got A’s, while Harrick received a $254,166 severance package.
University of Massachusetts, 1996: Dust in the Wind
It was a dream season for UMass: They woke up and it was gone. Coach John Calipari assembled a No. 1-ranked team that reached the Final Four. Unfortunately, success came at a price: $40,000. That is reportedly the amount star Marcus Camby took from an agent, leading to yet another vacated Final Four appearance. Though UMass ceased to be a national power, Coach Calipari bounced back nicely. He reached the 2008 title game with Memphis, which has put its dark history behind it and now focuses on existing as a place where kids like Dajuan Wagner and Derrick Rose can receive an education for up to a year before turning pro. Go, college basketball!
WHAT I’VE LEARNED:John Wooden
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