Forty-five years ago today, the National Collegiate Athletic Association had one of its shining moments.
At a special meeting at Chicago’s world-famous Palmer House hotel, Walter Byers’ association shut down the dirtiest college basketball program of the time, and one of the dirtiest to ever disgrace the NCAA.
The University of Southwestern Louisiana, now known as the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, saw its basketball program (only the men were sanctioned by the NCAA at this time; the NCAA did not sanction women’s programs until 1981-82) given the death penalty (the term wasn’t used until Southern Methodist’s football program was shut down in February 1987 for one season; the Mustangs self-imposed another season of dormancy before returning in 1989) for two seasons, the only time the NCAA has ever shut down a sport at a member school for more than one season.
The Cajuns were Louisiana’s top college basketball team following Pete Maravich’s departure from LSU in March 1970. Maravich gave LSU respectability for his three seasons on the varsity, scoring 3,667 points, a record which stands 48 years later despite freshmen being ineligible to play in Division I until 1972-73, and the introduction of the shot clock (1985-86) and 3-point field goal (1986-87).
Once Pete went to the Atlanta Hawks, daddy Press had two poor seasons before being fired in March 1972, opening the door for an unknown North Dakota native, Dale Brown, to take over.
Meanwhile, 60 miles to the west, Beryl Shipley had built a powerhouse in relative obscurity. The Ragin Cajuns didn’t even compete in the NCAA until the 1967-68 season, but before that, Shipley recruited blacks to USL, something that was strictly forbidden at the time at LSU. Shipley played blacks in 1966-67, five seasons before Kentwood’s Collis Temple Jr. became the Bayou Bengals’ first black varsity athlete in any sport.
In 1967, the Cajuns reached the quarterfinals of the NAIA tournament. However, the next season, USL’s first in the NCAA, the program was placed on two years’ probation (1968-69 and 1969-70) for payments from an outside organization to players, including the black ones.
Even though USL was on probation in 1968-69, Shipley hit the mother lode by plucking a transformational player from Ohio State’s backyard.
Dwight “Bo” Lamar went on to score nearly 3,500 points in four seasons (freshmen were eligible in Division II, where USL played in its first four seasons in the NCAA) and took over the spotlight Maravich vacated, becoming Louisiana’s best college basketball player, and by extension, the best basketball player in Louisiana, since the NBA wouldn’t come around until 1974.
If many in Columbus, including legendary Buckeye coach Fred Taylor, who coached Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek when Ohio State won the 1961 national championship, were wondering how one of there own could go to a tiny school in the south, they weren’t alone.
Lamar had plenty of better options if he wanted to play in the south. Louisville and Kentucky were just across the Ohio River. Tennessee had a great program under Ray Mears, and Roy Skinner had built a strong unit at Vanderbilt. Heck, even Alabama, now led by former Olympic gold medalist C.M. Newton, was proving to be more than a idle distraction during Tuscaloosa winters.
By all rigbts, Lamar should have been a Buckeye. That he ended up a Cajun had to raise a red flag.
In 1971, Lamar earned Division II All-America honors and helped the Cajuns finish third nationally. The next year, the Cajuns moved up to Division I and joined the Southland Conference, where they dominated and won the league’s automatic bid to the Big Dance.
USL won its first tournament game in 1972 over Marshall before losing in the regional semifinals to Louisville and their rookie coach, Denny Crum. One year later, USL knocked out Guy Lewis’ Houston Cougars before losing again in the regional semis, this time to Jack Hartman’s Kansas State Wildcats.
In between his junior and senior seasons, Lamar played for the United States Olympic team in Munich, the one which had the gold medal stolen from them by a corrupt Hungarian referee, who helped the Soviet Union hand the Americans their first-ever loss in Olympic basketball.
If they thought the communists were cheating, they had nothing on what was going on in Lafayette.
The NCAA had a fatter dossier on USL than the CIA could ever have hoped for. USL was going to be banned from the postseason in 1972-73, but the Cajuns won an injunction in the federal court for the Western District of Louisiana to continue to be eligible for the postseason. The case was eventually dismissed by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals due to lack of jurisdiction.
The NCAA had the goods to put USL out of business, namely more than 120 violations of its rules.
Cash payments to players, players borrowing the cars of Shipley and boosters, buying clothes and other material things for players was bad, but USL certainly wasn’t the only program which engaged in this.
However, there was something much more damning.
Shipley and his assistants were doctoring transcripts to make them appear eligible when they really weren’t. In some cases, assistant coaches were forging the signatures of principals. Boosters were arranging for surrogates, namely honor students who were classmates of recruits, to take entrance exams.
With the court case dismissed, the NCAA was free to act.
And boy did it act.
Not only was USL handed a two-year death penalty, but NCAA Committee on Infractions wanted to take a step further and expel the university from the NCAA.
The Cajuns were spared that fate, but USL was banned from competing for conference championships in all sports for the length of the death penalty against the basketball team. Also, USL could not vote at the annual NCAA convention for three years.
Some in Lafayette blamed the new coach at LSU for ratting out USL. However, I have not seen anything to remotely suggest Dale Brown did this. Of course, in 1986, when Brown testified before the NCAA at its headquarters in Kansas City, USL supporters went nuclear when they found out LSU would not be penalized for violations which may have occurred during Bob Brodhead’s tenure as LSU athletic director from 1982-86.
USL was the second school at the time to receive a death penalty. The first was Kentucky, where Adolph Rupp’s program was shuttered in 1952-53 for a point shaving scandal which involved All-Americans Ralph Beard and Alex Groza.
USL would not be the last Louisiana college basketball program to run afoul of the NCAA.
Centenary in Shreveport was hammered by the NCAA when it was discovered superstar Robert Parish, who prepped at the city’s Woodlawn High, had not taken the proper standardized college entrance exam. Instead, Parish and several teammates took another test and had their scores converted to the NCAA scale.
Centenary claimed the test scores were valid, the NCAA said otherwise and ruled Parish and four teammates ineligible to play for the Gentlemen (yes, that is Centenary’s nickname). The NCAA would allow the five players to transfer and resume their careers after sitting out one season, but all refused.
Instead of handing Centenary the death penalty, the NCAA did something even more esoteric.
It basically wiped Centenary off the map. The Gentlemen disappeared into a black hole as far as the NCAA was concerned, banning any of its players from appearing in its statistical records.
Parish, who of course went on to be one of the greatest centers in NBA history, dominated the competition and supposedly led the nation in rebounding and blocked shots his senior season. However, nobody could tell, simply because Centenary was not allowed to report its statistics to the NCAA.
In the 1980s, Tulane found itself embroiled in a point shaving scandal which landed numerous players in front of a grand jury. John “Hot Rod” Williams, probably the best player to ever suit up for the Green Wave, was acquitted, but the resulting bad press prompted Tulane president Dr. Eamon Kelly to shutter the men’s basketball team in April 1985.
Not only was men’s basketball gone at Tulane, but the Green Wave was soon expelled from the Metro Conference, a move which severely hurt Tulane’s strong baseball program. Not long after that, the football program. which had recently hired Mack Brown as coach, was nearly shut down, too, but it was spared the ax.
Kelly wanted to make the ban permanent, but he finally relented and allowed its return in 1989-90.
Many of the same issues which led to USL’s death penalty cropped up again when SMU’s football program was banished 13 1/2 years later.
However, no other Division I team has faced the death penalty, although several programs came very close (Kansas men’s basketball, 1988; Kentucky men’s basketball, 1989; Ole Miss football, 1994; Alabama football, 2002; Penn State football, 2012).
USL got what it so richly deserved in 1973. Too bad the NCAA lacks the guts to do it now.