Wiedmer: UNC can't quite bury academic mess

Wiedmer: UNC can't quite bury academic mess

June 10th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

North Carolina's Rashad McCants cuts down part of the net during UNC's celebration following their 75-70 win over Illinois in the 2005 NCAA championship game in St. Louis.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

The 2005 NCAA championship game had just ended, North Carolina nipping Illinois for the crown. Out on the court inside St. Louis's Edward Jones Dome, UNC guard Rashad McCants lifted high his jersey, baring his torso for everyone inside the dome, if not the entire country.

Standing near me on a press row, a sports writer with North Carolina ties leaned close, pointed toward McCants' antics and said, "Roy [Williams] isn't going to be happy about that."

Nine years later, McCants has made his former UNC coach downright miserable with claims that the school gave him A's in classes he never attended and for papers he never wrote.

"I thought it was a part of the college experience, just like watching it on a movie from 'He Got Game' or 'Blue Chips,'" McCants told ESPN. "When you get to college, you don't go to class, you don't do nothing, you just show up and play."

To be fair, Williams quickly denied any knowledge of McCants' charges, saying he was "shocked." Several of the player's former Tar Heels teammates backed up their coach. Consider the UNC wagons circled. Yet whichever side you believe, one thing is certain: Somebody's lying.

It may be McCants. It may be Williams, who didn't recruit McCants but rode his considerable offensive skills to an NCAA championship, Williams' first as a coach.

The only way they can both be telling the truth is if Williams is the most clueless coach on the planet, which isn't likely since he's entering his 27th season as a head coach -- first at Kansas, then UNC, which also just happen to be the second- and third-winningest programs in college hoops history.

So who should we believe? Who has the most to gain? Who has the most to lose? And on the zero-point-one percent chance both men are telling the truth, what should become of Williams for not knowing anything about what could become the worst academic scandal to hit a major power since Minnesota was doing similar bad things during Clem Haskins' tenure with the Gophers in the 1990s?

Try as it might, the UNC brass hasn't been able to completely quash this story since the Raleigh News and Observer first reported widespread academic abuse involving the school's African-American Studies program in December of 2012. Like bamboo, cockroaches and Dennis Rodman, it just keeps reappearing, no matter how much Baby Blue Nation tries to kill it.

And now, for the first time, a player with direct ties to the 2005 championship team -- and not just a guy on the end of the bench, but a key contributor -- is giving new credence to both the newspaper's charges and those leveled by retiring UNC reading specialist Mary Willingham, who told CNN earlier this year that in research conducted from 2004 to 2012 regarding 183 football and basketball players, 60 percent read at fourth- to eighth-grade levels and 10 percent below a third-grade level.

The school quickly launched an internal investigation into her charges and soon attempted to discredit her, but told of McCants' allegations, Willingham said this past weekend, "What he is saying absolutely lines up with what I have found: tutors writing papers for players, and advisers and tutors steering players to AFAM (African-American Studies). I think the coaches knew about the paper-class system. Of course they did."

Nor has the McCants transcript shown to ESPN done much to help the school. It reportedly shows the player receiving six C's, one D and three F's in non-AFAM courses, but 10 A's, six B's, one C and one D in AFAM courses.

If nothing else, McCants' charges suddenly give the Tar Heels much reason to sweat. If he should have been academically ineligible, as he has alleged, then the 2005 title should be vacated. And since the NCAA was only too happy to strip Southern Cal of its 2004 BCS football title -- however absurd that ruling -- because of rules violations involving Reggie Bush, the NCAA would certainly have precedence to punish UNC.

That all of this falls on top of one of the Tar Heels' star players (P.J. Hairston) being banned from playing last season because of his ties to a drug dealer, and a UNC fundraiser resigning over questions about his relationship with former All-American Tyler Hansbrough's mother, who was hired by the school for a $95,000-a-year job while Hansbrough was still a player, only heightens the concern over what's really going on in the basketball program.

Of course, everything regarding McCants is uncertain at the moment. His words are not necessarily any more believable than those of Williams. The second-leading scorer on that 2005 team, McCants supposedly is writing a book. What better way to promote it than with this story?

Yet the fact that none of UNC's rivals have made any public comments about this matter also speaks volumes about how much every big-time athletic department fears a similar scandal. Even if no one high up the food chain knew anything, a single professor overseeing a relatively easy major can bring down an entire athletic department for no greater goal than receiving complimentary tickets and access for favorable grades.

To quote a former Southeastern Conference athletic director from several years ago: "You know what the key to winning in big-time athletics is? Finding out which professors like athletes."

Yet North Carolina has never painted itself as just another jock factory. Just the opposite. Its smugness often bordering on arrogance, it has always promoted itself as a superior academic institution, a far cut above several of its public school brothers in the old Atlantic Coast Conference: Clemson, Maryland and N.C. State.

Instead, the Tar Heels now appear to be pretty much like everybody else, which prompted this plea from Willingham on the occasion of her retirement announcement earlier this spring: "[UNC chancellor Carol Folt] has a job to do, and I hope that she does the right thing -- academics should be in charge of this great university, not athletics."

It should. It no doubt will again at some point in the future. But until then, if not necessarily the worst example of major college sports run amuck, UNC can certainly no longer lay claim to being one of the NCAA's best at melding academics and athletics.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.