Skip to main content

'Isn't This Unbelievable?'

The goings-on at LSU, including a bugging attempt and FBI and NCAA probes, seem straight out of Ripley

Let's see now. The governor is on trial for racketeering. The former state commissioner of agriculture is in a federal penitentiary for racketeering and extortion. The superintendent of education has been indicted for public payroll fraud. The district attorney is investigating financial improprieties in the Baton Rouge Department of Public Works. There is a basketball fix scandal at Tulane. That just about covers the waterfront in Louisiana. Or does it? When your leading citizen, Governor Edwin Edwards, once said the only thing that could hurt him was being caught "in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy," you figure the place has a high threshold for embarrassment. Or does it?

Louisiana politics and Louisiana State University sports have made strange bayoufellows ever since Huey Long was recruiting players and hiring and firing coaches from the governor's mansion more than half a century ago.

But even Louisiana's most jambalayan-jaded residents were shocked last week when the debris from two recent explosions in LSU's athletic department floated every which way before rolling down diverse trails seemingly headed straight for one another. On one path, LSU athletic director Bob Brodhead was appearing before a federal grand jury, which was trying to figure out why electronic eavesdropping equipment was found in his office, BRODHEAD BUGS ME bumper stickers and BUGS BRODHEAD T shirts with a likeness of the A.D. munching a carrot were at the printers in the wink of an eye. On the other path, Tito Horford, the 7'1" freshman who, LSU basketball coach Dale Brown says, could be "the most dominating center in college in one year," was walking...or riding...or otherwise vanishing into the extremely thin air of an ongoing NCAA preliminary investigation into both LSU's football and basketball programs. Brown screamed of "tampering" by other schools. But Horford had taken leave of, chronologically, his native Dominican Republic, the University of Houston and LSU as well as all logic, and had left only trouble in his wake.

Horford was the second superstar in a row that Brown has brought in from afar under strange circumstances, the first being 6'8" sophomore John Williams from Crenshaw High in Los Angeles (box, page 26). The recruiting of Williams is believed to be of interest to the NCAA and so is the wooing of Horford, who signed with Houston, then was declared ineligible to play for that school when it was revealed by SI (July 22, 1985) that the Cougars had improperly recruited him. Brown then welcomed him to LSU. "I don't regret giving him a second chance," says Brown. "Beyond the fact of my brotherhood, he was seven feet."

It was hardly surprising to find Brown (page 28) smack at the nexus of the controversy. For two weeks, Baton Rouge has been full of threats, confusion, recriminations, affidavits, headlines—SWAP BRODHEAD FOR SOVIET SAILOR; TITO WASN'T TYPICAL COLLEGE ROOMMATE—and the extended other chaos that makes college athletics such an endearingly wholesome paradise. "I didn't even have to buy a ticket to get into this circus," Brown said. He apparently didn't miss a single act either—except to put off his requested appearance last week before the grand jury investigating the Brodhead case.

Wait a minute. Wouldn't dabbling Dale be too busy plugging his team's hole in the middle to get involved with unplugging recorders and patch cords?

Well, it's complicated, but as U.S. Attorney Stanford O. Bardwell said, "I am informed that he [Brown] has been pretty close to the whole situation. He would have been in a position to have accurate information. It's interesting...maybe he wants that job [the athletic directorship] and wants to get rid of Brodhead.... I didn't say that.... That's not my opinion.... That's strictly street talk."

The talk began because of what happened across the street from the LSU Assembly Center the night of Oct. 26, just after the LSU basketball team returned from an intrasquad game, interestingly enough, at the state penitentiary at Angola. Horford had 14 points and four rebounds. Some players sought refuge from the pouring rain, a harbinger of Hurricane Juan, by rushing to a concert at the Assembly Center, where the rock star Sting was playing. After Sting was finished, at about 11 o'clock, immediately across the way another sting was starting. It was then that the FBI observed Brodhead and a 300-pound man with a squeaky voice identified by SI's sources as George Arthur Davis, an FBI informant, entering the LSU athletic offices. Once inside, according to an FBI affidavit, they discussed what Brodhead allegedly wanted to accomplish, namely, the installation of equipment with the intent "of intercepting oral communication within his office to which he was not a party"—a federal violation for which the maximum penalties are a $10,000 fine, five years in prison, or both. The following day a federal search warrant was issued, and the equipment—transmitters, voice-activated tape recorder, a patch cord, your basic tools from the G. Gordon Liddy library—was confiscated. Ed Pistey, the agent in charge of the FBI's New Orleans office, which has jurisdiction in the case, said, "The results that have been achieved can be described as positive."

Brodhead's explanation was that he was concerned about "information leaks" emanating from his $10 million department and that by telling "different but sensational" stories to the suspected but unspecified leakers, he would set a trap and nab the culprits when those stories appeared in the media. However, there was widespread speculation that the real target of the bugging scheme was that hoary, primeval outfit, the NCAA. Although Brodhead denied that the NCAA was his target, the fact remained that the dates for his planned bugging operation, as given on the affidavit, were just before the dates on which NCAA investigator Doug Johnson was scheduled to use Brodhead's office to conduct interviews with LSU athletes.

"I don't know what to believe, but if the [planned] bugging is because of the NCAA thing, it stinks even worse," said Charles Cusimano, a New Orleans oilman who sits on the LSU Board of Supervisors. "O.K., so Brodhead's trying to catch the NCAA looking into our 'cheating.' You telling me this guy condones cheating? What kind of A.D. is this?...This is an unquestionable embarrassment to [this] university. It's like a bad dream.... What is there to hide? What in the hell is so secret in this...A.D.'s office that he has to [try to] snoop and...eavesdrop? Paranoia? That's a cop-out. This is not a logical conclusion tome."

Lending credence to the NCAA-as-target theory were 1) the fact that Brown has battled with the NCAA for years and 2) his admission that he has conveyed his feelings on the subject in strong terms both to Brodhead and LSU chancellor James H. Wharton. "Gestapo. Bastards," Brown called NCAA investigators last week. "I half suggested to the chancellor and Bob we should send some Shi'ite Muslims body-taped with hand grenades to NCAA headquarters.... They think they're going to nail LSU, but I'm knocking them flat...." Although Brown denied specific knowledge about the planting of any bugs, he said that if Brodhead's desire was to catch the NCAA in wrongdoing, he would "applaud" him and present Brodhead "with the damn J. Edgar Hoover award."

Brown has been angered over the NCAA's interrogation tactics, which he says involve intimidation, coercion and "putting words in players' mouths." Brown said he furnished Brodhead with a transcript of a conversation he says he taped with former LSU player Steffond Johnson in which Johnson discussed his "panic" over NCAA tactics. Brown quoted Johnson as saying Doug Johnson, the NCAA investigator, told him: "You can help us get Dale Brown. We have LSU but want Dale Brown.... Don't tell them we talked to you...or you put yourself in jeopardy." Contacted by SI Monday, Steffond Johnson, who is now at San Diego State, characterized Doug Johnson's conversation with him as "intimidating." But he also said of the NCAA inquiry, "It's no vendetta." He said that what the NCAA's Johnson told him was, "If [Brown's] a cheater, we're going to get him whether you help us or not." Then Steffond Johnson added: "For LSU basketball, it doesn't look good. This guy knew everything."

David Berst, the NCAA's director of enforcement, said, "We certainly do on occasion put pressure on institutions or individuals to cause them to talk to us. But...we don't put words in people's mouths. We're not inclined to steer the outcome of interviews."

Brown did link himself indirectly to the bugging scheme. He said that Brodhead was looking for eavesdropping expertise and that he gave the athletic director the name of Dick Barrios, a private investigator and former chief sergeant at arms of the Louisiana legislature who had checked Brown's and Brodhead's offices for bugs last summer. Brodhead subsequently contacted Barrios, according to Jerry McKernan, a Baton Rouge attorney and friend of Barrios's. Brown now expresses regret for recommending Barrios to Brodhead. "I didn't know this would happen," he said.

Sources close to the grand jury quoted Barrios as saying he didn't do the job because "I don't know how to do this." Instead, sources said, Barrios gave Brodhead Davis's name. Contacted by SI, Barrios refused to comment. Davis could not be reached for comment.

Whatever Brodhead's exact target, there was speculation that he had a mandate from Wharton or other LSU higher-ups to bug his office. "Yeah, I had a mandate to find out from all my superiors...," Brodhead told SI. "It was more 'God, let's find this. Either you find it or something's going to happen.' " Brodhead further sought to justify his actions by saying, "It is not against the law to own any of the equipment that was in my office. All of it could have been purchased at any local electronics store."

Wharton disputed Brodhead, saying, "There was certainly no mandate for him to use that approach." At the same time, Wharton, who said he also had been aggravated by "leaks," appeared to be playing down the whole matter when he released a statement saying that Brodhead's equipment was tested "in a controlled situation," stored in Brodhead's desk and "never used" to record any conversations.

None of the principals in this stormy LSU drama is a stranger to controversy. For example, neither Brodhead nor Wharton can show his face at football halftime ceremonies without being unmercifully heckled. And that was the case before the bugging incident. The chancellor was hired in 1981, and after winning a brief power struggle with the Board of Supervisors, he moved once-popular A.D. Paul Dietzel to another job. Though Dietzel had worn out his welcome on his second go-round at LSU, Wharton publicly ripped the A.D. in a way that stunned old purple-and-golders.

Brodhead, meanwhile, was Wharton's hand-picked choice for A.D. He was to straighten out LSU's estimated $1 million athletic deficit. A quarterback at Duke and in the pros, Brodhead once threw for a then-professional record 3,778 yards in one season as a Philadelphia Bulldog in the Continental League. Brodhead used to refuse to wash his hands on game day to assure a good grip on the ball. Nevertheless, once he was thrown for a 51-yard loss, after which he fumbled. His 3½-year tenure at LSU has met with similarly mixed results. "The man exhibits the finesse of an elephant," former Governor John McKeithen, a member of the LSU Board of Supervisors, once said.

While the A.D. has moved his department firmly into the black—he is known as Bottom Line Bob—he has done so by raising ticket prices, dropping wrestling and men's gymnastics and implementing other changes at the expense of tradition. He has also fired a slew of coaches, from football's Jerry Stovall to the baseball coach, Jack Lamabe, who saw a want ad for his position before he was officially fired. "They say when a new coach comes here I put his name on his door in chalk," says Bottom Line Bob, chuckling. LSU's athletic dorm is an antiquated relic with lizards sometimes climbing the walls—"No wonder Tito took off," says a school official. Still, Brodhead's proposed $27 million renovation and expansion of the athletic facilities have met with some resistance. Board member Sheldon Beychok objects that the expenditure of so much money and energy on athletics is "counterproductive to academics," adding, "I guess I hold a funny view about a university. I believe it exists to educate."

So does Mark Carleton, an LSU associate professor of history, who said last week, "I have a very prominent athlete in my history class who is at a second-grade reading level.... He's being kept by the athletic department, with their tutors, their study halls—he's their baby. I have other student-athletes who can't read or write. At least they call them student-athletes. But they're not. They're athletes. They tell me their goal is to play professional basketball or football. I wish them well."

And what of Brodhead's dealings with Brown and the suggestions being heard in Baton Rouge that Brown might want the A.D.'s scalp? On the surface, the Brodhead-Brown relationship seems cordial, but there appears to be some mutual mistrust between them. After the basketball team, which struggled last season before winning the SEC title, was routed 78-55 by Navy in its first-round NCAA tournament game in March—LSU's 10th consecutive postseason defeat—Brodhead was said to be furious. Acquaintances say that Brodhead told them that if Brown had not won the conference title he would have fired him. Instead, Brown signed a new five-year, $130,000-a-year contract. Small World Dept.: Last month Brodhead told a reporter, "Dale...with all his taping phone calls.... He's Columbo Brown. He should have been a detective." Taping one's own phone conversations is legal in Louisiana.

"Bob jokes a lot," says Brown.

There is also that other burning question: Whither Tito in Tigergate? Brown hints that money—Tito, he says, arrived at LSU with 12 pesos—may have been a factor in Horford's departure. "I told Tito last month," says Brown, " 'You don't know how much I hurt for you.... I'm not a cheap person. I just presented $1,000 scholarships to a blind person and a dwarf. But I can't give you money.' " Horford comes from an impoverished family but was eligible—once he arrived at LSU—only for a $300 foreign student loan. "He had to eliminate all these people he was supporting," Brown says.

Brown adds, "I look at Tito the way I look at the 15-year-old whore in Juarez. People say, 'How in hell could she do that?' But you've got to look what's behind it. There's 10 kids at home and her mom and dad unemployed so they sent her on the streets. That's how they lived and ate. The kid [Horford] is trying to support his family."

A scholarship supposedly requested for Horford's girlfriend, Arelis Reynoso, also becomes part of the Horford equation, with sources close to the LSU basketball program saying that the school would not give her one. The request denied, the source said, she became angry and bitter and then left Bizarre Rouge.

The NCAA's Berst, asked about the Horford situation, told SI, "Be careful. He [Brown] will cast her [Reynoso] and now Tito in the worst possible light. Watch that. Tito is maybe the only person who is truly insulated enough to know...." Berst would not confirm or deny reports that Horford had spoken independently with one of the NCAA's investigators.

On Saturday, Nov. 2—after, according to Brown, telling the coach "I got sick stomach. I fall out of bed and hit my chest on chair"; after missing the team bus to a practice game in De Ridder—Horford was gone. He may have left for Washington—reportedly he was seen at the Baton Rouge airport. On a visit to D.C. the weekend preceding the opening of basketball practice on Oct. 15, Horford, sources said, met with Manuel Nadal, his hometown best friend who is a redshirt freshman guard at American University, and with Julio Castillo, a lawyer for the Federal Trade Commission. Supposedly, Tito and Reynoso were hiding out at an address that turned out to be Castillo's apartment. Another report had them staying in suburban Washington. And still another had him considering a professional contract to play for one of the Italian teams. In any case, as of Monday, Tito could not be found to discuss the situation.

What is definitely known about Castillo is that he is a close friend of Ed Tapscott, the basketball coach at American, who last week told SI's Bob Sullivan: "I hate to be answering some disembodied voices whispering these things [tampering], but I've neither seen nor heard from the kid."

Last Friday, Brodhead met with journalists and declined to answer questions about his grand jury appearance of the day before. But Brown did his part to occupy the scribes with his own version of cynical Bayou humor. "I've heard Tito's been seen in seven different cities on three continents," he said. "I'm disappointed. I thought by this time he'd be on the moon."

Whether Horford ever plays college basketball anywhere at the Division I level remains to be seen; he may not be eligible before January 1987. Whether Brodhead can survive the damage to LSU's image and his position also is unknown. He might try washing his hands, this time to reset his grip. "Isn't this stuff unbelievable?" said Brown.

Not really. Tragicomically for intercollegiate sports, and LSU in particular, the events in Baton Rouge seemed almost like business as usual.



Brown was set to shake up college basketball with Williams (left) and Horford, but then Horford left—and hasn't been seen since.





When A.D. Brodhead tried to bug his own office, he set off a chain reaction around the state and campus that left a lot of students and fans bugged at him.



Wharton and his wife, Joan, were all smile, at Saturday's LSU-Alabama football game history prof Carleton griped that the scholar-athletes were more athletic than scholarly; Brown has time for McKeithen (right)



U.S. Attorney Bardwell (left) and the FBI's Pistey (right) found themselves in the thick of LSU's trials and tribulations.



Reynoso reportedly wanted to join Horford on the Louisiana campus.

Jambalaya and a crawfish pie and fillet gumbo...Son of a gun, we'll have big fun on the bayou.