JIMMY V! ON ABC!
Catchy, isn't it? A public-relations dream, right? Maybe so. But to this viewer, the prospect of former North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano sitting before an open microphone on college basketball telecasts is more like a nightmare.
Of course, Valvano, who resigned under pressure two months ago after 10 seasons as the Wolfpack coach, has a right to earn a living. And I understand why he had to change jobs. But the news that Valvano recently signed a contract, with ABC and ESPN, that will pay him $900,000 over three years to be a college basketball analyst was an affront to anyone who believes that the rogues of college sport should be censured, not rewarded.
Not so very long ago Valvano, with his quick wit and exuberance, seemed to embody the joyful innocence that should lie at the heart of college basketball. His frantic charge across the court in the midst of the celebration of the Wolfpack's 1983 national championship-game victory—"I was looking for someone to hug," he said later—should make every highlight film until the end of time.
Yet over the past year it became apparent that under Valvano, basketball at North Carolina State was the epitome of a college athletics program gone amok. Valvano's players were found guilty of violating NCAA regulations by selling their complimentary tickets and sneakers, and the basketball team was placed on two-year probation. As yet unproved are charges leveled last February by an anonymous player—nationally, on ABC News—that former Wolfpack star Charles Shackleford and three teammates had been involved in a conspiracy to shave points during the 1987-88 season. Last month, N.C. State learned that it would have to repay $405,756 in '88 tournament earnings because Shackleford admitted taking a $6,000 loan from a booster, a violation of NCAA rules.
Most damning, though, were the university's own findings about the consistently dreadful academic progress of Valvano's players. The guardians of college sports can commit no greater sin than to compromise the academic integrity of their institutions. In this regard, N.C. State basketball under Valvano had few peers.
The school's internal investigation revealed that Valvano routinely recruited athletes who were classified as "academic exceptions"—that is, they were clearly unprepared to handle a college course load. Of the 41 players Valvano coached through 1988, only 11 succeeded in maintaining at least a C average. Chancellor Larry Monteith recently assessed the academic performance of Valvano's players as "extremely poor." In the end, N.C. State's once doting administration was so enraged and embarrassed by Valvano's shenanigans that the board of trustees was compelled to force Valvano from his post.
Dennis Swanson, president of ABC Sports, evidently believes that none of this matters. Referring to his own network's allegations that some of Valvano's players shaved points, Swanson said airily, "ABC News ran the story, not us." It is also of no apparent concern to ABC and ESPN that the man they have enlisted to comment on college basketball flouted his responsibility as an educator in his desire to win basketball games.
By hiring Valvano, ABC and ESPN have reached a new low in the disturbing practice of hiring former coaches as analysts whether they're up to the job or not. While some ex-coaches are entertaining and informative as broadcasters, most are loath to criticize their former colleagues on even the most prosaic issues.
Valvano can scarcely be expected to break the mold. Let's say ABC is telecasting a game involving a team under investigation by the NCAA. Given his own tainted past, what possible credibility could Valvano bring to an on-air discussion of the school's troubles? If he tries to criticize unethical practices, won't he come off sounding like a hypocrite? On the other hand, if he confines his remarks to game-related matters, what use is he as an overall observer of the sport?
Swanson acknowledges that the major failing of the Wolfpack program was "the way N.C. State administrators dealt with [the school's] athletes" and that Valvano was among the guilty. But he doesn't feel that Valvano's role in bringing disgrace upon an important state university will undermine the integrity of the network's telecasts. Swanson is dead wrong.
ABC could make it up to us with a little truth in advertising. On Valvano's debut telecast, perhaps Brent Musburger, another of the network's recent sportscasting acquisitions, will herald Valvano's arrival with this introduction: Hi, everybody. I'd like to welcome to our telecasts the King of Quips, coach Jim Valvano. Better make that ex-coach, folks. You see, Jimmy V is able to be with us this year because it seems that during his tenure at N.C. State, folks there seemed to care more about scoring averages than grade point averages. Hey, how 'bout it, Coach V?
Now, that's one response I would be eager to hear.