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It's the Rules, Stupid!

If the NCAA doesn't get the message after the downfall of Dick Schultz, when will it?

Now that the Dick Schultz Fiasco is over, the challenge for the embarrassed NCAA is to find a new leader with both the organizational skills of Walter Byers, the reclusive dictator who ran the NCAA from 1951 until '87, and the p.r. savvy of Schultz, who during six years as the NCAA's executive director tried to humanize a bureaucracy that is widely perceived to be cold, vindictive and bungling.

The Schultz case revealed prima facie evidence of some things that the NCAA has long denied—namely, that a double standard exists within its administration and that the NCAA's leaders are out of touch with reality. As part of its investigation into 45 no-interest loans made by the University of Virginia's booster club to athletes during Schultz's tenure (1981-87) as the Cavaliers' athletic director, the NCAA appointed a special investigator last August to check out Schultz's involvement in the transactions, which were in violation of NCAA rules. The investigator concluded that Schultz had lied to the NCAA executive committee when he said that he had had no knowledge of the loans at the time they were made.

Two weeks ago, as word of that conclusion churned through NCAA headquarters in Overland Park, Kans., even Schultz's most ardent defenders realized he had to go. So imagine the shock at the NCAA when, after Virginia received a light penalty of two years' probation on May 6, Schultz insisted he was in the clear. Those shock waves intensified the next day when the executive committee, in a split vote, announced it would allow Schultz to fulfill his NCAA contract, which runs through August 1995.

What could these committee members possibly have been thinking? Had they suddenly forgotten the concept of "lack of institutional control," the NCAA enforcement staff's favorite catchall phrase when holding schools accountable for violations of the NCAA code? Shouldn't Schultz and Virginia receive the same sort of penalties that were assessed against Cleveland State, SMU and the other notorious offenders who have done time in the NCAA jailhouse for irregularities similar to, if slightly more flagrant than, the ones committed by Virginia?

Sure, Schultz by and large had done a good job heading up the NCAA, especially considering the unwieldy nature of that organization. He spent more than 200 days a year on the road, working with the diverse groups that have a vested interest in the NCAA—athletes, coaches, athletic directors, faculty advisers, university presidents, conference commissioners and the media. Few people doubted his sincerity, his commitment or his integrity. But that didn't give him a special dispensation when it came time to dish out penalties for the infractions that occurred while he was at Virginia.

When the news leaked that he apparently was going to survive despite the findings against him, the vehemence of the media reaction shook both Schultz and the executive committee. The nation's newspaper columnists and TV analysts almost unanimously agreed that Schultz had to step down because his credibility and his ability to lead the NCAA had been irreparably compromised.

Schultz didn't step aside gracefully. He adopted a defensive, almost Nixonian posture as he reluctantly announced his decision on May 11 to take early retirement as soon as a successor could be found. "If you take that as an admission of guilt, you're dead wrong," said Schultz. "There have been a lot of cheap shots taken in the last four or five days, and I just felt if this was the type of thing that was going to continue every time we had an infractions case, it could come back and create the perception that the NCAA is a screwed-up organization."

He just didn't get it, did he? As one NCAA official says, "He sounded just like Clemson or somebody." He did, indeed, despite the fact that the NCAA established long ago that a plea of ignorance isn't an acceptable defense. Didn't Schultz learn that in his six years as the organization's leader? You could almost hear the snickering from Barry Switzer and Eddie Sutton and everyone else who has run afoul of NCAA rules in recent years.

The committee to find Schultz's successor is headed by NCAA president Joseph Crowley, who apparently wants the new executive director on board when the NCAA's fiscal year begins on Sept. 1. Early speculation has it that considering the power and influence the reform-minded Presidents Commission now wields within the NCAA, the next director will be a university president, perhaps Gerald Turner of Mississippi, instead of someone with a background in athletics, such as Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany or former NCAA president Judith Sweet, the athletic director at UC San Diego.

Frankly, I'm a little apprehensive about picking a university president, because most of the ones I've known don't have a clue about the daily operation of an athletic department. Nor do they have the down-to-earth communication skills necessary to deal with coaches, athletes and the media.

Whoever is chosen, the new director's first item of business should be to put more common sense and compassion into the NCAA guidelines. What can you say about an organization that won't let a recruit accept a cheeseburger or a T-shirt but allows a basketball coach to take millions of dollars for endorsing a sneaker?

Only, to use Schultz's words, that it's "screwed up." That's obvious. The question is, Can it be fixed?