Southern Mess

I’ll preface this by saying that I like Sports History.  You replay a game from years ago and I’ll watch it even though I know who wins.  I like looking at Media Guides, Record Books and remembering games I watched and/or had the opportunity to cover.

That’s why a couple of weeks ago when Virginia Tech played Louisville at Cassell Coliseum in Blacksburg on a Wednesday night and the game was televised by Raycom Sports I couldn’t help but think back to the old days of the Metro Conference, of which Virginia Tech and Louisville were once a part.  Understand that as long as Virginia Tech has had athletics, the school has coveted a spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference.  That’s now reality, but for the longest time it appeared Virginia Tech’s chances at the ACC were right along side the chances of winning the lottery.

Long before Virginia Tech landed in the ACC, the school’s sports programs were members of the Metro or as it was officially known the “Metropolitan Collegiate Athletic Conference.”  Founded in 1975, it was named the Metro because it’s charter members Louisville, Memphis State (now Memphis), St. Louis, Tulane, Cincinnati, and Ga. Tech were all located in metropolitan areas.  Florida State joined in 1976, Ga. Tech left for the ACC in 1978, and in 1979 Virginia Tech joined.  In 1982, St. Louis bolted and was replaced by Southern Mississippi.  The league remained intact until 1995 when it joined forces with another league – the Great Midwest – to form Conference USA.   Before it disbanded however, the Metro had claimed two NCAA Basketball Championships with Louisville in 1980 and 1986, and put Memphis State in the Final 4 in 1985.  The League was known for some of the top coaches in the game with Denny Crum at Louisville and Dana Kirk at Memphis.  Louisville and Memphis were annually among the country’s best programs. Virginia Tech won just one Metro Conference tournament in its first year in 1979, but the school did combine with Southern Miss to play one of the league’s most memorable games on February 6, 1988 when the Hokies beat Southern Miss in Blacksburg in double overtime 141 to 133.

The Metro is a memory, but what is a reality is that two of its former members are having major issues.  Louisville – last week – imposed a post-season ban for this season and will not participate in either the ACC Tournament or the NCAA Tournament.  The school is under NCAA investigation relating to charges that a former operations director Andre McGee arranged for dancers and escorts to have sex with players and recruits.  Head Coach Rick Pitino has denied any knowledge, but the NCAA is taking the position recently that if you are the Head Coach you are responsible, so Pitino is clearly in the NCAA’s cross-hairs and I believe his days at Louisville are numbered.  I find it hard to believe that he didn’t know something and if he didn’t neither the NCAA or the Court system for that matter is very forgiving with the Ostrich in the Sand Defense. Likewise, the school doesn’t impose a post-season ban if there isn’t something to the story.  Louisville knows the NCAA is going to lower the hammer on the school and they are trying to get in front of the punishment by imposing a ban now to avoid one later.  If the NCAA imposes a one or two year post-season ban then some recruits may change their mind about going to the school and some current players may bolt effectively killing the program for years to come, although it’s easier to come back in basketball than football because you can only play 5 at a time.  As always though the punishment falls unfairly on the players particularly two graduate transfers Damian Lee and Trey Lewis.  Lee transferred from that basketball armpit known as Drexel to have an opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament, something he’d never done.  Lewis came from Cleveland State with the same goal in mind.  Not only were they in line for the tournament, they were arguably on a potential Final 4 team.  Now, they’ll leave school having never been given that opportunity as casualties of adults who cannot act as such.

As bad a Louisville’s situation is, its former Metro brother Southern Mississippi is in even worse shape.  Southern Miss imposed a post-season ban last year and this year imposed another one for shenanigans that occurred under former Coach Donny Tyndall.  Tyndall coached at Southern Miss for two years and went to two NITs.  That’s it.  He then bolted for Tennessee, but when Southern Miss’s problems hit the fan he was fired after one year and is working as a volunteer assistant athletic director at Tennessee Wesleyan a small NAIA school in Athens, Tennessee.  There’s no questioning his ability to coach basketball.  He went 16-16 at Tennessee in his one year with a team that had talent for about half those number of wins.  He coached with a chip on his shoulder as a lot of shelter mutt coaches do, his team played that way and they played their asses off for him.  He just can’t follow the rules.  Tyndall ran afoul of the NCAA while the head coach at Morehead State in Kentucky, but that pales in comparison to the mess he created at Southern Miss.  Among the charges is that Tyndall and his staff committed academic fraud by having an assistant coach and another staffer complete on-line courses so that Junior College transfers could be eligible.   Also, the school is charged with providing improper financial assistance to ineligible players.  In effect, players who were academically ineligible enrolled at the school and under normal circumstances would have had to pay their own way.  Somehow they were paid to go to school while not on an athletic scholarship.  Tyndall for his part has likewise denied any knowledge, but is charged with deleting relevant emails from his Southern Miss email account from a computer in Knoxville, Tennessee and providing false and misleading information to investigators.  Do those sound like actions of a person who doesn’t know what’s going on?  And what’s mystifying about this is he was doing it at Southern Miss.  Southern Miss is not exactly a college basketball blue blood like Louisville.  The school did not participate in the NCAA Tournament until 1990.  They’ve made just two other appearances in 1991 and 2012.  The program’s high point is winning an NIT Championship in 1987 under longtime coach M.K. Turk.  The school’s best player happened to be my second favorite college basketball player ever behind Virginia’s Ralph Sampson – Clarence Weatherspoon who played at Southern Miss from 1989 to 1992 and was a three-time Metro player of the year before embarking on a successful NBA Career.  His number 35 was retired on his Senior day in 1992.  The school has appeared before the NCAA Committee on infractions and awaits its fate later this spring.  Again, however, the collateral damage hurts the innocent.  Southern Miss has three seniors who won’t participate in post-season play during their careers and second year coach Doc Sadler is left with a mess to clean up at a place where it has been proven is not an easy place to win.  Last year Southern Miss went 9-20 and this year is just 7-14 with 8 games to play.  I guess it’s just not easy to motivate players who have nothing to play for.  In this case, Tyndall is already out of coaching and will be for a while.  Expect the NCAA to slap a “show cause” penalty on him which would require any school that hires him to show cause why they shouldn’t be penalized for his actions.  It makes the coach essentially unemployable for the show cause period.  But, it doesn’t kill careers.  Both Bruce Pearl and Kelvin Sampson had show cause penalties and they are coaching again so Tyndall will get his second chance or in his case a third chance.

Along with Southern Miss and Louisville, Missouri, SMU, Cal-State Northridge, and Pacific have imposed post-season bans as well.  Syracuse sat out last year.  The goal is to get ahead of the NCAA hammer, but the cold reality of College Athletics is that as long as they are keeping score and there are millions of dollars at stake, these examples won’t be the last of brazen cheating.  The pressure to win causes some coaches to toe the line or just go right across it.  Unfortunately College Basketball success is judged by what you do in March and if it takes cheating to get there, some coaches are willing to do it.



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