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Basketball scandal stuns St. Bonaventure fans

University vows to return to its 'Franciscan values'

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

By Bill Schackner and Steve Levin, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

OLEAN, N.Y. -- As the shock waves of a basketball scandal continued to roll across the campus of St. Bonaventure University, shaken students, employees and townspeople gathered last night to try to put the pieces back together.

"Our Franciscan values will prevail above the transgressions of a few." trustees chairman William E. Swan told a crowd of about 800. "We will not sacrifice our values for anything -- not even athletic glory."

On Sunday, Robert J. Wickenheiser resigned as president of the university for approving the transfer of a junior college player even though the player did not have a required associate's degree and instead had a certificate in welding.

Wickenheiser made "a patently bad decision," said Jack McGinley, a Pittsburgh attorney and St. Bonaventure alumnus who has been asked to head a panel to review the basketball program.

McGinley, who served as a St. Bonaventure trustee for 12 years, said Wickenheiser, the Catholic university's first lay president, helped turn around the school, which had faced enrollment and financial troubles.

"That's the sad part about this," McGinley said. "He really worked very hard to try to put this institution on firm footing."

The discovery nine days ago that Jamil Terrell, a 6-foot-8-inch center was allowed to suit up for St. Bonaventure without the necessary credentials at first seemed like a run-of-the-mill college sports scandal, the kind capable of ensnaring a coach or maybe an athletic director.

But now it's now led to the ouster of the school's president and has raised familiar questions about the intersection of academics and Division I sports.

College presidents can lose their jobs when fundraising or enrollment slides, but not usually when a scandal hits the the athletic program.

The school's Bonnies, a long-time rival of Duquesne University in the Atlantic 10 Conference, are beloved in this town and the smaller neighboring burg of Allegany in southwestern New York state.

Although the school has its own post office and ZIP code, both towns claim the school as their own.

"Being a small college in a small town, we're all devastated," said Dan Gleason, 47, an Allegany native and owner of The Other Place, a favorite student watering hole near campus.

"It's the only game in town. It just hurts."

Terrell, a junior, was recruited from Coastal Georgia Community College. Wickenheiser made the decision to admit him as a player, even though Terrell possessed a certificate in welding rather than an associate's degree required to play on the team, officials said.

In deeming him eligible, the president overruled the recommendation of the school's athletic compliance representative, said Swan.

"He [Wickenheiser] pleaded guilty to the eligibility thing," Swan said. "We lost our confidence in him to serve and make rational, sound judgments."

David Ferguson, a school spokesman, said yesterday the decision was based on Wickenheiser's desire to help a promising young man as well as a "difference in interpretation of the relative importance of certain sections of the guidelines."

He said he could not elaborate further.

Three others, including the athletic director, basketball coach and an assistant coach, who is the president's son, have been placed on administrative leave as well, the school said.

St. Bonaventure has named the Rev. Dominic Monti as interim president and will begin searching for a permanent replacement early next month.

McGinley said he understood the decision to admit Terrell was not a gray area, and that the differences between what Terrell possessed and what was needed to be eligible should have been clear.

One of the areas his panel intends to explore is how often decisions about athletes reach the president's office.

"I would hope that it would be very unusual," he said in a phone interview yesterday. "I don't know frankly why college presidents are making decisions about athletes. I hope it's not a trend."

The events that saddened the 2,200-student campus 225 miles northeast of Pittsburgh began unfolding publicly nine days ago.

That's when the Atlantic 10 Conference ruled that Terrell was ineligible, saying he did not comply with NCAA guidelines for junior college transfers.

The school forfeited six conference wins, said Ferguson, but the conference also deemed the school ineligible for post-season play. Stung by the ruling, team members opted to forgo the last two games of the season.

Before the scandal broke, the team had a 13-14 record and was 7-7 in the conference.

Some who follow college sports say such episodes have become inevitable given the money and prestige tied up in success.

They said the stakes have become painfully high for presidents and chancellors, even at many smaller schools.

"We expect them to manage and run honest athletic programs and to abide by the rules but we place enormous pressure on them to win," said Tom Ingram, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities.

He suggested the action by St. Bonaventure's board was a positive move.

"The school can only be better for sending a powerful signal to everyone who cares about the institution that it intends to stay on the high road," Ingram said.

McGinley's panel is charged with looking at management and decision-making; admissions policies that pertain to basketball players; campus eligibility standards and issues pertaining to academic records and guidelines for changes that are made to them.

The school and McGinley's committee are also looking into reports of an irregularity involving the grade record of an athlete, though officials declined to be more specific.

The panel is to issue a report and recommendations by April 15 for ensuring that St. Bonaventure's policies meet intercollegiate rules and "reflect the highest values and ideals of out institution."

In a statement posted on the school's Web site, trustees said the sanctions were intended to "begin a process of healing" and promote strong leadership. The board also offered a public apology.

Steve Levin can be reached at slevin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1919. Bill Schackner can be reached at bschackner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1977.

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