A sad anniversary: 25 years since Tulane basketball’s point shaving scandal
Twenty-five years ago tonight, there it was, leading off the 10 o’clock news.
Tulane’s star basketball player, John “Hot Rod” Williams, in handcuffs, being walked toward Central Lockup. Williams, two other players and a student are arrested on charges of conspiracy to commit sports bribery in two Green Wave home games a month earlier.
In other words, point shaving.
As it turned out, it would only be the start. More arrests. Drug use. Internal investigations. Resignations. And eventually, the disbanding of the Green Wave basketball program.
It was a sad period not just uptown, but for college athletics.
On Feb. 2, 1985, Tulane was 10-8 on the season, 3-4 in the Metro Conference and trying to complete a five-game home stand on a high note. The Green Wave was favored to do just that against Southern Miss.
That afternoon, Tulane student Gary Kranz approached Green Wave senior forward Clyde Eads. The two had become friendly that year as Kranz provided cocaine to Eads.
It was a simple idea – Tulane needed to win the game by fewer than the 10 1/2-point spread. But Eads realized he couldn’t do it alone. He enlisted forward Jon Johnson, and they went to Williams, guard David Dominique and guard Bobby Thompson with the concept.
Before long, everyone was on board. Kranz and his former fraternity brothers, David Rothenberg and Mark Olensky, had wagered $7,000 on USM through various bookmakers.
The best-case scenario evolved. After a tight first half, Tulane led much of the second half and held on for a 64-63 victory. The only starter not involved in the scheme, Marcus Hamilton, led Tulane with 21 points and nine rebounds. Williams had 15 points and six rebounds, both below his season averages. Dominique scored 10, Eads eight, Johnson seven.
The five players received between $400 and $900 each. And they won the game.
After a brief but unsuccessful attempt at fixing a road game two weeks later at Virginia Tech, the next target was a Feb. 20 visit by Memphis State.
The Tigers – 20-2 at the time, ranked fourth in the nation and eventually headed for the Final Four – were a seven-point favorite when they visited New Orleans the day after Mardi Gras. The matchups between the teams’ senior big men, Tulane’s Williams and Memphis State’s Keith Lee, had been classics for four years.
Tulane led throughout the first half, with Williams outplaying his counterpart, when with about a minute remaining in the half, the game changed on a seemingly innocent play.
Memphis State inbounded the basketball from the sideline. The Tigers had trouble finding an open man, so Lee came out near midcourt to take the pass with Williams close behind. Williams reached in and was whistled for the foul – his third.
I was working the game that night as a student member of the Tulane sports information staff, and happened to be sitting next to legendary Times-Picayune columnist Peter Finney.
“If I didn’t know any better,” Finney said after Williams’ foul, “I’d have thought he did that on purpose.”
With Williams on the bench, Lee hit a pair of layups in the final minute, with Tulane’s Johnson adding a bucket in-between, and the Wave led 34-28 at halftime.
Sports Illustrated’s in-depth story on the scandal on April 8, 1985, told of a meeting between Eads and the other involved players in the locker room’s bathroom at halftime. It would be a different kind of halftime adjustment.
Lee scored the first six points of the half to tie the game. Williams, after dominating the first half, went 0-for-2 from the field, 2-for-4 from the line and had just one rebound after halftime as the Tigers slowly drew away to a 60-49 victory.
A few days after the game, the five Tulane players collected a total of $13,500, according to SI. One third of it went to Williams.
On Feb. 26, Tulane closed out its home schedule against Louisville. Rumors were rampant in the student section prior to the game of point shaving allegations in the Memphis State game.
There was talk about a scheme for the Louisville game, but it was quickly dismissed by the players. Tulane had never beaten the Cardinals in basketball. That night, the streak ended with a 68-56 Tulane win.
For a month, things were seemingly quiet. On the court, Tulane finished the regular season with three straight wins before losing to Cincinnati in the Metro Tournament, ending its season at 15-13.
But about a week after the season-ending loss, Tulane fan and attorney Ned Kohnke heard the rumor from his brother. Kohnke did his own investigating. “My goal was to dispel the rumor,” Kohnke told The Associated Press at the time.
When his findings became more disturbing, he contacted district attorney Harry Connick’s office and then approached Eads. Eads and Johnson received immunity, and their information set the stage for the first arrests on the night of March 26.
Williams, seemingly a sure-fire first-round NBA draft pick, would utter a malaprop to reporters during his perp walk. “I didn’t do anything,” he said. “I’ve got too much at stock.”
In times of trouble, one of the key members of the athletic department is the head of the media relations staff, the liaison between the department and the media, and in turn, the public.
Then-sports information director M.L. Lagarde had undergone a risky open-heart surgery the day before the first arrests, a surgery that nearly took his life.
“They kept me in intensive care,” Lagarde said. “I kept asking why I was there so long and why I couldn’t watch television.”
Lagarde had undergone a similar procedure three years earlier, and “I was out of intensive care in a day and a half,” he recalled.
Lagarde’s top assistant at the time was Arthur Triche – now the vice president for media relations for the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks – was, ironically, on his way home from the last of 12 Hawks “home” games played that winter at New Orleans’ newest facility, Lakefront Arena.
In the days before cell phones and the Internet, Triche knew nothing until he returned home after the game. It would be his unenviable task to lead the media relations efforts through the difficult next few weeks.
Then-Tulane president Dr. Eamon Kelly had a law firm from outside New Orleans investigate the allegations, but nothing regarding point shaving had turned up by the time the first arrests were made.
Something else was about to, however.
In an exclusive interview, Kelly said “the straw that broke the camel’s back” wasn’t the point shaving. “Students can do foolish things,” he said.
But once head coach Ned Fowler and two of his assistants admitted to making payments to players, on April 4, 1985, Kelly announced he was making the recommendation to the university’s Board of Administrators to disband the men’s basketball program. Fowler and assistants Max Pfeifer and Mike Richardson turned in their resignations.
“There was a cumulative set of factors, but the real decision point (was) when we found out that members of the professional staff were engaged in payments to the players,” Kelly said. “Once the professional staff was involved, then it became really troublesome and problematic.”
Three days earlier, on a Monday night in Lexington, Ky., college basketball had one of its all-time greatest moments – Villanova’s “perfect game” upset of Georgetown for the NCAA title.
On a Thursday morning in New Orleans, the sport had undergone a 180-degree turn.
That Saturday, Tulane fans marched on Kelly’s residence in protest of his decision, but he didn’t waver.
“The fact we were able to take the moral high ground, that we were able to do what was right, benefited the entire university,” Kelly said.
By the time April was over, Tulane’s athletic director, Hindman Wall, had resigned, citing fatigue from the activities of the last several weeks. He would be replaced by football coach Mack Brown, who himself had been on campus less than five months.
As March turned to April and the activity continued to unfold, the most visible sport on Tulane’s campus was baseball.
The day Kelly announced his recommendation to disband the program, the baseball team got on a bus headed for Tallahassee, Fla., and a weekend series with Florida State. The two schools were traditionally the top baseball programs in the Metro Conference.
The fans at Dick Howser Stadium have always been tough on opponents. Given the circumstances surrounding Tulane’s athletic program, it added fuel to the fire.
When freshman Tookie Spann was announced as a batter in the first inning of the first game, a fan yelled up to the public address announcer, “Is that Tookie, or bookie?”
The next night, another fan reached across the roof of the Tulane dugout and dropped a plastic sandwich bag filled with white powder.
Besides the collective black eye, all of Tulane’s sports except football felt one significant impact from the disbanding. The university was forced to withdraw from the Metro, which required a school field a men’s basketball team for conference membership. All sports returned to the league for the 1989-90 season, when basketball was reinstated.
Kelly reinforced his 1985 stance earlier this month. “I did not have any intention of reinstating the program at some later date,” he said. “I meant for it to be a permanent ending of the program.”
He was more to the point in an interview with the Los Angeles Times 25 years ago. “Permanent,” he said, “is permanent.”
But almost three years to the day the board voted to disband the program, it acted on Kelly’s recommendation to reinstate.
What changed in 36 months?
“The real reason was that the students came to me,” Kelly said, “and indicated a large number of them had come from urban areas. They were very interested in basketball. They were not here when the problem took place and they said they were being punished unfairly for something they had nothing to do with. So it was the strong student demand and the overriding argument they made in terms of equity and fairness that persuaded me it was time to bring it back.”
Three months after the reinstatement, Tulane hired Georgia Tech assistant Perry Clark as its new coach. What he would achieve would be nothing short of remarkable, reaching the NCAA Tournament by 1992 – three years after the program’s relaunch.
“The problems in the past, I don’t know anything about it,” Clark said in 1992. “I didn’t ask, and I don’t want to know. I can say I don’t know, and the conversation has to end there. What happened, it’s not my history. I don’t have to get into it and defend myself.”
So a quarter-century has passed, which leads to this question: Could such a scandal happen again?
Deputy chief David Salas of the enforcement division of the Nevada Gaming Control Board said there have been major changes in how sports betting is operated since 1985.
“Most significantly, the gaming industry as a whole talks to each other,” Salas said. “We work closely with our licensees and work very closely with the NCAA, NFL, NBA and other leagues.”
The NCAA has taken large steps as well, from making wagering presentations to its student-athletes to performing background checks on officials to a website dedicated exclusively to anti-gambling education.
Salas noted that the casinos on the Las Vegas strip have shifted from being independently owned to falling under the umbrella of one of three or four larger companies.
“The major players are affiliated,” he said. “From a business standpoint, they monitor each other.
“There aren’t a whole lot of secrets out there. Everything happens in real time.”
Add in the advent of the Internet and social media, and the ability to pull off such a scandal has likely become more difficult.
Nonetheless, the black mark is indelible.
‘The Tulane scandal was the first major gambling scandal to shut down a Division I program,” Central Michigan University professor Timothy Otteman told Athlon Sports in 2007, “and that in itself is historically significant.”
But fortunately for Tulane, it is history – as in a thing of the past. No one currently on the Tulane staff was there in 1985. None of the current Green Wave student-athletes were even born when Williams, Eads and their teammates made this a sad anniversary.
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Lenny was involved in college athletics starting in the early 1980s, when he began working Tulane University sporting events while still attending Archbishop Rummel High School. He continued that relationship as a student at Loyola University, where he graduated in 1987. For the next 11 years, Vangilder worked in the sports information offices at Southwestern Louisiana (now UL-Lafayette) and Tulane;…