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by Chris Brown
Major - Stories of NCAA Scandals

The First NCAA Death Penalty

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Introduction

Hey everyone, welcome to the second episode of Major – Stories of NCAA Scandals. In this show we will be covering the most gripping, gruesome, and groundbreaking scandals in the history of the NCAA. My name is Chris Brown and I’ll be your host, guiding you through every twist and turn these stories have to offer.

For the last nine years, I’ve worked in NCAA Rules and Regulations, including four years on the NCAA staff.

If you are anything like me, you love a good sports scandal. I started Major, as a way of exploring both well-known and unknown NCAA scandals. But enough about me, let’s start the show.

Today we’ll be covering a rarely used NCAA penalty, a penalty so scary, it earned the name “Death Penalty.”

A Shaky Death Penalty

It’s January 1951, Junius Kellog is a star on the Manhattan College basketball team. At six foot eight, Kellog is hard to miss by anyone. One winter day, he catches the attention of former Manhattan College basketball player Hank Poppe.

Poppe approaches Kellog with a proposition. If Kellog fixes the game against DePaul, he will receive $1,000 dollars.

For Kellog, this is no insignificant amount of money. Remember, this is 1951, $1,000 dollars then is closer to 10,000 dollars today. Kellog comes from a poor family in Virginia and even with his scholarship is working at a local custard shop to make ends meet. Now he has the chance to significantly improve his financial outlook and all he has to do is engage in a little point shaving.

Now before we continue, it’s important that we discuss point shaving. Let’s take a moment for a quick sports gambling lesson.

Quick Gambling Lesson

So let’s keep things very simple. When it comes to gambling, sports like basketball are bet on based on the margin of victory or loss also known as a point spread.

For example, let’s take two schools, School A and School B. School A is favored to win at minus ten points. While school B is the underdog at plus ten points. If you were to bet on School A, then in order to win money, School A must win by more than ten points.

If you were to bet of School B, then in order to win money, School B would have to lose by less than 10 points.

Traditionally, point shaving occurs when School A purposefully works to ensure they win but win by less than 10 points. This allow match fixers to bet on the underdog and be guaranteed that they will win.

Point shaving is difficult to track in that the team still wins the game and it is difficult to determine if the match is fixed or if a player or players are having a bad game. Thus it is the perfect set up for match fixers.

Now Back to the Story

A man of high integrity, Kellog immediately notified his Coach Ken Norton. Norton in turn, notified Manhattan College’s President Brother Boneventure Thomas who would immediately contact the police. For those of you who listened to last week’s episode, this is how the flow of information is supposed to work.

The police and Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan instructed Kellog to pretend that he was going along with the scheme. During a second meeting between Kellog and Poppe.

Kellog was instructed that make sure that Manhattan won by less than ten points.

According to Rosen’, Scandals of '51, Hank Poppe would tell Kellog:

It's easy! You can miss a rebound once in a while. After you get a rebound don't look to pass it down court. Hang on to it and give the defense a chance to set up. Then you can try shooting your hook shot a little hard. And don't try to block the other guy's shot. Throw the ball away when you get the chance. Just remember that Manhattan doesn't actually have to lose the game. All you have to do is control the margin of victory. It's easy Junie. Everybody's doing it everywhere all over the country. The pros too. But whatever you do, Junie, don't stink up the joint. Make it look like you're trying.

Kellog did just that, with the team winning 62-59.

With enough evidence, Poppe was arrested and immediately turned in coconspirator Jack Byrnes. The duo would implicate thirty-three players over the course of 80 games involving at least seven schools.

Now we will have an entire two-part episode dedicated to the point shaving scandal and its impact on college basketball but for today, we were going to head down to Lexington, Kentucky. Home of the University of Kentucky Wildcats.

In 1951, there was no bigger team in college basketball than the University of Kentucky Wildcats. The team was coached by Adolph Rupp, at the time, arguably the most influential coach in all of basketball. The team was coming off of National Championship wins in 1948, 1949 and 1951.

Not to mention that the Kentucky starting five were all members of the gold medal winning 1948 US Olympic basketball team. The Kentucky teams were juggernauts and Coach Rupp knew it. When news of a point shaving scandal began rocking college basketball programs across the country, Rupp was quoted as saying: “They couldn’t touch my boys with a 10-foot pole.”

These are words Rupp would soon come to regret.

On October 20, 1951, former University of Kentucky players Dale Barnstable, Ralph Beard, Alex Groza and Bill Spivey were all arrested for receiving bribes in exchange for point shaving during their 1949 National Invitation Tournament game against Loyola University Chicago. At the time of arrest, Barnstable, Beard and Groz, were no longer students at the university. Spivey on the other hand, was still a star player for the Wildcats.

While initially, all players would deny any involvement in point shaving, mounting evidence and convictions across the nation, would make denial harder. Barnstable, Beard and Groza would all confess to receiving $500 in return for point shaving during the game against Loyola University Chicago.

Spivey would maintain his innocence long after his former teammates admissions. If point shaving wasn’t bad enough, in the midst of investigating the point shaving case, it was uncovered that it was common for players to receive cash gifts following wins in big games. Thus, this legal issue, quickly became an NCAA issue.

Flashback

Now, it is important to remember why the NCAA was founded. Mounting health and safety concerns related to college football had necessitated presidential intervention. Theodore Roosevelt on two separate occasions convened meetings with collegiate leaders. The meeting ended with an ultimatum, regulate college football or it will no longer be played in the United States.

Officials heeded the Presidents warning and in 1906, the NCAA was founded. The organization quickly grew in responsibility by conducting championships, but the NCAA had no rules enforcement mechanism.

In fact, most schools at the time were doubtful about the organizations ability to self-govern. This self-governing ability had been tested just a one year prior to the point shaving scandal.

In 1948, NCAA schools voted to implement the “Sanity Code.” The Sanity Code limited athletes to receiving scholarships and job opportunities based only on a demonstrated financial need. However, when a survey was sent out in 1949 to gauge whether or not schools were adhering to this code, seven schools self-reported that they were indeed violating the agreed upon code.

A school found in violation of NCAA rules could be punished in only one-way, complete loss of membership, a punishment, that member schools had been hesitant to ever use. Ultimately in 1950 the Sanity Code was repealed and the schools in question weren’t even punished.

Therefore, when the it emerged that the University of Kentucky had won games with ineligible players, few believed the NCAA would or even could take action against the school. However, the NCAA’s newly hired 29-year-old executive director had other ideas.

Walter Byers, a man who would forever shape the landscape of college athletics, viewed the University of Kentucky case as a test of the NCAA’s legitimacy. To address the issue, Byers would establish a subcommittee to investigate infractions and secretly partner with the Southeastern Conference to ensure the right outcome.

Repercussions - The Team

Prior to NCAA penalties, the University of Kentucky would first have to deal with the Southeastern Conference. After an investigation into the point shaving scandal, the SEC voted to bar Kentucky from participating in SEC basketball for one year.

Much to the surprise of many, University of Kentucky President Herman Lee Donovan did not fight the penalties. Believing they had received their final penalty; Kentucky began planning a non-conference schedule for the year. In fact, the school had made a national schedule featuring sixteen different schools.

This immediately changed when in November of 1952, Walter Byers informed the University that they would be on probation and barred from playing against any other NCAA institution.

To reinforce this penalty, Byers sent a letter to every member of the NCAA reminding them of a constitutional provision that required NCAA members to only play against teams that followed NCAA rules.

Kentucky would once again not fight the penalty. Later, Byers would concede that had Kentucky challenged the penalty, they most likely would have prevailed given a lack of true enforcement authority at the time.

In his book Unsportsmanlike Conduct, Byers would state: Had they (UK) fought us on the technical, legal grounds so many university-hired lawyers used in later years, Kentucky probably would have carried the day at the convention in January 1953. Instead, their decision to accept the penalty erased the haunting failure of the Sanity Code. It gave a new and needed legitimacy to the NCAA's fledgling effort to police big-time college sports."

Additionally, the suspension of athletics participation as a penalty would later be codified in NCAA legislation as the repeat violator provision. In the 1980s, media would label this punishment, the death penalty.

Repercussions – The Players

Now the players received pretty substantial penalties. Barnstable, Beard and Groza would receive suspended sentences.

In addition to suspended sentences, Judge Streit placed the trio on an indefinite probation and barred them from all sports for three years…..I didn’t even know a judge could do that.

Now formerly on pace to be NBA stars, Barnstable, Beard and Groza were banned from ever playing in the NBA by Commissioner Maurice Podoloff.

Arguably, Bill Spivey would pay the steepest penalty. Spivey maintained his innocence throughout the entirety of the process. The University of Kentucky would preemptively disassociate from Spivey.

The former All-American had been deserted by his school. To make matters worse, while there was not enough evidence to convict Spivey on bribery charges, discrepancies in testimonies resulted in perjury charges. Although Spivey was not convicted, the damage was done. NBA Commissioner Podoloff banned Spivey from ever playing in the NBA. Spivey would later sue the NBA and receive a $10,000 settlement but would spend the majority of his career, travelling around the country playing for smaller league teams until retiring in 1968.

Repercussions - The Coach

Now throughout the entirety of the investigation, Coach Rupp maintained he had no knowledge of point shaving within his program. Oddly enough t, the Loyola game which was the focal point of the investigation, was one that Coach Rupp could not forget. Following his team’s 67-56 loss to Loyola, Coach Rupp was distraught. While drink whiskey, he would tell athletics director Bernie Shively: I don't know...Lordy. But I think there's something wrong with this team.

Historians agree that while Rupp was not involved directly in point shaving, his relationship with local bookies and casual discussions with players regarding gambling was problematic. On one occasion, the team was scolded for not scoring enough points in a game. Rupp would comment that the team cost his friend money.

The impact of the culture of Kentucky was reinforced during the sentencing of Rupp’s former players. While Rupp was not charged, Judge Streit, would use player sentencing as an opportunity to express his thoughts on college athletics, particularly at the University of Kentucky.

In his opinion, Judge Steit wrote: "I found that intercollegiate basketball and football at Kentucky have become highly systematized, professionalized and commercialized enterprises. I found covert subsidization of players, ruthless exploitation of athletes, cribbing at examinations, 'illegal' recruiting, a reckless disregard of their physical welfare, matriculation of unqualified students and demoralization of the athletes by the coach.”

Now, as you can imagine, University of Kentucky President Donovan was quite upset following the embarrassment brought to the university on the part of its basketball program.

However, President Donovan’s support for Coach Rupp, never wavered. In a letter to Rupp, Donovan wrote:

My Dear Coach Rupp, I want you to know that I shall not desert you in your hour of need. This is a good time for you to find out who are your real friends and who are your fair weather friends. In Kentucky, the "Baron of the Blue Grass" was more powerful than Judge Streit.

In fact, President Donovan was so disturbed by the comments made by Judge Streit, that he sought to gain potentially compromising information about the Judge. After reaching out to other University Presidents seeking this information, President Donovan was advised to back down and to move forward. Advice that he ultimately took.

While officials at the university and the SEC acknowledge that a resignation on the part of Coach Rupp would have lessened the penalty, Coach Rupp’s ability as a coach out shadowed any desire by the university to move on to a new coach.

Additionally, Coach Rupp would hold a grudge with Walter Byers saying: "I'll not retire until the man who said Kentucky can't play in the NCAA hands me the national championship trophy."

A promise that he would later fulfill, when the Wildcats won the 1958 NCAA Championships.

This scandal would have a ripple effect for one other member of the SEC, the University of Alabama….Now at the time of the scandal, the University of Kentucky’s football program was led by a young Paul “Bear” Bryant. As the scandal unfolded, Bryant expected and many say was that Rupp to resign or be fired, making an opportunity for football to become the marquee sport at the University.

Bear Bryant would be quoted in Sports Illustrated as saying: "If Rupp had retired as basketball coach when they said he was going to I'd probably still be at Kentucky. The trouble was we were too much alike, and he wanted basketball No. 1 and I wanted football No. 1. In an environment like that one or the other has to go."

Bryant resigned and took his talents to College Station before finding his way to Tuscaloosa Alabama as head coach of the University of Alabama.

As the head coach of the Rolling Tide, Bryant would win six national championships and make houndstooth fashionable.

As a sports fan, you can’t help but wonder, what would have happened had Bryant stayed in Lexington…

Closing Thoughts

It has been almost 69 years since this scandal occurred. It would be great to say that since this scandal, college athletics has become less commercialized. But that just isn’t the case.

Both college basketball and football are far more commercialized and professionalized than in the 1950s. To make matters worse, on September 27, 2017, the FBI and the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced the arrest of 10 individuals on suspicion of fraud, bribery and money laundering in a college basketball recruiting scheme.

But, you know what they say: those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.

Conclusion

We here at Major – Stories of NCAA Scandals hope you enjoyed our second episode covering the world of NCAA scandals.

If you want to keep it going, give us a follow on our social media at brown_athletics on twitter or @major podcast on Instagram.

Thank you everyone for tuning in, again I’m your host Chris Brown wishing you a good day and life free of scandal!

Sources

http://www.bigbluehistory.net/bb/Statistics/1952-53.html

http://www.espn.com/classic/biography/s/Bryant_Bear.html

Figone, A., & Figone, A. (1989). Gambling and College Basketball: The Scandal of 1951. Journal of Sport History,16(1), 44-61. Retrieved August 22, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43609381

Nelli, H. (1986). Adolph Rupp, the Kentucky Wildcats, and the Basketball Scandal of 1951. The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society,84(1), 51-75. Retrieved August 22, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23381140

https://web3.ncaa.org/lsdbi/search/miCaseView/report?id=101754

Details

Episode 2

by Chris Brown