We all love to see the embarrassing “Not Top 10″ plays where a player, say, picks up a football and runs it into the wrong endzone. It’s lighthearted fun that no doubt leaves the player feeling a bit sheepish for a little while. But sometimes, sports programs find themselves embroiled in much deeper, much more disgraceful scenarios of their own design. These highly public embarrassments can ruin lives, cost schools thousands or millions of dollars, and leave the entire country with a bad taste in its mouth. These 10 cases are hopefully the most embarrassing moments in NCAA history any of us will have to witness.
What a horrible irony that Penn State’s alma mater includes the words, “May no act of ours bring shame.” For more than 15 years, coaching assistant Jerry Sandusky disgraced the school by sexually abusing boys placed in his care. The resulting embarrassment enveloped once-beloved head coach Joe Paterno, the Penn State football program, the NCAA, and every fan of college football in America. “JoePa” did not live to see his statue removed from its place near Beaver Stadium and forklifted into storage, or his record vacated of more than 100 wins, knocking him from atop the list of winningest college football coaches ever. For the NCAA, having such a man in the record books was clearly too humiliating.
Whether college athletes should be paid for their services is a debate worth having. Nevertheless, as the rule stands (and as it stood in the early 2000s), accepting nearly $290,000 in cash and gifts is $290,000 more than players are allowed to accept. USC star running back Reggie Bush was certainly not the first to take people’s offers of limo rides and free housing, but he was the first to go on to win the Heisman Trophy. In a huge black eye for USC and the Heisman Trust, Bush opted to relinquish the award before it was snatched out of his soiled hands, the first time the award has been returned.
In the wake of Penn State’s devastating NCAA punishment, many are reminded of another name in the annals of college sports embarrassments: Southern Methodist University. Although Penn State will retain a crippled football program, SMU’s entire 1987 and 1988 seasons were canceled when it was discovered players had been paid thousands of dollars out of a slush fund with the full knowledge of people like former Texas governor and chairman of SMU’s board of governors Bill Clements and AD Bob Hitch. Ironically, Penn State was among the schools who raided SMU’s football roster for players. As a result of the death penalty, SMU’s program took two decades to recover, Clements’ political career was killed, and the Southwest Conference had one of the final nails put in its coffin.
Players accepting money for playing their best is one thing; players taking money for making errors and helping bookies beat the spread is a whole other can of worms. In 1951, a cloud was cast over NCAA basketball when a point-shaving scandal involving seven schools and 32 players came to light. What began with the arrest of three of the stars of City College New York’s NIT-winning 1950 team for conspiring with gangsters to fix games soon spread to NYU, Long Island University, the University of Kentucky, and elsewhere. The scandal remains one of the worst black eyes in college basketball history.
Jim “The Sweater Vest” Tressel was so ensconced as head football coach at Ohio State that when asked if Tressel was going to be fired, OSU president Gordon Gee responded, “No, are you kidding? I’m just hoping the coach doesn’t dismiss me.” Clearly Tressel’s 106-22 record with OSU had brought him significant power, power enough that, when informed his players were selling memorabilia to a known drug dealer in exchange for tattoos, he sat on the knowledge for eight months in 2011. Then he lied to investigators about how long he knew the truth. A red-faced OSU tried to keep Tressel’s chastening to a five-game suspension and $250,000 fine, but ultimately bowed to public pressure and asked for his resignation.
The thought process while watching the clip of this embarrassing moment in college basketball history goes something like this: ‘OK, that was a pretty hard foul. Oh, nice, that player is going to help him up OH, NOT THE GROIN!’ Angered at an impending loss to their Big Ten rivals, Minnesota initiated a street fight by punching and kneeing Ohio State player Luke Witte and then stomping his head while he was on the floor. The crowd even booed him as he was helped off the court on his way to the hospital. The governor of Ohio called it a “public mugging.” Two Minnesota players were suspended for the season, and dunking before games — showboating that the NCAA believed attributed to the hostile environment — was banned.
To call this Miami football’s all-time low is saying a lot, considering their history. But on the night of Oct. 14, 2006, the country watched in disgust as Hurricane players goaded Florida International’s Golden Panthers into a fight with taunting and showing off. FIU took the bait. A Golden Panther tackled a holder and punched him, and all hell broke loose. Miami players took their helmets off and used them as weapons. An injured FIU player swung a crutch at some Hurricanes. A ‘Cane body-slammed a Panther. Players were stomped and kicked in the head. State troopers had to help separate the teams. More than 30 players were later suspended. Even a TV commentator, former Hurricane Lamar Thomas, was fired for the embarrassing in-game comments, “You come into our house, you should get your behind kicked.”
Minnesota basketball managed to go almost 30 years after the 1972 brawl before falling on their faces in front of the country all over again. On the morning of the team’s first-round game in the 1999 NCAA tournament, news broke of a former academic advisor claiming to have written 400 papers for Gopher basketball players over a period of five years, with head coach Clem Haskins’ total knowledge. Haskins later admitted paying the woman to do so and was subsequently fired and banned from coaching college basketball until 2007. Some supporters wished he would have fought harder to clear his name, but he correctly decided that would have only dragged the school’s name further through the mud than it had already traveled.
When Nevin Shapiro was imprisoned in 2010 for participating in a nearly $1 billion Ponzi scheme, more than a few people in the college sports world must have started to worry. Such worry is warranted. Eight players on the Miami Hurricanes football team have already been suspended for accepting gifts from this persona non grata, but according to Shapiro, dozens more players are involved. He says from 2002 to 2010 he hooked up at least 72 college players with money, prostitutes, yacht and limo rides, tackle bounties (which are currently roiling the NFL), jewelry, and travel. Shapiro is peeved at his predicament and has vowed he will take Miami football down with him.
Three, six, and 15. These are the numbers of Rick Pitino’s most notable achievements: three schools led to the Final Four, six NCAA Tournament regional championships, and 15 seconds of sex with extortionist Karen Cunagin Sypher. In one of Louisville basketball’s most embarrassing moments, and certainly the most embarrassing moment of Pitino’s storied career, the coach had an extremely brief sexual encounter with the wife of his equipment manager in a restaurant booth in 2003. The woman then tried to milk Pitino for $10 million. Pitino called the cops on her but in so doing opened himself up to some humiliating courtroom interrogation and accusations of rape by Sypher. Ultimately he was vindicated, but not until adding another sad chapter to the college sports history books.
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