Variety Pack: The NCAA’s Seven Sinners, Gonzo’s friend Duke Rice, and the Plant of the Week

It’s the long-awaited latest edition of the Variety Pack, the celebrated TSA series that debuted earlier this year.  The idea is to write briefly (I hope) on two or three different topics without being limited to 140 characters, like my Twitter tweets.

This is one of two holiday Variety Packs; in a week or two I’ll post the other one, which will (probably) feature The Citadel’s role in the modern-day proliferation of college football on television.

Both Variety Packs are inspired by Google Books.  What  I did, basically, is type in some search terms, and see what came up.

In 1948, the NCAA crafted a statute colloquially known as the “Sanity Code”.  The Sanity Code was an attempt to end the practice of awarding athletic scholarships, something many southern institutions had been doing since the early 1930s.

The Sanity Code allowed schools to award scholarships to prospective athletes, but only on a basis of need – and even then the scholarships were limited to tuition and incidental expenses.  Most scholarship athletes would either have to qualify for academic scholarships, or pay their own way, usually by holding down jobs while in school.

This was seen by a lot of the southern schools as an attempt by the “establishment” to keep itself on top of the college athletics pyramid.  The establishment consisted mainly of the Big 10 schools, largely aligned with the Ivy League and Pac-8.  To add fuel to the fire, in those days the Big 10 commissioner also oversaw the NCAA’s daily activities; Walter Byers, later executive director of the NCAA, split time between his NCAA duties and his primary job as the Big 10’s publicity director.

There were myriad problems with the Sanity Code.  It was basically unenforceable.  It was also seen as unfair.  The southern schools had no interest in dropping athletic scholarships, especially when at the same time wealthy Big 10 alums would be giving bogus jobs to football and basketball players with no penalty.

The school most often ridiculed by Sanity Code opponents was Ohio State.  Prior to the 1950 Rose Bowl, it was revealed that at least 16 Buckeye football players had cushy jobs with the state, including a running back on the payroll of the state’s transportation department as a tire inspector.

The Sanity Code was going to allow OSU to do that, but not let SEC or Southern Conference schools offer athletic scholarships.  It’s easy to see why people got upset.

Enter the “Seven Sinners”.  No, I’m not talking about the John Wayne-Marlene Dietrich movie.

In this case, the “Seven Sinners” were seven schools that refused to live a lie, and admitted that they were not adhering to the new statute enacted by the NCAA.  The seven happened to be a very difficult group for the establishment to criticize.  Only one, Maryland, was a major college football power offering a large number of athletic scholarships.  The others were Virginia, Virginia Tech, VMI, The Citadel, Boston College, and Villanova.

For The Citadel, the notion of having athletes work jobs while at the same time go to class, play a sport, and participate in military activities was a non-starter (the same was true for VMI, and to a certain extent Virginia Tech).  The school also questioned the amateur-but-not-really idea of the Sanity Code, with The Citadel’s faculty representative stating that “The Code defines the word amateur and then promptly authorizes students to participate…who do not meet the requirements of the definition.”

At the 1950 NCAA Convention, the association moved to expel the seven schools. That’s right, the NCAA wasn’t going to put them on probation, a concept not yet considered.  It was going to expel them.

UVA president Colgate Darden made a principled argument against the statute, and stated that his school had no intention of following the Code.  Maryland president (and former football coach) Curley Byrd worked the floor at the convention, making sure there weren’t enough votes to expel the seven schools, and using Ohio State’s situation (as an example of the NCAA’s hypocrisy) in order to convince some fence-sitters to support the Sinners’ position.

The Citadel, however, had already announced it was going to resign from the NCAA, stating it refused “to lie to stay in the association”.  For The Citadel, either the Sanity Code had to go, or The Citadel would go.  After all, it’s not like the school had a history of shying away from secession-related activities.

Since all seven of the “Seven Sinners” are still members of the NCAA, you can guess that they weren’t expelled.  Expulsion required a two-thirds majority, and that didn’t happen (although more than half of the NCAA members did vote against the Sinners). This prevented a complete fracture of the NCAA, as it is likely the southern schools would have left the association otherwise.

While most of the votes supporting the seven schools came from the south, there were schools in the other parts of the country which also voted against expelling the seven, a fact not unnoticed by the NCAA leadership.  The Sanity Code was repealed the following year.

In retrospect, it’s kind of funny that The Citadel was in the position of being an NCAA malefactor.  However, it should be pointed out that 111 schools did vote to expel the military college from the NCAA on that fateful day in 1950.  In fact, when the vote was taken, NCAA president Karl Lieb announced that the motion to expel had carried, before being corrected by assorted shouts from the convention floor.  He then said, “You’re right, the motion is not carried.”  Lieb had forgotten about that two-thirds majority rule for passage; the vote to expel The Citadel and the other six schools had fallen 25 votes short.

The echoes from the Sanity Code controversy still reverberate today.  There are still notable divisions between the Big 10 and Pac-10 schools and the other “major” conference schools like the SEC.  The Ivy League has basically withdrawn from the scene.  Even today, there is some distrust of the Big 10 and its closeness (real or perceived) with the NCAA.

Below are some links that touch on this topic.  They are mostly links from Google Books, so it may take a little bit of work to get to the referenced sections.

College Football:  History, Spectacle, Controversy (starting on page 213)

The 50-Year Seduction (starting on page 18)

Unsportsmanlike Conduct:  Exploiting College Athletes (starting on page 53)

College Athletes For Hire (starting on page 43)

Sport:  What Price Football? (column in Time magazine)

Egg In Your Beer (editorial from the January 21, 1950 edition of The Harvard Crimson)

While perusing Google Books, I read a passage from a book entitled Gonzo:  The Life of Hunter S. Thompson:  An Oral Biography:

[Thompson’s] best friend from his early days was probably Duke Rice.  He was a skinny kid and not all that tall, and suddenly he shot up to six-six or six-seven and got a basketball scholarship to The Citadel, where he was the only player of the time who was able to shut down Jerry West.

Now, this little blurb interested me, for a couple of reasons:

– Thompson’s friend was named Duke Rice.  With a name like that, he shouldn’t have gone to The Citadel; he should have gone to Vanderbilt or Northwestern.

– The “Blitz Kids” were a group of players recruited by Norm Sloan to The Citadel in the late 1950s and early 1960s (which is also the time period when Jerry West played for West Virginia).  That era was the pinnacle for basketball at The Citadel.  The stars of those teams were Art Musselman, Dick Wherry, Ray Graves, and Dick Jones (and later Gary Daniels)…but not anyone named Duke Rice.

The Blitz Kids never won the Southern Conference, mostly because West Virginia was in the league at that time, and Jerry West played for the Mountaineers.  He was, of course, a fantastic player.  Very few teams shut him down, and The Citadel certainly didn’t.  West played three games in his career against The Citadel.  WVU won all three games, by scores of 89-61, 85-66, and 98-76.

That 85-66 score came in the 1959 Southern Conference tournament championship game, the only time The Citadel has ever made the league final.  West scored 27 points in that contest.  I don’t know how many points he scored against the Bulldogs in the other two games, but since the Mountaineers put up 89 and 98 points in those matchups, I’m guessing he wasn’t exactly “shut down”.

Incidentally, that 98-76 game was played during the 1959-60 season at McAlister Field House, and was arguably the most anticipated contest ever played at the ancient armory (at least for those contests not involving Ric Flair).  West Virginia had lost in the NCAA championship game the year before (to California, 71-70), and West was the most celebrated college basketball player of his time.  People came out in droves to see West play.

West was so good, both in college and in the NBA, that he had no fewer than three great nicknames — “Zeke from Cabin Creek”, “The Logo”, and “Mr. Clutch”.  There are a lot of great athletes who would love to have just one cool nickname, and West had (at least) three of them.

Going back to the book, the person who stated that Duke Rice had played for The Citadel was another friend of Thompson’s named Gerald Tyrrell.  Now, I was sure Tyrrell didn’t make up that story.  After all, there wasn’t any reason for him to do so, and I suspected that part of it was true.  It’s just that it was rather obvious that The Citadel part of it wasn’t true.

No one with the last name “Rice” is listed as having lettered for The Citadel in the school’s media guide.  I briefly considered the possibility that the last name was incorrect (and that Duke was a childhood nickname), but Hunter S. Thompson grew up in Louisville, and none of the players for The Citadel during that era were from Louisville, at least from what I was able to determine.

As it happened, it didn’t take much effort (just some additional Googling) to come up with the answer.  Duke Rice had in fact played college basketball, and had played in the Southern Conference for a school with a military component…but the school in question was Virginia Tech.

Rice is mentioned in this interview of Chris Smith, who starred for the Hokies from 1957-61.  Smith described the 1960 Southern Conference championship game:

We had great athletes.  Bobby Ayersman, Louie Mills, and Bucky Keller were each outstanding high school football quarterbacks.  Dean Blake and Duke Rice did a great job  during the game as they took turns guarding Jerry West.  They held him to 14 points.  When Jerry fouled out in the third quarter, we were tied 49 to 49. Unfortunately, the rest of the WV team responded well and they scored on several long shots during the final 10 minutes of the game.

There he is!

What’s more, it appears that Tyrrell’s comment that Rice was “the only player of his time to shut down Jerry West” has some validity to it.  Maybe it’s an overstatement, but at least it’s rooted in fact.

In the end, the Duke Rice story doesn’t really have anything to do with The Citadel.  It’s more about a slightly blurry memory (which I suspect Thompson himself would have appreciated) and a lack of fact-checking by the book’s editors.  This particular book happens to be co-authored by Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner.

It also illustrates the inherent danger of taking oral histories at face value.  Anyone who follows baseball knows this all too well.  The success of Lawrence Ritter’s classic The Glory Of Their Times has led to a number of similar books, a lot of which are a little short in the truth-telling department.

It’s time for the Plant of the Week.  For this edition, the honoree is a canna lily, the Cleopatra canna, which when it comes to coloration basically has a mind of its own.

Warm weather can’t get here fast enough…

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