'Clearly this has not been one of our better months'
FRESNO, Calif. -- Fresno State's athletic department is a mess.
The Bulldogs are minus men's and women's basketball coaches after both left amid controversy in a two-week span this month. There's no athletic director, and the athletic department has an $850,000 budget deficit.
Athletic director Scott Johnson resigned just before the March 2 firing of flashy women's basketball coach Stacy Johnson-Klein, who was dismissed after a three-week investigation in which the school determined she inappropriately obtained pain medication from students and staff and violated NCAA rules.
Men's basketball coach Ray Lopes resigned March 17 after Fresno State learned he had violated an NCAA rule about telephone calls to recruits. Lopes was hired in 2002 to replace Jerry Tarkanian, whose seven-year run as coach left the Bulldogs on NCAA probation for violations including academic fraud.
Earlier this month, Fresno State's basketball team had one of the worst scores among all Division I teams on an NCAA report card that measures academic progress. The passing mark was 925, and the Bulldogs managed a paltry score of 611.
That embarrassment came a few months after Fresno State's football team tied for the lowest graduation rate (26 percent) among the 56 teams that played in a bowl game following the 2004 season.
"Clearly this has not been one of our better months in terms of positive stories," said interim athletic director Paul Oliaro, a university vice president and dean of students who's filling in temporarily.
"But I'm hoping those who are watching realize this is a university that takes action and works through problems when we encounter them. We don't try to sweep them aside. We try to deal with them in a direct way and find the best solutions we can."
The search for a new athletic director is underway, with the goal of having someone in place by summer. And a search committee held its first meeting this past Tuesday to discuss possible candidates to replace Lopes.
The school that produced NFL quarterbacks Trent Dilfer and David Carr, three-time Olympic gold medal softball player Laura Berg, Golden State Warriors general manager Rod Higgins and Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Jeff Weaver is making national headlines for all the wrong reasons.
"That's a circus," Stanford women's basketball coach Tara VanDerveer said during the NCAA tournament at the university's $103 million Save Mart Center last weekend.
It's been nonstop drama for weeks in this sports-crazy town of 450,000 in California's fertile Central Valley, particularly the downfall of Johnson-Klein, the well-liked coach who turned the Bulldogs into a winner.
She had been on paid administrative leave since Feb. 9 while the school probed accusations by assistant coaches and players about Johnson-Klein's conduct. She has called it a mutiny.
She won games her way, stomping her high heels on the sidelines to get players' attention. She was the best-recognized sports personality in Fresno -- adorning billboards and magazine covers -- and her colorful, formfitting outfits made her one of college basketball's most conspicuous coaches. She once wore a pink fur poncho on the sidelines.
Johnson-Klein told The Fresno Bee she took Vicodin from a player, and said it was "a poor decision."
According to the school's investigation, Johnson-Klein obtained a half-full bottle of Vicodin last September from one of her players and acknowledged taking one of the pills.
Johnson-Klein's attorney, Warren Paboojian, has said the allegations are false or blown out of proportion. Paboojian said he provided the university with a prescription Johnson-Klein had for the medication because of a car accident last April. He said she had run out of her prescription when she asked the player for the pills.
"Fresno State cannot overlook or simply tolerate the behavior that has now been confirmed in the administrative review, despite the popularity of the coach," school president John D. Welty said in a statement announcing her dismissal.
Johnson-Klein had more than three years left on her contract and plans to contest the firing in court.
Attendance for first- and second-round NCAA women's tournament games in Fresno was disappointing, especially considering two California teams were competing: top-ranked Stanford and UC Santa Barbara. The first-round sessions drew only 4,876.
While both the university and local schools were on spring break, the empty seats still had some wondering whether the turmoil at Fresno State had at least contributed to keeping fans away. And the NCAA games only brought the school's embarrassing soap opera onto a national stage.
"Hopefully, people will be reluctant to paint the whole program with a broad brush because of some unusual circumstances that have occurred in a relatively short period of time," Oliaro said. "Certainly we're going to work very hard to move past it."
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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