The image was indelible, the implication lasting.
As the confetti fell in Houston and the programmers queued up "One Shining Moment," NCAA tournament committee chairman Gene Smith stood side-by-side with Connecticut coach and now three-time national champion Jim Calhoun. Naturally, both men were relishing the joyous moment; after all, whether the game itself was worth the price of admission, one way or the other a national title had been won. It was a time for celebration and acknowledgment. One man handed a trophy to the other.
If you don't follow college athletics closely, you saw nothing untoward in this exchange. But if you have any recollection of the past year in college sports you knew that the man presenting the national championship trophy -- Smith, also the director of athletics at Ohio State, one of the nation's true collegiate revenue behemoths -- had spent much of the 2011 winter trying to explain why his head football coach, Jim Tressel, failed to disclose his knowledge of potential NCAA violations months after the NCAA had handed down punishment on Ohio State's memorabilia and tattoos fiasco.
You also knew that Calhoun, man receiving the trophy, currently presided over a program placed on probation by the NCAA for its involvement in the recruitment of Nate Miles. Calhoun himself had received a three-game suspension from the NCAA committee on infractions as recently as Feb. 22 of this season.
And yet, thanks to Kemba Walker, Connecticut's historic defense and a brutal, gut-wrenching shooting night from the Butler Bulldogs, here we were. One man surrounded by scandal was handing college basketball's greatest prize to another.
Needless to say, this was not the "One Shining Moment" anyone at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis would have dreamed up.
To some, Connecticut's win and Smith's trophy presentation were a sign of the times in college sports, a fitting champion and a fitting chairman for the everybody-cheats era. It's hard to disagree with that interpretation. But Bylaw Blog's John Infante is our go-to guy for compliance-related perspective, and his postgame blog post is worth a read, if only to get some of the depressing aftertaste out of your mouth.
Essentially, Infante argues that Connecticut's win wasn't a tipping point for the notion that college basketball is "out of control." That notion existed already, and it was just 2008 that we saw a near-national champion (Memphis) have to vacate a season thanks to an SAT that shouldn't have gotten guard Derrick Rose into school in the first place. No, Infante argues that Connecticut's title is actually a step forward, because hey -- at least we know.
The tipping point that has been reached is not the point at which college football or basketball is out of control. That point was passed long ago and one needed to bury their head in the sand not to recognize it. The point that has been reached is that the combined efforts of the NCAA and the media have made it impossible for anything to stay hidden for long. You can no longer push your head far enough into the ground to ignore the seedier side of college athletics.
We would all prefer that teams who are on probation aren’t winning all the spoils. And the stories of just how dogged and creative NCAA rule breakers can be will likely get a lot worse before it gets better. But where we are now is an improvement on where we were years ago, when teams who should have been on probation won, confident they would never be punished. UConn’s title is not the new low point. It’s one step in the long climb out of this hole.
The cynic in me believes college basketball will never climb out of said hole, that rule-breakers and recruiting maestros will continue to evolve and metastasize within the NCAA's already withered husk. New rules will be made; new loopholes will be found. New violations will be uncovered; new violators will find better ways to stay in the dark.
But whether that's true or not, the NCAA can't just sit around and let it happen. It has to do something. In the past year, it has been, cracking down on AAU runners and agents, swiftly uncovering violations at major programs and publicly punishing more violators than at any time in recent memory. After all, Infante's right: Had Derrick Rose made his free throws two years ago, we would have crowned a soon-to-be-vacated national champion without knowing any better. Thanks to the NCAA's efforts, and thanks to work of reporters at this site, Yahoo! Sports, and others, we know.
Does it feel better to know? Not so much. Does it portend positive things for college hoops? Maybe, maybe not. That image of Smith and Calhoun is a hard one to shake. But at the very least, it's progress -- at least how the NCAA defines it. I suppose that's better than nothing.