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UF athletics: start reform at the top

On March 5, Dr. John V. Lombardi will take over as president of theUniversity of Florida.

On March 6, or sooner if he can, Lombardi will take up the problem of an athletic department that has been spinning out of control for the past two years.

He won't have a choice.

No other college in America has had more problems with its athletic program than Florida. No school even comes close. What has happened in Gainesville has become a national disgrace and has already cost the university more than $2-million.

There is no easy answer, especially when the system allows boosters to pour millions into a fund that benefits only athletics.

But a good place to start is at the top. With the man in charge.

With Bill Arnsparger.

During Arnsparger's watch as UF athletic director, the following occurred: The head football coach resigned after admitting he violated NCAA rules.

The starting quarterback and three other football players were suspended for gambling on college and pro football games.

A former basketball player accused an assistant basketball coach of paying him since he was in high school. Later, the head basketball coach resigned when he faced indictment by a federal grand jury. His assistants were fired. After an interim coach was hired, two star players quit the team and recruiting all but stopped.

The women's basketball coach resigned after her players threatened to walk out.

The day after 19 high school football recruits, including at least three blue chip athletes, committed to Florida, the unversity released a report stating that two more football players also were involved in gambling but were not suspended. State Attorney Len Register said there was "at least a minor discrepancy as to how many people were involved in bookmaking."

Against that dreary backdrop is an NCAA investigation, in its second year, of Florida's football and basketball programs.

Lombardi must decide what Arnsparger's role has been in Florida's attempt to re-establish its value system. Certainly ignorance of the problems is no excuse. If Arnsparger didn't know what was going on in his department, he should have. That's his job.

Beyond that, Lombardi must access Arnsparger's eagerness to change an ailing program.

Arnsparger has accused reporters of writing nothing but negative stories about the university's athletic program. In his dealings with the media, he has been evasive, at times belligerent.

When Arnsparger walked out of a meeting after firing Gator assistant basketball coaches Kenny McCraney, Monte Towe and Phil Weber, he told a reporter, "You'll probably win another Pulitzer now.

This ought to make you real happy."

But it was the newspapers, not Arnsparger's office, that brought to light illegal payments from sports agents, questions of improper drug-testing procedures and other irregularities.

After Gator booster Bobby McKibbin appeared before a grand jury in 1988, Norm Sloan continued to allow McKibbin to travel to away basketball games on the team plane. After Sloan was forced out, McKibbin asked interim coach Don DeVoe if he could continue flying with team. Arnsparger said he knew of no allegations against McKibbin.

But DeVoe, who didn't know about McKibbin's background, immediately recognized that a booster traveling with the team was "a potential area for danger" and denied the request.

Another area of concern is the Athletic Association, an organization that is both connected to and apart from the university.

A potential problem exists when a booster is allowed to donate huge sums of money to the football team. That puts boosters on nearly the same level as minority shareholders of an NFL team. It's not unrealistic to think some of these boosters, because of their sizable investment, might want a say in who plays quarterback. Or who coaches

the team.

Last September, Ben Hill Griffin Jr., who has donated more than $16-million to the university, met with then-Duke coach Steve Spurrier. Griffin later said he wasn't recruiting Spurrier to come to Florida, but when S. Malcolm Gillis withdrew from consideration for the UF president's job, he made a point to note that it was disturbing that Griffin had contacted Spurrier.

Lombardi, if he's at all similar to the late Green Bay Packers coach of the same name, will meet his problems head on and try to change the perception that Florida's athletic department is some secret society whose leadership is rarely held accountable.

Then again, he doesn't have much choice.