Ann Arbor, Mich. — How does a college athletic program stay big-time and stay out of big trouble? At the University of Michigan, athletic officials are trying to answer this question as they steer through the wake of scandals that have broadsided schools like Southern Methodist University, Tulane, and Maryland over the last couple of years. Although none of its teams has ever been censured by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), Michigan has found itself on an increasingly perilous sea. College sports lately have become known more for illegal payments to athletes, drug abuse, and low graduation rates than for exploits on the playing field.
Michigan, with its solid-citizen image and sound academic reputation, might not have to worry were it not for the prominent position sports has assumed on campus. Senior football star Jamie Morris remembers his first game in front of more than 100,000 fans packing Michigan Stadium. ``I thought I was hearing thunder. I couldn't believe it,'' he exclaims.
His school's nationally-ranked football and basketball teams generate $13 million annually, enough to finance the university's entire athletic program. Football alone earns $10 million while filling the nation's largest college stadium for every home game. Postseason contests such as the Rose Bowl can add up to $6 million more.
Hockey also figures to make a significant contribution as soon as a recent overhaul of the team, arena, and coaching staff begins paying dividends.
Michigan's sports success in the Big Ten Conference means more than money, though. A large number of students, faculty members, and alumni hold season football tickets and rally around the team as a major source of school spirit.
The exposure from national television coverage has not hurt the school either. And Michigan has earned additional prestige as the only university in the country whose major sports teams and graduate schools both rank consistently in the top 10.
The commitment to big-time sports has created its share of problems, though, and raises the question of whether the thunder heard by Morris has brought along serious storm clouds.
``The pressures to win are unbelievable,'' says Michigan's longtime athletic director Don Canham, who will retire this summer after 20 years on the job. ``No one can understand what a player and coach go through to compete in big-time football and basketball.''
In recent years, football coach Bo Schembechler, who will succeed Canham as athletic director on July 1, has received more criticism for poor showings in postseason bowl games than praise for his 214-61 career won-lost record at Michigan. As if Bo needed a reminder, he coached this season's finale against Ohio State's Earle Bruce, who was fired despite a 6-4-1 season record and a 76 percent winning percentage over nine years.
While Michigan's athletic program has grown, it has also become more difficult to supervise. ``You can't control 500 athletes and know what they're doing all the time,'' admits Canham.
``We're lucky that we haven't had serious problems. The Bias situation could happen to anyone,'' he adds, referring to the cocaine-induced death of former Maryland basketball star Len Bias, an event which undermined that college's basketball stature.
The regular appearance of Michigan's football and basketball squads on national television raises another specter, according to Canham. ``Far more people have become concerned with our won-lost record,'' he says, ``We've created rabid fans across the country, and those are the kind who may say, `I'm going to buy this player for Michigan.''' Illegal payoffs to players at SMU by alumni and booster organizations prompted the cancellation of that school's 1987 and 1988 football schedules.
Staying on top athletically has also required compromises, notes Paul Gikas, a faculty representative appointed to watch over Michigan's sports teams. ``To remain competitive nationally, you can't do it with `A' and `B' students alone,'' he says. ``You have to accept some marginal students.''
Gikas points out that while many of his faculty colleagues support Michigan's major teams, others think sports is stressed disproportionately. Gikas himself disagrees with spring practice, during which football players work out daily when they could be catching up on studies.
Fritz Seyferth, the football team's chief recruiter, admits that gaining a competitive edge goes further than holding extra practices. For example, even though the NCAA prohibits a college coach from meeting promising high school athletes until the summer before their senior year, it is often possible to ``bump into'' such players earlier.
``If one of our coaches goes to a high school to look at a film of a prospect, and that prospect happens to walk in, that's the greatest thing that could happen,'' says Seyferth, explaining that the sooner he can size up a player the better it is for Michigan's football future.
Still, the Michigan staff argues that they are law abiding, relatively speaking, and that only a few flagrant violators at other institutions have given college sports a bad reputation. ``In the rule of law, we have misdemeanors and felonies,'' observes coach Schembechler, ``SMU ran on felonies.''
Unlike some other conferences, he points out, the Big Ten requires a minimum 2.0 grade-point average of its athletes. And Michigan football players who complete their athletic eligibility graduate at a higher rate - almost 80 percent - than the general student body. A faculty committee monitors the sports program, and all coaches are tested on their knowledge of NCAA rules.
Schembechler also says that fielding high-powered teams does not clash with Michigan's educational philosophy. ``As a rule, headlines about football will terrify the academician,'' he says. ``But if a school's going to be great in academics, why have a lesser athletic program?
``Our program also gives kids the opportunity to go to a school they wouldn't be able to attend otherwise. It's an entree for the disadvantaged minority, and we shouldn't apologize for that.''
If anything, Michigan's coaches feel victimized by the NCAA and the media crackdown resulting from the scandal at SMU. Alumni may no longer contact high school athletes, a ruling that upended a long-standing and above-board Michigan program using alumni recruiters. Proposals to reduce athletic scholarships and coaching staffs also rankle people like Schembechler, who isn't convinced cutbacks or even harsh NCAA measures such as SMU's ``death penalty'' bring lasting reform. ``If you have a death penalty,'' Schembechler reasons, ``someone's still going to commit murder.''
Jamie Morris, who claims he was wooed by numerous schools offering cars and cash payments above $10,000 but who chose Michigan partly because of its scandal-free record, figures that future inducements will simply become less overt.
Michigan may have some good advice to offer for staying scandal free. Canham, who himself attended Michigan and has held his current post since 1968, suggests employing coaches who either have graduated from or know the college they work for. ``A lot of violations occur because coaches have no love for their institutions,'' he observes. ``It's just a job to them.''
The bottom line, Michigan's athletic hierarchy agrees, is not to hire coaches willing to cheat. ``You say to them, `We're not going on probation because of you,''' Canham notes.
In the meantime, Michigan's athletic program exists in the knowledge that no school is perfect or, in this day and age, safe. ``We're not looking down our noses at anyone,'' emphasizes Canham.
Concludes Gikas, ``Anything can happen. We have a healthy anxiety, and it helps us maintain our vigilance.''