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St. Bonaventure’s road to redemption

By Brian Burnsed

Inspired by the teachings of its namesake, St. Bonaventure University’s mission is to pursue knowledge for the sake of truth.

But a decade ago, the university and its once esteemed basketball program became known for deceit.

Officials in the institution’s highest offices ignored the principles upon which the university was built by knowingly allowing an ineligible player to don a brown and white jersey. In an instant, the sturdy foundation at the school of little more than 2,000 students in western New York cracked, and the reputation of the athletic program lay in ruin.

Today, the Bonnies—with a new men’s head coach, athletic director and president—have risen from the rubble. The men’s team garnered their first bid to the NCAA tournament in 12 years. The women’s team—uninvolved, but not unaffected by the scandal—earned a trip to the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history.

“There were times when it felt like we were climbing Mt. Everest and we weren’t going to have enough oxygen to get to the top,” says St. Bonaventure president Margaret Carney, who was elevated to the role after the scandal. “So, for me, it felt like standing at the top of Mt. Everest and planting a flag and saying St. Bonaventure made it back.”

In 2002, men’s head basketball coach Jan van Breda Kolff, athletic director Gothard Lane and university president Robert Wickenheiser were all accused of skirting the truth for the sake of acquiring a talented, but ineligible, player.  Jamil Terrell, a 2002 transfer from Coastal Georgia Community College earned a welding certificate at CGCC, not the associate’s degree required by the NCAA for junior college transfers.

Each official allegedly knew Terrell’s presence on the team was a blatant violation of the rules and had the power to keep him off the court.  But on Nov. 22, 2002 his name echoed through St. Bonaventure’s Reilly Center. He was part of van Breda Kolff’s starting lineup in that day’s win over Virginia Tech and would go one to play in 24 more games for the Bonnies that season. Each of 173 points, 121 rebounds and team-leading 31 blocks he’d go on to amass were a lie.

By February, word of the violation made its way from Lane to the school’s board of trustees and from the board of trustees to the NCAA. The NCAA imposed three years of probation, a one-year postseason ban and lifted three invaluable athletic scholarships. The school forfeited six Atlantic 10 wins. It was voted out of its conference tournament by its peers. Players refused to play in the team’s final two regular season games.

“There was damage to the sense of self esteem on the part of all of our student-athletes,” Carney said. “Every student-athlete and coach felt tarnished by it.”

Lane, Wickenheiser and van Breda Kolff lost their jobs.

Bill Swan, the chairman of St. Bonaventure’s board of trustees, took his own life.

In the years that followed, fans stayed away from games and the men’s team struggled to muster wins. Athletics director Steve Watson was brought aboard in January of 2007 to change that.

“To some extent, we’d lost the support of the student body,” Watson said. “I won’t say apathy because that’s too strong a word, but it was not positive. Things were not going well that season. People were looking for a change.”

Change came swiftly. Watson soon hired Mark Schmidt away from Robert Morris to lead the team. In the five seasons since his hiring, Schmidt has turned an eight-win team into a conference champion.

The long-dormant Reilly Center is alive again, says Watson. And when the men’s team left campus for its second-round NCAA tournament date with ACC champion Florida State, hundreds of fans were there to see them off.

“We needed to have someone who connected well, who was involved in the community,” Watson said. “[The recent success] has really gotten a lot of people back engaged in the school and it made everybody feel really good about what we’re doing here on campus.”

The Bonnies, a 14-seed in the east region of this year’s NCAA tournament, pushed three-seed Florida State—who’d bested titans Duke and UNC a week earlier—to the brink of a stunning upset. The Bonnies amassed a 10-point first-half lead, but ultimately fell 66-63. It was a bittersweet end to a season in which St. Bonaventure won 20 games and captured the Atlantic 10 conference tournament championship after years of mediocrity.

The women’s program bested the men’s efforts, going undefeated during regular season conference play. After three consecutive years in the WNIT, the Bonnies won 31 games and earned a five seed in this year’s NCAA tournament. They reached the Sweet 16 before succumbing to Notre Dame on Mar. 25.

Carney says that the scandal was both “humbling” and “humiliating,” but that this year’s successes—and the renewed since of unity and pride on campus—have done much to heal those deep wounds.    

“We’re an example of a school being brought to its knees and then finding its soul again,” she said.