THROUGH THE YEARS, Rick Majerus, the University of Utah's outspoken basketball coach, has been a Proposition 48 athlete's best friend. If you don't believe it, just ask him. He'll speak on the subject of minorities, education and opportunity ad nauseam. And for a time he could always be counted on to sign a couple of "Prop" players each year, stocking them on the shelf for the future.
But not anymore. Majerus has all but stopped recruiting Prop. 48 players. After signing nine Prop players his first three years, he has signed only one, Andre Miller, in the last two years - and even that was an accident."You're right," says Majerus. "I haven't taken any (Prop players) for a couple of years. I never thought Andre would be a prop."
No one can blame Majerus for proceeding with more caution on the recruitment of Prop players. They have had much more difficulty at Utah than non-Prop players, and several of them have caused Majerus considerable grief.
Of the 10 Prop players Majerus has brought to Utah, only Miller (see accompanying story) still attends Utah. The others have all left the Utes and gone elsewhere, and none has graduated yet (note: only five of them could have graduated by now - two entered school five years ago and three began school four years ago).
This is a dramatic change for the Utes. While many universities and conferences forbid the signing of Prop players, Utah and Majerus welcomed them with open arms. "I believe everyone deserves opportunity," Majerus said.
His motive wasn't entirely altruistic, by any means; Prop. 48 athletes are a considerable resource for athletic talent that many schools (BYU, for instance) can't tap. Just because Prop players can't score on the SAT doesn't mean they can't score on the court.
But Majerus' Prop players have been an unsettled and sometimes troubled lot. To wit:
- Tyrone Tate transferred to Southern Indiana in search of a bigger offensive role. The Utes say he will take a degree there.
- Byron Wilson, who has been touted as a college graduate by Majerus, actually is one class short of graduation, according to an athletic department official. A second-round draft choice of the Phoenix Suns, Wilson left school to play professional basketball. He is the only Prop player to complete his eligibility with Majerus and the Utes, and he has been the most successful player and student of the group.
- Deon Mims suffered a career-ending knee injury. He is attending school at Wisconsin-White Water.
- Thomas Wyatt is playing basketball for New Mexico State with Majerus' blessing. Both agreed that his talents would be better utilized on a team that played an uptempo game.
- Kelley Walker is playing basketball for the University of Idaho and former Ute assistant Joe Cravens.
- Darroll Wright was kicked off the Ute team twice for misconduct and academic deficiencies. He is playing for a Division II school in Kansas.
- Silas Mills was kicked off the team for misconduct (and later kicked off a junior college team as well), but, much to his credit, he pulled his act together and worked his way back to a Division I school. He's playing for Utah State.
- According to Majerus, the Utes had two other Prop. 48 players who never played for the Utes because they failed to meet academic requirements.
With the exception of those two players and Wright, Majerus notes that none of his other Prop. 48 players failed to cut it in the classroom. Their problems dealt with matters of conduct and basketball.
"All the things that were put on those guys, I put on them," says Majerus. "The school never said anything. People come to me and say, `You're too hard on the kids,' but I believe that a player's conduct is important."
Curiously, Ute football coach Ron McBride, who arrived a year after Majerus, has had more success with Prop players. According to an athletic department official, of the 12 Props McBride has brought to Utah, all are still enrolled with the Utes except Neo Aoga (who is attending a California community college) and Anthony Hall, who quit the team last year but graduated last summer. Only one Prop player is ineligible, Xavier Tisdol, but he is still in school.
As for the others, Keith Williams has finished his eligibility but is still in school and is scheduled to graduate at the end of the quarter; and senior Devo Fineanganofo and junior Sione Mahe are both on schedule to graduate on time. The rest of McBride's Prop players are all eligible and in good academic standing - Chad Kauhaahaa, Sylvester Cooperwood, Keith Harrison, Anthony Hearns and Tai Lepule.
No one doubts that Prop players can thrive at Utah, and Majerus hasn't give up on them entirely; he likely will sign more of them in the future. But for now, maybe he just needs a break.