Thanks largely to the actions of incompetent law-enforcement officials, however, one of my favorite teams has almost no chance to make noise in the postseason this year.
We are talking about East Tennessee State University (ETSU), which generally has been among the top two or three teams in the Atlantic Sun Conference over the past eight years or so. The Bucs were picked toward the middle of the pack this season, but they still figured to be a dangerous team once the A-Sun Tournament rolled around.
Any hopes for the 2012-13 ETSU team, however, pretty much ended last November when senior guards Marcus Dubose and Sheldon Cooley were arrested on drug charges and dismissed from the team. But then, as the season was winding down, we learned that the charges against Cooley had been dropped. And the charges against Dubose look shaky because of a questionable seizure that led to the firing of a university postal employee.
In the case of Cooley, prosecutors pretty much wound up saying, "Oops, our bad. We didn't have a case against you." In the case of Dubose, prosecutors seem to be saying, "Yes, a guy in the post office screwed up big time by opening a package that was addressed to you--and that presents slight constitutional problems. But we still hope to bring a case. Would you mind pleading guilty to something . . . anything?"
What's the fallout from all of this? Well, Sheldon Cooley had started for much of his career and was seen as ETSU's best all-around player. Dubose, who played for two seasons at a junior college in California, was ETSU's top returning scorer and best outside shooter.
The 2012-13 Bucs were not expected to be a powerhouse because of an inexperienced front court--and that problem became worse when 6-8 senior center Lukas Poderis went down for the year with a torn Achilles tendon in a preseason scrimmage. But a veteran backcourt, led by Cooley and Dubose, was expected to make ETSU a tough, competitive outfit.
So what happened? With Cooley and Dubose gone two games into the season, ETSU got off to its worst start in 37 years. The Bucs finished the regular season with a 10-21 record and are expected to make a quick exit when the A-Sun Tournament begins today in Macon, Georgia. ETSU opens play at 1:30 p.m. CST tomorrow as the No. 6 seed, facing No. 3 Stetson. The host school, Mercer, is the No. 1 seed and a solid favorite to win the title and the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Why does this matter to me? I grew up in Missouri and have lived for 30-plus years in Alabama. Why do I care about a school that is so far on Tennessee's outskirts that it's almost in Virginia?
Well, that's a long story. ETSU's coach is Murry Bartow, and I have known him since the late 1970s, when he was the starting point guard at Berry High School and I was a rookie sportswriter, fresh out of college, at the Birmingham Post-Herald. Murry's father, the late Gene Bartow, was the Hall of Fame coach who started the athletics program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), the school where I would go on to work as an editor for almost 20 years.
If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, I will go to the Great Beyond knowing that Gene Bartow was one of my all-time favorite humans--and the Bartows, as a group, were one of my all-time favorite families. I've gotten to know probably a dozen or so members of the extended clan--and maybe it's because we share Missouri roots--but I've always found them to be thoroughly likable, decent people. And that includes my friend, Murry. (As for those Missouri roots, Gene Bartow and his wife, Ruth, are from the small Show-Me towns of Browning and Galt, respectively. Murry was born in Warrensburg, Mo., home to Central Missouri State and one of the early stops on his father's coaching tour.)
Here's another reason I pull for ETSU: Murry Bartow started his head coaching career by following in his father's sizable footsteps at UAB. It was a thankless, almost impossible task, but Murry did a solid job. His first three Blazer teams reached postseason tournaments, and the program was on an uptick until a series of season-ending injuries to key players caused his record to level out.
Despite playing with a short-handed roster, Murry had only one losing season. And over six seasons, he had the third best record in Conference USA. That league has been watered down in an era of conference re-alignment. But when Murry was at UAB, his competitors included Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette, Memphis, Charlotte, DePaul, and St. Louis.
How good was Conference USA back then? There is a good chance that six of the seven teams mentioned above will make this year's NCAA Tournament. UAB had one of the smallest budgets for men's basketball in the league, but only Cincinnati and Charlotte had better records during Murry's tenure.
Did UAB and its administration, led then by President W. Ann Reynolds, appreciate his efforts? Not exactly. Reynolds called Murry at home one night to promise that his job was safe, and about one month later, allowed him to be forced out by a buffoonish athletics director named Herman Frazier.
(Note: UAB does not deserve fair treatment, but I will provide it anyway. Technically, the university did not cheat Murry Bartow out of his job. Coaches tend to work on contracts, and according to press reports, the university fulfilled its financial duty after letting Murry go with one year left on his deal. College coaching is a famously unstable profession, and even though Murry Bartow did a solid job in a brutal conference and did not deserve to be forced out, the university was on solid legal ground in letting him go--as long as it met contractual obligations. I, however, was not a contract employee, and my termination was about as ugly as it gets--filled with age and gender discrimination, blatant First Amendment violations, tortious interference, and more.)
My concern now is that Murry Bartow might be on shaky footing at ETSU--and I don't much like seeing my friends get canned. That's especially true when incompetent law-enforcement officials, to a great extent, caused the problem.
Consider the charges against Sheldon Cooley and Marcus Dubose. Here is how the Johnson City Press described them:
Dubose was charged with possession of schedule VI drugs for resale after arriving to pick up [a package at the post office]. He and Cooley, his roommate, were also charged with possession of drug paraphernalia when agents found scales commonly used to weigh marijuana in their on-campus apartment.
What do we learn from that? Sheldon Cooley faced only one charge, and it was based on the fact that scales were found in his apartment, which he shared with someone else. According to law enforcement, scales are commonly used for measuring drugs prior to sale. But last time I checked, scales can be used for a lot of things--most of which are not illegal. And based on press reports, we have no proof that the scales belonged to Cooley or that he ever used them for anything related to drugs.
Dubose's actions, on the other hand, seem more dubious. One package addressed to him reportedly contained marijuana; another reportedly contained $10,000. But how did law enforcement come to know that? Because a postal employee unlawfully opened one of the packages.
Is it possible that Cooley and Dubose were up to no good? Yes, it is. But the case against Cooley already has fallen apart. And it's hard to imagine the case against Dubose holding up in light of Fourth Amendment protections against illegal search and seizure. The performance of police and prosecutors in Johnson City, Tennessee, would have to improve dramatically in order to earn a comparison to the Keystone Kops.
Cooley and Dubose have had their senior seasons of basketball ruined. They left school and apparently were taken off scholarship, meaning they are unlikely to finish their degrees. And they might never regain their reputations; Google searches for years will bring up stories about drug arrests that never should have happened, under the law.
Meanwhile, ETSU is stumbling to the worst season in Murry Bartow's 10-year tenure. With Sheldon Cooley and Marcus Dubose on hand all season, the Bucs probably would have won six to eight additional games and be headed for a winning record. But law-enforcement rogues helped ensure the season would turn in a dark direction.
Murry Bartow has had some darned good teams at Johnson City. In his fourth through eighth seasons, the Bucs had records of 24-10, 19-13, 23-10, 20-15, and 24-12. ETSU has been to the NCAA Tournament three times, the NIT once, and the CIT once--a solid record for any coach in a league that receives only one bid each year to the NCAAs.
I'm hopeful that overall record will keep my friend's job safe for now. But even under a best-case scenario, he will be under intense heat when next season arrives.
Does court-related incompetence have real-world consequences? It sure as heck does--even in the unreal world of college athletics.
I hope Sheldon Cooley and Marcus Dubose find good lawyers and sue the holy hell out of somebody. If the world has a shred of justice, they will have a year of college eligibility restored--and they will receive serious financial compensation from some source.
If Murry Bartow loses his job as a result of what happened to his two star players, I hope he sues the hell out of somebody. You can rest assured the author of Legal Schnauzer stands ready to make sure that story gets told far and wide.
Meanwhile, I will be pulling for ETSU to pull off an upset win or two this week in the A-Sun Tournament. It's not likely to happen, but they call it March Madness for a reason.