Joe Bologna's off limits for Cats


jtipton@herald-leader.comJune 6, 2009 

What kind of tippers are University of Kentucky basketball players?

That seemingly harmless question led to the discovery of multiple NCAA rules violations and the banishment of a Lexington institution, Joe Bologna's Restaurant, from association with UK athletics for three years.

As Joe Bologna recalled, a waitress happened to mention to a UK athletics department staffer in the summer of 2008 that the players tipped well.

"But," the waitress added, "Joe always 'comps' their food."

Fast forward to a two-page letter dated Nov. 3, 2008. UK compliance officer Sandy Bell wrote Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive telling him that the school was self-reporting a violation of NCAA Bylaw After first claiming he had no knowledge of free meals for players, Bologna admitted in follow-up meetings that he did not charge the players for food and, furthermore, knew this was a rules violation.

Bell wrote Slive that "this willful violation" of NCAA rules and "subsequent reluctance to be truthful during the investigation" would result in Bologna and his off-campus restaurant being disassociated from UK Athletics for three years, retroactive to August 2008.

Such is the world of secondary NCAA rules violations. They can come fast and from unexpected places. UK records obtained in a Freedom of Information request showed 59 such violations from 2004 to 2008. The teams involved included men's and women's basketball, football, men's and women's golf, men's and women's track and field, diving, gymnastics, volleyball, men's and women's tennis, men's and women's soccer, rifle and softball.

Host Communications, the former rights holder for radio and television coverage, was involved in two secondary violations.

The NCAA's banishment of Bologna and the other violations involving UK came to light as the result of an article published in last Sunday's Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch. The newspaper, as part of a six-month investigation into how colleges censor information, sent public-records requests to all 119 Division I schools. The violations were detailed in the documents UK submitted to the Dispatch.

In an e-mail message, a spokesperson wrote that the NCAA's enforcement staff processed and/or reviewed "approximately 3,916 secondary infractions cases" from around the country in 2008.

While saying secondary rules violations are "inevitable," Bell balked at the suggestion that any can be merely petty. The many cases serve multiple purposes, not least of which is keeping rules compliance in the minds of coaches, players, boosters and others who cross paths with college athletics.

"I don't think it's a bad system," Bell said Friday.

Bologna, who opened his Italian restaurant in 1973 and later provided food for UK basketball's training table for four years, described the free meals as the next step in an evolutionary process of growing ever closer to the program.

"UK just sort of grows on you, being a part of it," he said. "I wasn't planning anything."

Bologna has catered dinners at the home of Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and former basketball coach Tubby Smith. In a phone conversation, John Calipari told Bologna that his predecessors as UK coach mentioned the restaurateur's name.

"Part of me coming down here was the training table," Calipari said, as Bologna recalled. "Now I have to wait for three years."

Bologna also catered functions for UK teams.

"It just sort of got to where a few (basketball) players came in and it sort of became like family," he said. "I just liked taking care of them. I never asked for anything. I just loved the players."

Bologna likened himself to UK football player Jeremy Jarmon, whose use of a banned substance violated NCAA rules. Subsequently, Jarmon said he should have checked first.

"Just a mistake on my part," Bologna said. "Sort of bad judgment. I guess I took my own perspective on it rather than the NCAA's view."

Later in the interview, Bologna admitted he knew the rule.

"Being that I worked for them, I realized you weren't supposed to (give free meals to players)," he said. "I guess I didn't think of myself as that high profile."

After learning of the problem with free meals, the UK players met to review each receipt provided by Bologna and determine how much each player needed to repay. No amount was greater than $84.95, Bell's letter to Slive said. If an amount surpassed $100, a player would risk his eligibility for a game or more.

"I'm very disappointed in Joe," said Bell, who noted that the disassociation resulted in large part because Bologna initially tried to mislead her.

"He should be helping us protect the program," she said, "not placing it at risk.

"Joe's not a bad guy. But he knew what he was doing. That's the thing that's very hard to deal with."

Bologna said he's learned a lesson. He advised anyone wishing to do a player a favor to check first with UK. "I wouldn't do it again," he said. "I understand why it's wrong."

Bologna, 64, continues to deal with being banished from Kentucky sports. Bell said that UK players are not permitted to eat at his restaurant. The school will not take recruits to the restaurant. Bologna cannot buy season tickets nor advertise in game programs or other UK publications.

Of not being around UK athletics, Bologna said, "I miss it a little bit."

He takes solace in being able to support UK's non-athletic departments. He's hopeful of being involved again with the school's sports teams once the three-year disassociation order expires.

Bologna wondered aloud if he might cater a private off-campus function for a coach. "That really wouldn't be a problem, I don't think," he said.

When it was suggested he'd better check first, Bologna said, "I am going to check, for sure."

He won't like the answer. Bell said she had advised coaches and staffers, "as team players," not to associate with Bologna in any way.

"When you have a disassociated person," she said, "the disassociated person should notice that."

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