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Neal Hart, MacMurray College former tennis coach.

Neal Hart, MacMurray College former tennis coach. (Handout photo)

JACKSONVILLE, ILL. • Scattered about Neal Hart's office at MacMurray College, the mementos of his world travels require a certain amount of effort to identify.

A drawing of a Kenyan tribal chief leans on a desk, awaiting a more prominent spot on the wall. An abacus from China is concealed by paperwork. A clock carved in the shape of Antigua is tucked out of view.

More searching reveals the depth of Hart's journeys, which always were about his role as an educator: a book titled "Simplified Swahili," a gift from Oman, the remnants of a stab wound on his right hand from days spent in the Peace Corps.

Nowhere, though, will you find evidence of his brief life as a tennis coach, a job that landed him a place in NCAA lore.

The two professions collided from 2000 to 2004 after Hart reluctantly agreed to coach MacMurray tennis at the age of 61. When he melded his passions for education and diversity with his new position, the results were infamous.

MacMurray men's tennis is the most recent athletic program to receive the death penalty from the NCAA. The ruling was rendered in 2005 after the NCAA found that Hart's father, a longtime bank president, contributed $162,027.86 to pay the tuition of 10 foreign players.

The NCAA concluded the aid broke the rule prohibiting athletic scholarships at the Division III level.

Speaking for the first time about a penalty that included a two-year ban and four years of probation, Hart insisted his intent was to provide a college education for deserving students. He said he didn't pursue any of the players who received aid.

"I'm not a cheater and didn't do this to get the best tennis team," said Hart, who is 73. "I wanted to help these kids. Like it said in the (NCAA) report, he's a nice guy but pretty naive."

The NCAA acknowledged Hart's "philanthropic nature and his desire to assist young people in obtaining an education." But the members of the infractions committee focused more heavily on what they called a "dismissive" attitude toward the rules and the fact that the aid was allowed to continue despite the knowledge of high-ranking college officials.

"I have sympathy for Neal because the guy's a real humanitarian," said Chuck Smith, the former MacMurray faculty athletic representative. "Their whole family is humanitarian. At Christmas they would sit around and decide who to give money instead of buying gifts. It was in his DNA to take care of others."

But, he added: "It doesn't excuse the fact he shouldn't have been doing it."

MacMurray is one of five schools to receive the death penalty. The most notable case was at SMU, where the football program was shut down in 1987. More recently, the Division II Morehouse College men's soccer team was penalized in 2003, although the school already had decided to abandon the program.

In recent months, the death penalty has received renewed interest in light of numerous ongoing NCAA investigations into high-profile football programs, particularly those at Miami and Ohio State.

INTERNATIONAL STUDIES

When Hart graduated from Illinois College, he was a self-confident mathematician with sights set beyond his hometown of Arenzville, Ill. He chose Kenya as a starting point for his teaching endeavors.

He went on to teach in Botswana, Liberia, Egypt, Antigua and Oman and estimates he has visited upward of 90 countries.

"I got really interested in international students in particular because they work so hard," he said. "They're not any smarter than we are, but they run circles around us."

It was a long way from his childhood in Arenzville. That's where his father, A.C. Hart, landed in 1929 when he became president of the First National Bank. He semi-retired in 1995 but remained active and mentally sharp until his death in 2004 at the age of 101.

Hart eventually returned to the United States and took a job at Sam Houston State in Huntsville, Texas. He drew upon years of experience to double as the school's advisor for international students.

But when his parents' eyesight began to decline, Hart decided to return to Illinois. In 1999, he moved home with his wife, Dianna, after more than 30 years of travel. He secured a job at MacMurray and began a new phase of life.

Hart had always dabbled in tennis. A lefthander, he considered himself crafty enough to play at a fairly high level in his younger days. He used his mathematical mind to work the angles and once won a major tournament in Egypt. He was rewarded with a chandelier, which he gave to friends.

That was his way. Despite his family's wealth, Hart developed an endearing frugality. Working at Sam Houston State, he opted to live in a trailer. When MacMurray officials were housed at a Sheraton in Chicago for their meeting with the NCAA, Hart thought the cost was exorbitant. So, he walked down the street and found a cheaper option.

And that only happened because of the day in 1999 that he was spotted playing on the dilapidated courts at MacMurray. Athletics director Bob Gay took notice. The school needed a tennis coach. Hart declined but with Gay's persistence, he agreed.

"I didn't have any skills," Hart said. "I can get by myself. I just sort of turned the kids loose. But tennis wasn't important at MacMurray. Nobody came to watch."

It wasn't until 2004 that anyone took notice.

'NOBODY SAID ANYTHING'

A.C. Hart made his first contribution to the program when he paid to have the courts resurfaced at a cost of about $60,000. Donors later contributed money in his name to plant trees along one side of the tennis complex as a windbreak, and a plaque honoring Hart and his wife remains.

But the real problems started during Neal Hart's first year at MacMurray. He was asked by a coach at another school to attend an exhibition where several Argentines would be playing in hope of landing a spot at a U.S. college. Hart said he told the coach that his attendance would be useless. He couldn't offer scholarships or lure high-caliber players.

Yet, he went and spoke afterward to two players. He said he told them he would not be able to help because of the absence of athletic financial aid. However, they visited the MacMurray campus before returning home.

Months later, Hart received an email from one of the players, pleading for help. That's when he first approached his father about funding. During the 2000-01 school year, the two received $12,150 in grants. In Hart's mind, he had drawn a distinction between the grants and athletic scholarships.

"It didn't occur to me at all," he said. "Why should it be a problem? They started playing and nobody said anything. Clearly the athletic director knew. They didn't just walk in. I told the president and I talked about this."

The grants began to snowball when Hart was asked to help other Argentines, including one who was an extremely weak tennis player. Yet, he was given financial aid, sight unseen. The issue became more complex when Hart received an unsolicited email from a Kenyan player looking for a college.

During his time living in Kenya in the 1970s, Hart said it was rare to see black tennis players. He concluded that Edgar Micere would not add much to the team. But he responded to the email, writing in Swahili. Micere was hooked, and A.C. Hart agreed to provide more funding.

"(Neal Hart) cared so much about the education aspect," Micere said. "I don't want to say he didn't know much about tennis, but his main goal was for us to go to school. To be honest, the team wasn't that good. One guy played just because his friends were playing. We got beat up out there. But it was OK. It was fun."

The team never posted a record better than 6-8 under Hart.

Micere played one season at MacMurray. In his second year, the tennis program was shut down after one match. Gay had decided to self-report the violations. Yet Micere stayed at the school, received a degree and became an occupational therapist in St. Louis.

FROM THE HEART

Hart did not prepare a written statement for his appearance before the NCAA infractions committee. He wanted to tell his story "from the heart" and did not want to sound rehearsed. He came to regret that decision.

He used an admittedly bad choice of words when referring to the system of payments as a 'scheme." The committee seized on the wording to make it sound sinister.

Hart also displayed what the NCAA felt was a "cavalier attitude" toward NCAA rules. He admits to calling some rules a joke. He said his condemnation was for what he considered minor violations, such as picking up players at the airport and driving them back to Jacksonville. He also allowed a player to live at his home for a brief period.

Ken Magarian, a member of the infractions committee, said he never bought Hart's argument that he wanted to provide education without caring about tennis ability.

"If that kid did not play tennis, that kid wouldn't have been there," said Magarian, a former athletic director at Westfield State in Massachusetts. "It was so blatant and obvious that there was no explanation. And it wasn't just this one guy. There were these other people representing the institution, and they knew it was wrong."

Hart emphasized to the committee his belief that he did not recruit the foreign players. He had seen only two of them play before they arrived on campus. He said he never told anyone they had to play in order to receive the grants.

But his words were having little impact. And as MacMurray officials were being questioned by the NCAA, Smith reacted to what he felt was an inappropriate tone.

"They got a little snippy with Neal, almost accusing him of lying," he said. "I didn't like that at all and kind of jumped on them for it. Later I called the president to apologize. He said, 'Nope, they had it coming.'"

But there was one thing Hart couldn't deny. Although he and his father had made grant money available to any prospective students from Argentina or Kenya, the only ones who reaped the benefits were tennis players.

Ultimately, that was more than MacMurray could overcome. Magarian said the term "death penalty" was never used by the committee in its discussion of penalties. But that was the result.

MacMurray never has revived its tennis programs.

STILL AT MACMURRAY

Hart filed an appeal with the NCAA, although he could not convince MacMurray to file an institutional appeal. This time he faced the committee with a written statement.

"I told them things were taken out of context so seriously before that I didn't want to take any chance of being misinterpreted,'' he said.

His disdain for what he considered minor violations was reinforced. The five-member appeals board concluded that providing transportation from the airport and housing for one athlete did not constitute violations.

The committee vacated a ruling that could have limited Hart's athletically related duties if he had been hired by another school. The group also noted the role of others at MacMurray, mentioning in its report the athletics director, director of financial aid and director of finance.

"I live my life so that I'm comfortable," Hart said. "What you think of me, I don't care because I'm happy. If someone wanted to call me a cheater, I was disappointed. But everyone around here knows me. I'll stand on that."

Although officially retired, Hart continues to teach classes at MacMurray College. He is not paid.