The daily reminder is unseen but eternally present for Scoonie Penn.
Two years into his role as director of player development for the Ohio State men’s basketball team, Penn spends the majority of his days at Value City Arena. And whether he’s at the practice gym or on the main court, it’s what he doesn’t see on the walls or in the rafters that digs at him.
Ohio State’s home court contains no acknowledgment of the 1998-99 Final Four team, the one that came out of nowhere and helped put Buckeyes basketball back on the map.
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Now 20 years removed, it remains a seminal team for Ohio State. Coming off a 1997-98 season in which they finished 8-22 overall and 1-15 in the Big Ten, the Jim O’Brien-coached Buckeyes finished second to Michigan State in the Big Ten behind top scorer Michael Redd, point guard Penn and a handful of other key contributors.
Fourth-seeded Ohio State swept to the South Regional championship in the NCAA Tournament, beating top-seeded Auburn in the Sweet 16 and third-seeded St. John’s for a spot in the Final Four. The Buckeyes lost 64-58 to eventual champion Connecticut in a national semifinal in St. Petersburg, Florida.
But that run, because of a 2006 ruling by the NCAA Committee of Infractions, cannot be officially celebrated in any capacity.
Ohio State vacated all games from 1998 through 2002, including Big Ten titles in 2000 and ’02, in which Slobodan “Boban” Savovic participated after the committee ruled he had received impermissible benefits. The university fired O’Brien after the 2004 season when it was revealed that the coach had paid $6,000 to the family of the family of Aleksandar Radojevic, a Yugoslavian recruit, in 1998.
The lack of recognition for the 1999 team felt like a glaring omission this season, when Ohio State welcomed back fired former coaches Thad Matta and Eldon Miller. But there was no reunion featuring Redd, Ken Johnson, Jason Singleton, George Reese and the like.
“We had nothing to do with that,” Penn said of the sanctions. “We did what we did. We won fair and square on that court. We should be recognized. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be. I don’t know what kind of agreement the university has, but it sucks that they can’t even talk about us or (that) we can’t have our 20-year reunion and it can’t be recognized, because it should be.”
There is precedent for reuniting athletic programs and former members who have run afoul of the NCAA.
One season after he was fired for NCAA violations, Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel was carried off the field at Ohio Stadium at the 2012 Michigan game as the program recognized the 10th anniversary of a national title won on his watch.
And Chris Webber was one of four Michigan basketball players who were slapped with a 10-year “disassociation” penalty from the university for their roles in a booster scandal, but after that passed he was made an honorary captain for a 2018 football game.
Among others, Webber was joined in the press box at Michigan Stadium that day by Jon Sanderson, a member of the 1999 Ohio State team and now the strength and conditioning coach for the Wolverines’ basketball team.
“Everyone in that area where all the suites are connected wanted to come over and talk to Chris,” Sanderson said. “I was happy for him to be able to be part of Michigan again. That was a special moment for him and the fan base.”
The case of the 1999 Buckeyes, however, is pretty cut and dry. In a statement provided by a university spokesman, “Penalties agreed upon by Ohio State and the NCAA prohibit promotion or recognition of the 1999 Final Four.”
Athletic director Gene Smith said he hasn’t revisited the penalties because, after reading the compliance report, he realized there was no way to change the sanctions. Since coming to Ohio State in 2005, Smith said he has focused on recognizing members of the team when situations present themselves. Any member of the 1999 team who attends a game, for instance, almost certainly receives a public welcome during a timeout.
“I never think about Ohio State; I think about the players,” Smith said. “In every situation where I see games vacated, I think about the individuals who are impacted. Those games did happen and they should be proud of (their) accomplishments.
“The reality is, punitive measures should be measured against the bad actor and/or the institution that enabled or allowed the bad actor to flourish. When you penalize individuals who frankly had nothing to do with the act, I’ve always felt that was inappropriate.”
For the players, the vacated games, and how they are inconsistently acknowledged, are a particular point of contention. For example, Sanderson’s biography on Michigan’s website identifies him as “the starting small forward on Ohio State’s 1999 Final Four team,” while Penn’s bio page makes no mention of the accomplishment.
Sanderson laughed when informed of that, saying, “They can never erase what we did and what players like Scoonie Penn and Michael Redd meant to that program.”
Current Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann didn’t mention the 1999 team by name, but in his opening statement after this year’s team received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament he made a point to recite the number of times the program had done so in each decade. When he got to the 1990s, Holtmann said the Buckeyes had reached the tournament four times, a figure that includes the 1999 season.
“I don’t think about it much, but I genuinely feel despondent for the kids who were on the floor playing,” said Rick Boyages, an assistant coach for the 1999 team and now the Big Ten’s associate commissioner for men’s basketball. “You can’t deny that the games were played. All the NCAA stuff aside, you’ve got to lace them up, put the uniform on and go out there. That all happened … with not a lot of dramatic (roster) changes.”
Penn said the members of the ’99 team remain close, and that includes O’Brien. When Penn’s grandmother died last summer, he said, O’Brien came to the funeral. Every team member has been back at some point, Penn said.
The trophy for reaching the Final Four and the commemorative basketball now reside in Penn’s office. The location of the banner, which once hung from the rafters, is a mystery. With the tangible evidence of the team’s accomplishments hidden from public view, one of the great seasons in Ohio State basketball history continues to slide further into memory.
Maybe you just had to be there.
“When you talk about changing a program, this team has to be up there,” Penn staid. “That was a turning point of the program. It’s opened a lot of peoples’ eyes to Ohio State basketball. People loved the ’07 (runner-up) team, they loved the ’12 (Final Four) team, but no one touches the ’99 team.”