Photos of former Northwestern guard Johnnie Vassar.
The rebirth of Northwestern basketball occurred Nov. 13, 2013. That’s the day Vic Law, Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey and Gavin Skelly signed letters-of-intent, forming a class that ESPN.com ranked 21st nationally.
Six months later, coach Chris Collins added a fifth member to his first recruiting class — guard Johnnie Vassar, whom the coach said "will provide us with an elite level of athleticism and speed. … Johnnie is a winner and he’s going to fit in very well."
Vassar, a South Side native raised in California who attended four high schools, said of his decision: "It’s important to have stability — and I will have it now."
As it turned out, stability continued to elude him. Vassar spent just one season with the team, playing 70 minutes.
He remains a student at Northwestern on an academic scholarship, but in November he filed an antitrust lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Northwestern and the NCAA. He alleges that the school tried to force him to "voluntarily withdraw" from its basketball program (because it wanted to use his scholarship for another player) and that the NCAA should not be allowed to require transfers to sit out a season.
The issue resurfaced Wednesday because of a lengthy, detailed story by NU alum Kevin Trahan that can be found at sports.vice.com.
The story raises questions that hopefully will be addressed in court, namely: Were Northwestern officials right to require Vassar to work eight hours per week – performing tasks that originally included blowing and raking leaves – to remain on scholarship? Did anyone at the school doctor his timecards, as it appears?
Why would Vassar post a personal statement in 2015 announcing his decision to transfer, thanking the NU coaches and writing "I’ve enjoyed all the memories and time spent here" if he resented Collins and did not actually want to transfer? Why would, as Vassar contends, schools such as De Paul and Georgia Tech offer him a basketball scholarship — but only if he could play immediately, without sitting out a year?
It seems obvious that Collins regretted his decision to offer Vassar a scholarship months after the 6-foot lefty guard arrived on campus, burying a player coaches believed had a poor attitude on the bench.
Bill Carmody holdovers Mike Turner, Chier Ajou and Kale Abrahamson also departed, marking Collins’ re-working of the roster. Some college sports fans find such "run-off" tactics low-brow; others believe that telling a player he has no shot for significant minutes unless he transfers is acceptable – par for the course in big-time college athletics.
Of players signed by Collins, Vassar is the only one to depart early.
Collins declined comment Wednesday to the Tribune, expressing that he’d love to talk but that legal ramifications prevent him from doing so. That is per Northwestern policy. Every school official contacted for the Vice Sports story declined comment. A school spokesman said in November that the lawsuit "has no merit and will defend it aggressively."
NU officials believe it’s OK to lose in the court of public opinion as long as they prevail in the courtroom. That’s what transpired, at least the second part, after former quarterback Kain Colter sought to unionize the football team in 2014.
The Tribune reached out to Vassar after he filed the lawsuit and he deferred questions to his attorney.
He remains a student, pursuing a degree on the same campus where Law, McIntosh, Lindsey and Skelly are heralded for ending NU’s NCAA tournament drought.
Vassar never got the stability he sought. As of now, he’ll have to settle for notoriety.
Running down the four-team contingent set to meet in the desert next weekend in the 2017 Final Four, in an orderly and alphabetical way …
(Patrick Stevens/Washington Post)