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September 26, 2017

“Always be a pessimist, you will never be disappointed.”

Variations on a theme.

I don’t think of myself as a pessimist. More that I am a cynic.

Whether it is as a wounded idealist, someone who wears it as an armor rather then choosing to believe or strive for something, or a realist with a sense of humor.  Perhaps all of them and more.

Which means a day like this creates something interesting.

The United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York announced early Tuesday that charges of fraud and corruption have been brought against four current college basketball assistant coaches — namely Arizona’s Emanuel “Book” Richardson, Auburn’s Chuck Person, Oklahoma State’s Lamont Evans and USC’s Tony Bland. Managers, financial advisers and representatives of a major sportswear company have also been charged with federal crimes in a scandal that has rocked the sport.

“The picture of college basketball painted by the charges is not a pretty one,” Joon H. Kim, the acting United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said at a Tuesday afternoon press conference. “Coaches at some of the nation’s top programs taking cash bribes, managers and advisers circling blue-chip prospects like coyotes, and employees of a global sportswear company funneling cash to families of high school recruits. … For the 10 charged men, the madness of college basketball went well beyond the Big Dance in March. Month after month, the defendants exploited the hoop dreams of student-athletes around the country, allegedly treating them as little more than opportunities to enrich themselves through bribery and fraud schemes.”

The most obvious and immediate fallout is on college basketball. While no assistant was named, a school was mentioned that was easily understood to be Louisville. The same Louisville that had their NCAA sanctions handed down on June 11. On July 27, the unnamed assistant from the unnamed school (Louisville) was in a Vegas hotel room with an Adidas rep conspiring to provide money for a big recruit. Oh, and ‘Ville had  abruptly landed 5-star Brian Bowen.

Specifically, this is barrelling down on Louisville Head Coach Rick Pitino. Who once more is shocked, appalled, had no idea, is committed to fixing this… but ultimately claims to be blameless. Again.

“These allegations come as a complete shock to me,” Pitino said. “If true, I agree with the U.S. Attorneys Office that these third-party schemes, initiated by a few bad actors, operated to commit a fraud on the impacted universities and their basketball programs, including the University of Louisville. Our fans and supporters deserve far better, and I am committed to taking whatever steps are needed to ensure those responsible are held accountable.”

There are even credible reports out of Louisville that this could finally be it for Pitino. And maybe it is. There are only so many times, even Louisville can suck it up to hold on to a coach like Pitino (not a human being, but a coach). The levels of Joe Paterno-Penn State fans level of self-denial required take a toll.

That, though, is a cumulative effect from the various scandals at Louisville that have taken place under (15 seconds) Pitino. As much to protect the school from further sanctions. That isn’t the direct result of this latest scandal.

No one is even suggesting that Sean Miller (Arizona), Andy Enfield (USC), Bruce Pearl (Auburn) or whoever is/was in charge at the time OK St are at any immediate risk of being fired. That really depends on who flips, and what kind of evidence they have to support it.

All that has happened at those schools is the expression of shock, suspension of the assistant coach in question, promises to work with the investigation, maybe an investigation of their own. The usual. Oh, and Arizona canceled their media day for tomorrow for some reason.

Yet the flurry of excitement. How this is just the beginning of revelations.

Yet for college hoops none of it represents the scariest part of the three complaints laid out by the DOJ on Tuesday. This, a statement by said undercover FBI agent, should terrify every coach in America:

“Because this affidavit is being submitted for the limited purpose of establishing probable cause, it does not include all of the facts that I have learned during the court of the investigation.”

Meaning, this is the tip of the iceberg.

“Our investigation is ongoing,” FBI assistant director Bill Sweeney warned. “And we are currently conducting interviews.”

“If you yourself engaged in these activities, I’d encourage you to call us,” said Kim, the Acting U.S. Attorney. “I think it’s better than us calling you.”

The operation that the feds laid out is college basketball recruiting 101. It began when a prominent financial planner from the sports world was ensnared in a securities fraud case and turned into a cooperating witness. He was able to bring an undercover FBI agent along as a supposed assistant for meetings, payouts, recorded conversations and so on.

Top basketball talent is worth more on the open market than the NCAA limit of scholarship, room, board and a small stipend. NCAA limits are an attempt to stop the wheels of capitalism, which like floodwater will simply readjust and go where it wants.

Tuesday, college coaches were calling emergency staff meetings and coaches at all levels were consulting attorneys. This is an entirely different level than anyone has seen before, not a mostly toothless NCAA, but a motivated FBI and U.S. Attorney in New York looking to make a big media splash.

And splash they will. Even if there aren’t legal ramifications for everyone, the recruiting dirt that is about to get turned over will be unprecedented. The code of silence that has protected the sport and the NCAA’s system of “amateurism” is about to be cracked into a million pieces under FBI questioning, where a single lie is a felony.

Of how real change is coming.

So what happens if the indicted cooperate? How many Adidas schools could be impacted if Jim Gatto, the director of global sports marketing, tells all. Merl Code, another Adidas employee, is a veteran of the Nike grassroots before going to Adidas. “He’s the key,” said a grassroots basketball source. “That’s what no one is talking about. He knows where all the bodies were buried at both Nike and Adidas.”

Early Tuesday morning, a high-major assistant coach called Yahoo Sports and summed up the day’s happenings this way: “It’s like someone left the playbook in the opposing locker room. And now all the plays are out. That’s what essentially happened. This stuff has been going on for 20 years. The tentacles on this one, you don’t know where it leads. It’s scary.”

And how the FBI did what the NCAA could not do.

How apropos that the NCAA had nothing to do with the probe that finally blew open the doors to the nefarious, shadowy world of college basketball recruiting. The NCAA’s enforcement division has long been sincere in its efforts to crack down on cheating in college athletics, but it has lacked sufficient manpower or investigative clout to come close to achieving that mission.

For decades, the unseemly way that elite players are procured has been college basketball’s worst-kept secret. College coaches, agents and shoe-apparel companies funnel money to the families and AAU coaches of top prospects in exchange for their influence on what school the player chooses. Many of those same college coaches later accept under-the-table bribes in return for persuading elite players to hire certain agents or financial advisers when they’re ready to turn pro.

The level of sophistication of the covert schemes has increased over the years, as has the price of getting involved with McDonald’s All-American-level prospects. The one thing that hasn’t changed is that the cheaters have more often than not managed to stay one step ahead of overmatched NCAA investigators responsible for policing the sport.

Whereas law enforcement agencies can tap phones, subpoena uncooperative witnesses, request search warrants or penalize false testimony with perjury charges, NCAA investigators must attempt to ensnare rule breakers without any of those powers. Student-athletes, coaches and university administrators risk sanctions if they don’t provide enforcement staffers with truthful answers or pertinent documents, but investigators have no means of compelling family, friends, high school coaches and others outside of NCAA jurisdiction to cooperate.

How a good deal of this is on the whole amateurism system that creates a blackmarket.

But are we really surprised that what’s been whispered about, suggested and assumed is, apparently, actually taking place? Of course not. And for a lot of reasons.

The most obvious cause is simply the money at stake.

On the college side, there are tens of millions of dollars flowing through athletic departments from television contracts, donations, ticket sales, merchandise and whatever else schools can slap a price tag on. That money translates into multi-million dollar contracts for head coaches and six-figure deals for assistants, who are in turn chasing those multi-million dollar head coaching jobs in large part on their ability to secure top-end talent. Coaches don’t move up the ladder without players.

On the financial side, once players go pro, there are potentially hundreds of millions up for grabs. With agents in line to grab a percentage of contracts and endorsements and financial advisors potentially managing those nine-figure sums, there is considerable dough to be made.

If players could be paid, again not just necessarily by schools but by third parties, there would be no need to pass the money off through middlemen whose only real asset is proximity to talent and youth whose NCAA eligibility depends on not taking money over the table. If an agent could take a prospect out to a steak dinner, give him a Rolex and some walking around money as a gesture to later get him to sign, there is less oxygen for third-party middlemen. If players got a piece of apparel contracts, there’s less incentive for sneaker companies to buy their loyalty illicitly.

With the money at stake here, it would probably be impossible to ever legislate or prosecute away shadiness and corruption, but NCAA amateurism rules create an ecosystem for the slimiest organisms to survive and thrive. It takes agency away from players and even institutions to police their sport. How can a school – or even the NCAA at large – be expected to rein in multi-billion dollar shoe companies? Or keep tabs on cash transactions that take place in Los Angeles, Morgantown, Miami and anywhere else an agent, coach, sleaze or slimeball can fly with a thick envelope? It took the feds a cooperating witness, undercover agents and wiretaps to get done. The NCAA doesn’t, and never will, have those tools at its disposal.

As an aside, this will be the prime storyline for the counter-stories. For advocates of changing the system (and/or those that reflexively defend the coaches while bashing everything else). That money flows no matter what, and that by making it illegal one way, merely redirects the money.

In one of the better, early legal analysis, the NCAA restrictions on athlete compensation are mentioned — more in the headline then in the actual article. Legally, though, the impact is limited to mainly blaming the system.

While the NCAA is not a party in these prosecutions, its system of college sports is certainly at the heart of them. The complaints repeatedly refer to the NCAA itself and “relevant” NCAA rules. It is from the NCAA’s system of amateurism that the criminal investigation became possible: law enforcement became aware various persons broke NCAA rules in ways that violated criminal law. If the NCAA had adopted a system where players were compensated for their labor and compensated for the use of their name, image and likeness, perhaps all or some of these “under the table” payments would not have occurred. We’ll never know. But some will ask.

Along those lines, the fact that such extensive corruption allegedly occurred raises questions as to whether the NCAA is even capable of stopping any of it. The NCAA, like any organization, has a limited bandwidth. Further, since it is a private actor, the NCAA lacks subpoena powers and other investigatory capabilities enjoyed by law enforcement.

Okay, still with me? Good. Because here is where I suggest that as far as the college game goes. Nothing is really going to change, and that the focus of this FBI investigation is not on the NCAA college basketball program at all. It gets impacted by things, but it — the programs, coaches and players are nothing but collateral damage.

The first rule in the scandal (and most things) is: follow the money. The assistant coaches, runners, the programs aren’t the money. Heck, even the head coaches aren’t. The head coaches and programs stand out. They will get the headlines. But they aren’t the targets.

It’s the shoe companies and agents.

Adidas is the focus at that end right now, but the main guy they are working — Jim Gatto — jumped from Nike to Adidas. He can bring both houses down (figuratively).

Just as important, but possibly missed by some because it happened after the press conference. ASM Sports — Andy Miller’s firm — was raided. ASM employed one of the people arrested by the FBI, and very likely is considered to have a central role in this scandal.

These are the targets.

The kids with the talent. They may get exploited by family and hanger-ons. They may be savvy enough to be getting their own cut. But the ones paying. The ones who are behind the money are hoping for much more down the line. Those are the shoes and the agents. Those are the targets.

Changing the NCAA is not the goal. Going after corrupt coaches is only good if they flip. The FBI has the resources and power to make life hell for programs and coaches is all true. But that is not the goal or even much beyond a means to an end by the Justice Department.

That’s why I don’t see too much changing in NCAA Basketball. They will be uncomfortable for a while. Some programs will take hits. Some coaches will be finished. But the system. The way things go. They aren’t changing. At best, they might be a little more small time and a little less corrupt. At worst, nothing changes but everyone pretends it has because of this.

+1, Chas … I missed the journalist side of the blog … I can tell you’ve been itching for something like this. A very good read and, unfortunately, you’re probably right. The Feds will follow the money … the house of cards may collapse, but they’ll start going back up again … quickly.

Pitino is at retirement age. His reputation is sullied but Sean Miller is in the prime of his coaching career. His assistant who was arrested has been with him 10 years. If Miller gets the boot and a show cause penalty from the NCAA… he’s done.

Comment by Tossing Thabeets 09.26.17 @ 8:55 pm

Lot to digest. Great read and before I comment want to wait a day or two to see how this unfolds. Chas you’re the best! I love college hoops and this is an absolute bombshell in the making.

I knew I could count on The Blather to be on top of this..

Comment by Pap76 09.27.17 @ 2:43 am

This also explains why Jamie could not recruit well enough to maintain our program. This has been going on for years, maybe this will change things but I doubt it. When there is this much money involved, people will always find a new scheme.

Comment by gc 09.27.17 @ 3:41 am

of course, it’s all about the money. Why has Bilas championed all the great coaches and programs while ignoring the also-rans, why do 10% of the programs get 90% of the coverage, and why after all this time has there not been any NCAA judgment on UNC (which has played in the last 2 title games? ….. $$$$$$$.

Comment by wbb 09.27.17 @ 7:34 am

I hate to say it … but have wondered why Arizona always seems to have landed the prize recruits lately. And I was amazed of how good the recent recruiting classes have been for Miami … and Auburn.

Comment by wbb 09.27.17 @ 7:42 am

Seriously. No way the head coaches did not know.

Comment by notrocketscience 09.27.17 @ 7:55 am

Welcome back Chad. It sure seems hard to win and be honest at the same time. Sports is a reflection of our current society -or maybe the other way around- but it appears to only matter that you reach the top and not how you got there.

Comment by AnotherClancyrebound 09.27.17 @ 9:53 am

Correct me if I am wrong but wasn’t one of the major digs at Jamie Dixon’s recruiting was that he refused to deal with these shoe companies and financial advisers which then led to Pitt not really having a chance to land high end talent? In light of all this maybe it is good to be associated with a head coach who won while still having a shred of integrity. Interesting Chas you think overall not a lot will change as the talking heads on the radio this morning are acting like the college basketball world is going to be turned upside down. Probably too early to assess how it all plays out but I can certainly understand your cynicism that things probably won’t monumentally change because still too much money is at stake.

Comment by The Ghost of Billy Gaines 09.27.17 @ 10:35 am

Ghost, from Lamar Patterson:

from Lamar Patterson:


Integrity at my alma mater under the Dixon era was top notch and you have to respect that the sole “one and done” @RealStevenAdams at my school was walking around with with flip phone virgin mobile in 2011 and no we may not have won a championship you have to respect the guys that found a way to win a bunch of games while respecting the rules whether we did or did not agree with them

Comment by wbb 09.27.17 @ 11:19 am

Pitino fired

Comment by Yeti 09.27.17 @ 11:42 am

wbb – Bilas doesn’t champion coaches. He blames the NCAA for creating an environment that promotes and allows head coaches to build degrees of separation in the program that insulate them from situations like this.

Bilas walks a fine line so he still has access to the coaches but his angst is with the NCAA. He’s not necessarily wrong. NCAA rules and lack of enforcement is ultimately why this happens. I do think he lets coaches off the hook a little easily but, to do his job effectively, he has to have access to them.

Comment by Tossing Thabeets 09.27.17 @ 1:21 pm

So… you’re saying that if agents/CFPs/assistant coaches go to jail that will not deter future “deal making”?

Are you nuts? The NYC Feds are very motivated here. This is a game-changer.

It was all a game when the perps thought it was only the NCAA they had to evade. When it’s the justice dept they are now enemy of – that is totally different.

Prospect of prison changes things. Permanently.

Comment by John Ramella 09.27.17 @ 2:03 pm

When are they going to start on football? Thats where the BIG money is.

Comment by alcofan 09.27.17 @ 2:20 pm

Sadly Tossing, I just watched Dukie V and Jay Williams take the same stance as Bilas. The NCAA and their archaic rules are the problem and the need is to essentially blow it up.

Also heard an interesting take from Seth Greenberg during his air time. He said that “recruiting” is a term to be used to describe the relationship between the top programs and the top players. “Evaluation” describes the relationship between the next level down programs and next level down players. A coach is projecting the potential development of those next level down players. It struck me as both profound and somewhat obvious. I was reflecting on the JD era and thinking about the premise that his pursuit of higher level athletes somehow undermined his ability to project less heralded players that more readily fit his tough minded, defense oriented, attack the glass kind of guys typified by Talib Zanna, Nasir Robinson or Brad Wanamaker.

Comment by Barvo 09.27.17 @ 7:17 pm

Chas best article I have seen I seen in years.

The Nike schools are shaking in their sneakers tonight.

Comment by Isnore 09.27.17 @ 8:50 pm

Barvo – That’s a very interesting take regarding Dixon. Once he started going after higher profile athletes, the program began to crumble. It started with Dante. Then Khem Birch … Then Steve Adams.

Dante was just a swing and miss. He never developed and was a tweener. Not skilled enough to play the 4 and not big enough to play the 5. Khem destroyed a recruiting class. Steve Adams was expected to be at Pitt at least 3 years.

A program built on 5th year Sr.’s and a bevy of most improved players couldn’t withstand players leaving early of not living up to expectations.

Comment by Tossing Thabeets 09.27.17 @ 9:00 pm

Wow, what a story and what an exceptional job of telling the story, Chas…TT, I have been making the same point to friends for years, we decimated the center position by going after and getting the high end but short term talent. Pitt was like Coke messing with a successful formula. I sure don’t like “new” Pitt BB as much as the classic version. In fact, we aren’t far from a new flavor of Pitt BB called “Pitt Zero”.

Comment by HbgFrank 09.27.17 @ 9:18 pm

Tossing, like it or not, the NBA has a big responsibility here. For years, the NBA has let kids from high school come immediately to the NBA (Kobe, Lebron, etc.) But unlike the the aforementioned pair, they were getting way too many busts who were chosen in the first round. But does the NBA, who makes tons of money, begin a minor league system (a la MLB)? No, they just let the 18 year old for the colleges so they can judge how good they are against a higher level of competition.

Now, the colleges certainly take a large share of the blame because face it, many of these players can care less about college. What these players should so is go overseas … and this is starting to happen.

Comment by wbb 09.28.17 @ 6:47 am

Tossing, You may remember that before Steve Adams returned home immediately after the 2013 spring term, he was planning on returning. But it was them that convinced him to turn pro … which turned out to be a pretty good decision.

Nonetheless, I firmly believe had he stayed just one more year, recruiting would have picked up and JD would still be at Pitt. The year after Adams left, Pitt still won 26 games with Talib Zanna at center. And Pitt had to start Michael Young as a natural freshman, even playing him when he had slight back fracture in January.

I would have loved to see that 2013-4 team with a front line of Adams, Zanna and Patterson .. and I certainly like the odds of them advancing past the 2nd round where they ended up. It may have well turned out to be better than the 09 team.

Comment by wbb 09.28.17 @ 7:00 am

wbb – yeah. spot on. I agree 100% about the NBA and the one and done rule. The NBA definitely (inadvertently) contributed to this monster.

I’ve been preaching for years that the NBA, to create their own one and done, allow HS kids to go straight to the D-league and not be able to be promoted to an NBA roster until 2 years removed from HS.

This allows kids who don’t want to go to college to start professionally immediately. It also allows the NBA team to develop the kid at their own pace with their own coaches in their own system.

It, essentially, turns the D-League into a true farm system. Once the NBA does that, the NCAA should go the baseball route and hold players to a 2 year commitment (I think 3 years is too long).

The NBA should also go to 5 rounds for a draft to fill D-league rosters with young talent instead of middling journey men.

Comment by Tossing Thabeets 09.28.17 @ 9:54 am

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