Duuuuuuuuude! What a freaking couple of days for college basketball! And we haven’t even started fall practice yet, let alone any games that matter.
A couple hours ago one of the 20 greatest coaches in the history of the game got fired. (Correction: he’s officially been placed on leave, although apparently his contract calls for a 10-day grace period before he can be fired for cause.) Yesterday assistants at four other schools were arrested. Two more programs appear to be in deep shit, too. All the result of an FBI investigation into the relationship between coaches, player’s families, shoe companies, and agents. And, as many writers have been pointing out, this is likely just the proverbial tip of the iceberg.
Shit is getting really real here.
After somehow dodging scandals for several years at Louisville, Rick Pitino finally found the straw that broke the camel’s back. The FBI asserts that current UL freshman Brian Bowen’s family may have received up to $100,000 in exchange for him choosing the Cardinals last spring. Although there is no current public evidence that Pitino was directly involved in the exchange, after a scandal involving one of his assistant coaches bringing prostitutes in for recruits a few years back, there was no way even a coach of Pitino’s accomplishments could survive this. It’s almost stunning it happened so quickly. I expected a few days of hemming-and-hawing. I’m sure we’ll soon hear from Pitino how all this happened without his knowledge, he’ll insist he ran a clean program, and that he was betrayed by people he placed his trust in. No apology, though, or acceptance of blame.
What is most stunning about the Louisville side of this case is that they don’t need to buy players. UL is one of the top 10 programs in the game. It is consistently the most profitable program in the country. They have an amazing, pro-like arena, are located in a basketball-crazy city, were coached the only man to win national titles at two different schools, and have a long, rich history of success. This isn’t like SMU football in the 1970s and 80s trying to beat traditional powers Texas and Texas A&M for recruits. Louisville should be able to go toe-to-toe with any program in the country when it comes to collecting recruits.
Whether it was jealousy at Kentucky getting the #1 recruiting class, filled with future pros, every single year, Pitino pulling out all the stops to win one more title before his career ended, sheer competitiveness run amok, simple greed, or even just a rogue assistant, it doesn’t make sense. Louisville didn’t need to cheat. Now one of the signature programs in the game is in shambles, and likely will be for several years.
Arizona also seems like a school that shouldn’t have to cheat. They’ve been one of the best programs in the game over the past 35 years, winning one national title and making multiple other Final Fours. Tucson is a decent place to spend the winter. Over the past few years, though, they have signed several recruits that the “experts” were sure were going elsewhere. Today that makes a lot more sense.
Both Louisville and Arizona were expected to be top five teams this coming year. That seems unlikely now.
The other schools currently involved – Auburn, Oklahoma State, South Carolina, and Miami – are schools trying to get to where Louisville and Arizona are. I’m kind of discounting Oklahoma State because their assistant who was arrested, Lamont Evans, had only been there a year and came from South Carolina, which may be where he did most of his dirty work. South Carolina did break through last year, making a run to the Final Four, knocking off Duke along the way. Miami has been really good, and close to the Final Four, for several years. For a program trying to make that leap to the elite, it is more understandable that rules will be flouted and chances will be taken. Not acceptable, mind you. But understandable for sure.
I think just about every football or basketball player at a power five school is getting something beyond their scholarship and living expenses. It may just be a tab is overlooked when the eat out. $100 handshakes from alums at bars. Cushy summer jobs that pay cash under the table. “Help” buying a car. And so on. The better the player, the more likely they’re raking in one or more of these extras.
There’s not much you can do about these because they are so widespread and difficult to track. The NCAA has a hard enough time getting people to talk to them about egregious and public recruiting violations, let alone try to monitor tiny, day-to-day stuff like this.
But this big stuff, the systemic fraud and bribery and purchasing of talent, that’s a whole other ballgame. Especially since it’s the FBI that’s doing the investigating. And they reportedly have wiretaps and witnesses ready to talk. I imagine over the past 24 hours there have been a lot of interesting conversations between head coaches and assistant coaches, athletic directors and head coaches, and university presidents or chancellors and athletic directors. “Is there anything I need to know about?” is likely the most common question asked in these meetings.
And for fans, there’s a lot of waiting to be gleeful about a rival school getting sucked into this mess to be sure your alma mater’s name doesn’t come up first.
Is this the first step in a massive cleanup of college sports? I really doubt it. No matter how broad this investigation is, I can’t believe that it cuts into more than a small part of these practices. And this is just basketball. Football is a much bigger beast. Who knows if the FBI is looking that direction yet. And there’s always going to be cheating. The perks of winning are just too high for people to not break the rules in order to get that program-defining recruit.
What I think is far more likely is this could be the big shove we’ve been waiting on that divorces college sports from the academic mission of universities. Whether that change comes rapidly, or is still 5–10 years away, the first big cracks in the foundation of college sports as we know it appeared this week.