Trouble Still Shadows College Hoops
Record crowds filled Detroit's Ford Field in early April for the annual three-day celebration that is college men's basketball's Final Four. North Carolina rolled to a title. Coach Roy Williams teared up. And the sport moved on.
But to what? Southern California coach Tim Floyd quit this month amid allegations he gave cash to an associate of one-year star O.J. Mayo. Memphis appeared before an NCAA infractions committee this month to respond to allegations of academic fraud. Connecticut administrators still are digesting a Yahoo Sports report that came out just before the Final Four that an agent paid expenses for and steered a recruit while coaches allegedly were aware of it.
Big Ten Conference Commissioner Jim Delany, who played point guard for Dean Smith at North Carolina, says he's still bullish on the game but doesn't dispute a notion basketball has been and remains the NCAA's problem sport.
"It probably, on a variety of levels, is the most challenging environment facing presidents, athletic directors, coaches, commissioners," he says.
The issues range from allegations and suspicions that college coaches are breaking and bending rules to worries over the youth game, which has long been considered a cesspool as agents and runners flush with cash set out to secure future clients - potential NBA gold mines.
Some of these issues, Delany says, should be a bigger concern for Congress than the brouhaha over college football's Bowl Championship Series and its non-playoff title format, which has drawn disapproval from President Obama. Basketball, the sport nearest and dearest to Obama's heart, has problems mounting like the federal deficit.
"The only thing we hear from Washington," Delany says, "is "we want an NFL-style football playoff.' I wish that politicians were as concerned about the health and welfare and about what's going on in the basketball community.
"We need help. If the government is going to get involved (in college sports) ... and prioritize what's wrong, this is something that's wrong."
The mess involving Mayo at USC put in full view ties linking a runner to an athlete and a sports agency. It is alleged Mayo received thousands of dollars in cash and gifts from promoter Rodney Guillory on behalf of BDA Sports Management. When ESPN's "Outside the Lines" uncovered those potential NCAA violations last year, it also found a paper trail of potential illegal activity committed by Guillory through a non-profit agency. The U.S. attorney's office, FBI and IRS since have been investigating.
Non-profit groups have long been associated with youth basketball, and Delany thinks the government should scrutinize such connections. He also thinks policing by the IRS could force runners, agents and rogue coaches to reconsider how they do business.
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., thinks the NBA's age minimum of 19 has contributed to college basketball's woes and wants the NBA to repeal it in the next collective bargaining agreement, which the league seems unlikely to do in light of Commissioner David Stern's position that the league prefers evaluating prospects after high school.
Delany talks about lawmakers using their bully pulpit or exercising their power for subpoenas and wiretaps, resources that extend beyond the NCAA's arm.
"There's no doubt about it, the power of federal government and state government could be brought to bear on some conduct," he says.
Perceptions of cheating
Such actions would be viewed as extreme by some. Pacific-10 Conference Commissioner Tom Hansen, who will retire at month's end and whose office is participating in the USC investigation, says he opposes congressional involvement on any front.
"The Congress just can't get a depth of understanding of college athletics," he says.
Hansen thinks the NCAA should introduce stricter eligibility requirements that would curtail participation in the youth club circuit, but he acknowledges the idea might be far-fetched.
The NBA and the NCAA are taking measures to clean up the youth scene. They have invested $15 million in a new initiative, the latest in a years-long string of special subcommittees and task forces put together in basketball.
The NCAA has its hands full monitoring its men's game, which never lacks for challenges, from lagging academic scores and graduation rates to evermore aggressive recruiters who prompted the NCAA to recognize seventh- and eighth-graders as college prospects so it can offer them protection in its rules.
One-and-done players such as Mayo and Derrick Rose, accused of cheating on a college entrance exam for his one-year stop at Memphis, have created piles of paperwork for university compliance officials, lawyers and the NCAA enforcement staff. Rose has denied the allegation.
Delany sees great possibilities for the NBA-assisted foray into the youth game and credits the NCAA for stepping up efforts to rein in rules-breakers.
Yet the sport "carries with it the seed of its own destruction in the sense that college basketball, more than any other sport, has been touched by gambling," Delany says. "It (also) has had the most difficult youth environment to recruit in.
"And the thing that really concerns me is that among top 100 programs, I believe if you asked coaches, there'd be a pretty strong consensus around 10 that are not in substantial compliance. And there might be another 15 that people really suspect are not in substantial compliance."
Delany doesn't name names or specify misdeeds, but in light of recent events, he doesn't have to. The commissioner isn't claiming to have cold, hard facts, just perceptions gleaned from conversations with coaches.
"If those are accurate perceptions," he says, "then you have an environment where maybe one out of every four in the top are considered to be out of compliance in a substantial way or possibly out of compliance. That creates a great deal of cynicism. And I think it drives the conduct and behavior of others."
Coaching profession takes hits
The coaching profession has had to absorb other embarrassments during this offseason. Louisville's Rick Pitino went to the feds with an alleged extortion attempt by a 49-year-old woman with whom he'd had an unspecified 2003 "encounter."
The alleged violations at Memphis came during the tenure of coach John Calipari, who is now at Kentucky, where he first raised eyebrows with a $4 million-a-year contract and now must shake the taint of the mess he left to the south.
Calipari isn't implicated at Memphis, yet there has been no lack of reminders that he likewise was not implicated as coach at Massachusetts in 1996, when the Minutemen made what remains their only Final Four appearance and rules violations subsequently were attached to All-American Marcus Camby.
The NCAA vacated the tournament appearance; Calipari had moved on to the NBA.
He's now the college game's highest-paid coach, running its all-time winningest program.
Kentucky's former coach, Billy Gillispie, is suing the school for his $6 million buyout, and the school has countersued.
The rat-a-tat-tat of awkward to unseemly events has fueled such cynics of big-time college sports as former shoe impresario Sonny Vaccaro, who maintains, "For the masses to believe college basketball is pure is sinful."
Coaches are alarmed, especially over allegations of misconduct in their tightknit fraternity. In the past, Illinois' Bruce Weber says, "you'd try to outwork the other guys. Now that stuff doesn't matter, because some guys aren't doing things the right way."
The NCAA is trying to do more, breaking off three members of its 20-person enforcement staff to monitor basketball, the first time it has focused enforcement staff on a single sport.
This past season, in a memo to Division I commissioners and the National Association of Basketball Coaches, it signaled an effort to clamp down on money funneled from coaches to handlers and advisers of elite young players.
NCAA rules, the memo says, prohibit coaches and boosters from providing or arranging compensation to relatives, friends, coaches and others involved in the recruitment of prospects.
Concerns over misconduct also have resulted in the formation of an ethics coalition, which is a joint venture between the NCAA and college coaches.
"There's a lot we can do," says Michigan coach John Beilein, coalition chairman. "We can educate fellow coaches. We can mentor young coaches."
Ultimately, the buck stops with presidents. "There is a chain of command," says Vaccaro, who drew criticism as a contributor to the sport's problems as an executive at Nike, Adidas and Reebok and who wooed young stars to help market shoes. He also signed schools and coaches to big-time athletic apparel deals.
"The responsibility is with the CEO, but the CEOs can't say no," Vaccaro says. "Coaches do what they're allowed to do. They don't want to be fired. ... They are allowed to be dirty, (and) they take advantage of that."
Players are concerned, too.
"There's so much emphasis on winning that coaches may be going too far to get top-notch players," says Jerel McNeal, an all-Big East shooting guard who just finished his senior season at Marquette. "When you start adding the money factor ... a lot more stuff can go wrong. It's starting to hurt the overall game."