At the end of college basketball’s Final Four in San Antonio next April, the winning players and coaches will cut down the nets and make snow angels in the confetti covering the floor, just as they always do. Then One Shining Moment will play, alumni will choke up with tears and NCAA officials will bask in the glory of their annual showcase event.
But this time will be different than all the others before it.
No matter who wins or loses, high-level college basketball was unmasked Tuesday as a magnet for corruption, bribery and kickbacks it always has been behind the scenes. It took an FBI sting operation, a financial adviser turned cooperating witness and a shoe company so eager to cut deals and pull strings with prospects that the dots weren’t even very hard for prosecutors to connect.
Though four assistant coaches were arrested and charged with crimes, we’re still a long way from figuring out all the implications here, from the number of coaches that eventually will be roped into the scandal to how much shrapnel will hit the schools that employed them. The tentacles already have reached some of biggest names in the sport including an assistant for the preseason No. 1 team in Arizona, a Louisville prospect’s recruitment and an assistant who helped build the roster South Carolina took to the Final Four last season.
But the ultimate fallout will reveal a more fundamental, existential issue for college basketball and the NCAA to reckon with: What does it say about your sport that conduct long considered standard, and even necessary, to win the highest levels is considered illegal by the federal government of the United States?
As the indictments came down Tuesday morning, athletics directors from the 10 conferences that make up the Football Bowl Subdivision were gathering at a $600 per night hotel in Washington, D.C., for their annual meetings under the umbrella of an organization (LEAD1) that shifted its primary focus this year to lobbying Congress in case the gravy train of college athletics somehow gets derailed by the courts.
Let’s just say the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.
Though only a handful of schools will show up on the ESPN ticker or be mentioned by the network news, including Auburn, Arizona, Southern California and Oklahoma State, there is no university president, athletic administrator or coaching staff in the country that should feel safe today.
At a news conference in New York, U.S. attorney Joon Kim referred to the “dark underbelly of college basketball” that was exposed in the indictments. And though it took the investigative tools of the FBI to bring it out of the shadows, what he outlined as a criminal scheme is what college basketball coaches have long referred to as, quite simply, how things get done.
No, it’s not every program. It’s not every head coach. It’s not every prospect.
But when the NCAA and the NBA ceded the entire responsibility of grassroots basketball to the shoe companies, they could use it to cultivate relationships with top players and legally fund the teams that were shuttling prospects to tournaments where college coaches could watch them by day and representatives of agents and financial advisers could meet them at night. Those meetings could take place in hotel rooms, restaurants, casinos, even bathrooms, without the NCAA having a prayer of regulating how the money was rolling downhill. And if you didn’t have a way to get into that game, whether it’s an agent wanting a potential client under the protective eye of a friendly coach or a shoe company representative bridging the gap between the grassroots program they fund and a college program they sponsor, you likely had no shot landing the top players in the country.
The indictment details a classic example that seems to describe Louisville’s recruitment of five-star prospect Brian Bowen but could easily be the template for dozens of recruitments every year. Essentially, the government alleges that “at the request of at least one coach from University-6 (purported to be Louisville),” the defendants in the case including a former NBA agent, an Adidas executive and a financial planner “agreed to funnel $100,000 (payable in four installments) from Company-1 to the family of Player-10. Shortly after the agreement with the family of Player-10 was reached in late May and early June, Player-=10 publicly committed to University-6).”
The evidence for that claim was found on a wiretap of of Christian Dawkins, the former agent. And as news of that allegation spread Tuesday morning, it didn’t take long for reporters to uncover an interview from this June in which Rick Pitino described to Terry Meiners of 840 AM radio in Louisville how he landed Bowen.
“We got lucky on this one,” Pitino said. “I had an AAU director call me and ask if I’d be interested in a player. I saw him against another great player from Indiana. I said, ‘Yeah, I’d be really interested.’ They had to come in unofficially, pay for their hotel, pay for their meals. We spent zero dollars recruiting a five-star athlete who I loved when I saw him play. In my 40 years of coaching this is the luckiest I’ve been.”
That quote alone is damning in light of this investigation, and if the allegations are true it should finally get Pitino and athletics director Tom Jurich fired after they have already survived multiple scandals that would have done in less powerful people.
They probably won’t be the only ones to lose their careers in disgrace.
But the big names that will eventually get drawn into this, whether through more witnesses flipping or the FBI’s new tip line, are more than individual actors who will wear the NCAA’s scarlet letter while the rest of the sport beats its chest about doing things the right way.
That’s not how this scandal is going to play out.
For the first time, an organization with the motivation and the resources to pull back the curtain on widespread corruption in college sports has revealed what everybody kind of knew but couldn’t exactly prove.
Today, everybody wakes up in an entirely new world: coaches wondering if the FBI is listening to their phone calls, administrators wondering who their employees are making deals with, fans wondering about the real stories behind all those crazy recruitments they’re addicted to following.
It’s entirely too early to say what that means or where it goes, but the biggest charade in the history of college sports has now been shattered, along with careers and reputations and the illusion of amateurism that brought billions into college sports.
Yes, One Shining Moment will still play next April when college basketball crowns its champion. But it will be impossible to escape the feeling that the song’s third line — “you’re running for your life” — is now the most relevant of them all.