Rick Pitino, shown arriving for a meeting with the University of Louisville’s interim president, Greg Postel, hours before Pitino was effectively fired by the school. (Michael Clevenger/The Courier-Journa/Associated Press)
Football and basketball coaches will tell you that they know everything about what’s going on in their program.
When I was at Indiana in the mid-1980s spending a season with Bob Knight, his academic adviser was under orders to come and tell him — not an assistant coach — if a player missed a class, missed a study hall or was struggling with a class. When Steve Alford, IU’s best player, posed for a charity calendar, the program’s compliance director brought Knight the calendar and told him he believed Alford posing — even though he wasn’t paid anything — was an NCAA violation. Knight called the NCAA that day, and Alford had to sit out that weekend’s game against Kentucky.
Knight’s not unique. “Coaches are control freaks,” Ken Niumatalolo, Navy’s head football coach and one of the best people in college athletics, said to me recently. “We want to know everything that goes on. If we don’t do that, we aren’t doing our jobs.”
Even Rick Pitino, who told boosters shortly before the Louisville basketball program’s prostitution scandal broke in 2015: “If one of my players has a beer in Louisville, I know about it.”
NCAA President Mark Emmert released a statement Tuesday saying that what is going on is “deeply disturbing.” He went on to call what allegedly occurred “an extraordinary and despicable break of trust.”
Greg Postel, Louisville’s interim president, was also horrified that his program was implicated. He said in a statement: “U of L is committed to ethical behavior and adherence to NCAA rules; any violations will not be tolerated.” And on Wednesday, he finally forced out Pitino, the Cardinals’ Hall of Fame coach.
Louisville, it should be noted, is already on NCAA probation for the scandal that broke in 2015, in which a former assistant coach allegedly masterminded a four-year conspiracy to pay for strippers and prostitutes for players and recruits in the campus dorm where the basketball players live. Pitino repeatedly claimed he knew nothing about the operation, that he was guilty only of trusting the young assistant who ran it.
Through his attorney, Pitino put out another “I know nothing” statement Tuesday. You can bet the other head coaches will also claim to be shocked — shocked — that bribery was going on.
The truth is, other than the FBI’s involvement, there’s nothing terribly new here. Thirty-five years ago, Digger Phelps, then the coach at Notre Dame, told a New York Times reporter during the Final Four in New Orleans that the going rate for big-time recruits was about $10,000 a year in basketball and $20,000 a year in football. The Times put the story on the front page. Phelps was pilloried by many colleagues — not because he was wrong but because he had broken the coaching omerta that you don’t talk about players being paid.
After wringing his hands and saying he couldn’t believe anything Phelps said was true, NCAA President Walter Byers said two years later that, if anything, Phelps’s numbers were low. The numbers quoted now by the FBI are well into six figures.
That at least one shoe company — Adidas — is implicated is certainly no surprise. Shoe companies have been guiding athletes to schools and coaches that they pay for years and years. The big-name shoe companies, most of whom spend millions on TV advertising during college football and basketball games — notably during the NCAA basketball tournament — are above the rules. Their representatives can talk to high school athletes all they want. They can give them all the gear they want, buy them concert tickets, get them front row seats to big games. Because they don’t represent the interests of any one school, they’re free and clear.
Now, though, with so much money at stake and — especially in basketball — with AAU coaches becoming so important, they are looking for other ways to get to players. That’s where the bribing of the assistant coaches came into play. The same is true of agents, many of whom employ bird-dogs to buddy up to players so they can keep their hands technically clean.
In 1994, I traveled with Maryland to the Maui Invitational. Joe Smith was a sophomore and was already being touted as a potential No. 1 pick in the next year’s NBA draft. A mysterious stranger showed up that week. He greeted Smith whenever he got off the team bus; he walked on the beach with him; he buddied up to other players.
Gary Williams knew exactly what was going on. When sports information director Chuck Walsh handed the guy a Maryland media guide, Williams went ballistic. “Don’t you understand,” he screamed. “He’s the enemy! He’s hear to convince Joe to sign with an agent and leave school!”
Williams felt helpless. “If I tell Joe the guy’s just trying to lead him to an agent or he should stay away from him, the guy’s going to say, ‘He’s just saying that because he doesn’t want you to leave school,’ ” he said. “I can’t win.”
When I tried to talk to the guy he said that he was just “an old friend” of Smith’s. When I asked who he worked for he smiled and said, “Independent contractor.”
In 2003, after a summer filled with stories about recruiting violations and low-lighted by Dave Bliss’s firing at Baylor after one of his players shot and killed a teammate, the National Association of Basketball Coaches called an ethics convention in Chicago. One of the coaches brought in to speak was former Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr.
At one point, a young, deeply religious coach stood up and said, “Coach Thompson, isn’t the best thing we can all do right now is try to have a closer relationship with Jesus Christ?”
Thompson smiled, then said: “The best thing y’all m------------ can do is stop cheating!”
That was true then, it was true when Phelps made his comments in 1982, it’s true now. But it’s not going to change through hand-wringing, empty declarations of shock or coaches getting off with wrist-slaps — like the five-game suspension Pitino was supposed to serve for his previous scandal at Louisville before yet another black eye forced the school to finally get rid of him.
Coaches need to be fired when major violations occur in their programs. They are responsible.They are the ones being paid seven figures annually.
Going further, programs need to be shut down when caught — not have coaches suspended for a few games or fined a token amount or lose a scholarship. After the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State, arguably the worst and most tragic incident in NCAA history, the Nittany Lions weren’t even taken off TV. Only taking away a school’s ability to compete and make money will get people’s attention.
And finally, let’s not kid ourselves. What the FBI uncovered isn’t limited to these six schools. We’re talking about a multibillion-dollar business. Does anyone think this is new or different or limited to those who got caught? Of course not.
The NCAA needs to be restructured into three separate entities: One to run football; one to run men’s basketball; one to run nonrevenue sports. Make rules for each that are enforceable and give whomever is in charge the power to make cheaters pay.
The longest-running tradition in college football and basketball is this: cheating is worth the risk. Until and unless that changes, it will never stop.