A favorite slogan of the last presidential campaign was “Drain The Swamp.’’ It turns out they weren’t talking about Washington D.C. Instead, they were talking about the NCAA basketball landscape.
The news that 10 persons including four assistant coaches faced bribery charges from the FBI was just the appetizer. Indicted were Auburn assistant Chuck Person, USC assistant Tony Bland, Arizona assistant Emanuel Richardson and former Oklahoma State assistant Leonard Evans. At issue was the policy of apparel companies paying off coaches to steer top players into certain schools and agents. And by the way, how about wearing these neat sneakers and warmups with the handsome logos?
The main course came when Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino was placed on unpaid administrative leave by the University of Louisville. Pitino took with him athletic director Tom Jurich, whose salary continues, for now.
Pitino and his program were in hot water before the latest problem. There were allegations that a former staff member had arranged for some saucy entertainment for potential Louisville recruits. Pitino insisted he knew nothing about that bit of nastiness but he still was suspended for the first five games of the upcoming Atlantic Coast Conference season. He was appealing that punishment when the latest hammer fell.
Trouble seems to follow him around. His first college coaching job was at Hawaii where NCAA sanctions were imposed and he was implicated in eight violations. Then there was the nasty extra-marital affair with the wife of a staff member at Louisville which led to an attempted extortion. That was followed by the entertainment episode which led to the five-game suspension. Now, he faces a much longer absence and is unlikely to ever coach the Cardinals again.
Up the road from Louisville, the folks at the University of Kentucky had to be smiling broadly at their in-state rival’s troubles. After all, nobody knocked on the door of Wildcats coach John Calipari this time. Calipari previously had Final Four appearances by Memphis and Massachusetts vacated by the NCAA, the only coach with that distinction.
Unpaid leave for Pitino means Slick Rick misses out on paydays from a $7.7 million contract, the highest paid coach in the game. And therein lies the problem. College basketball has become a minefield of big money deals with coaches earning huge salaries, more money than the most prominent professors on campus. Many major programs fund whole athletic departments and many shoe companies fund all of the above.
Acting U.S. attorney Joon Kim announced the charges against Person, a former NBA star, Bland, Richardson and Evans as well as marketing executive James Gatto, who works for the adidas apparel company. Kim said the case exposed “the dark underbelly of college basketball.’’
It merely scratched the surface and there are plenty of other people in the game waiting for the other shoe – no pun intended – to drop.
Consider that national champion North Carolina has had NCAA investigators buzzing around the program for several years examining charges of academic fraud. Three years after the charges first surfaced, the NCAA finally got around to a hearing on the case in August. And while they investigated, the Tar Heels cut down the nets and collected a ton of income from the NCAA tournament. Nobody has been charged or arrested at Chapel Hill.