Commentary

Cleaning up hoops recruiting from within

Originally Published: October 28, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

Editor's Note: The NCAA board of directors met Thursday in Indianapolis to discuss the issues detailed below. Click here for the result of that meeting.

It wasn't so much a demand as a suggestion: If Seth Greenberg was interested in getting a certain high school prospect to his campus for a camp, maybe he could find a paying gig for the prospect's summer-league coach. The coach could be a camp counselor, speaker, whatever would work.

Except Greenberg, the Virginia Tech head coach, has a long-standing practice of not hiring outsiders for his camps. So there were no jobs available for the coach.

No big deal, the summer-league coach explained.

[+] EnlargeSeth Greenberg
Paul Abell/US PresswireA recruiting practice that Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg calls "legal extortion" might not be legal by NCAA standards for much longer.

Except, unfortunately, the prospect wouldn't be able to make it.

Welcome to college basketball recruiting 2009, where prospects may no longer be paid but can just as surely be bought.

Basketball prospects often come with a posse full of people with their hands out, looking for backdoor payments that may not land you a player if you pay them, but will assuredly eliminate you from consideration if you don't.

"It's legalized extortion," Greenberg said. "And what happens is you end up prostituting your value system because it affects your livelihood. If you're in the next-to-last year of a $1 million contract, what are you going to do? It's risk and reward."

The sport and its coaches have taken the hits up until now, criticized and shamed for finding ways to reinterpret the NCAA rulebook.

But the game could be on the eve of some drastic changes. And the people who are proposing the changes? Coaches.

Fed up and frustrated by the state of their game, coaches have contributed their opinions and feedbacks to a package of legislation that the NCAA Division I board of directors will consider on Thursday.

The recruiting reform package has one aim -- to curb the payola in college basketball -- and already has received the endorsement of the conference commissioners and the National Association of Basketball Coaches.

"There is a very strong feeling amongst our coaches that this money trail has got to be shut down," said NABC executive director Jim Haney. "We want to break down that perception that everyone has their hand out and is looking at colleges as a bank. I want to stress that it's not everyone who has their hand out, and certainly there are some among our coaching ranks more than willing to pay the money, but the overall feeling is it has to stop."

Among the meatier suggestions in the package:

• Eliminating so-called package deals, making it nearly impossible for a college program to hire any of the myriad of hangers-on associated with prospective student-athletes.

• Disallowing college coaches to subscribe to recruiting services run by people associated with prospects. This would curtail services offered by AAU programs (and others) that charge colleges to subscribe but sometimes offer little to no information on the prospect.

• Preventing payment to nonprofit organizations benefiting summer-club teams, prospects or people attached to prospects.

• Preventing coaches from hiring outsiders to work at their camps and clinics.

All are designed, in the words of Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, to "bright line" what is legal and illegal in a portion of the black-and-white rulebook that has been smudged gray.

The board of directors has the authority to enact some of the changes immediately. Most would go in effect by May 2010.

"I think our coaches were looking for a way to say no to these types of practices," said LuAnn Humphrey, the NCAA's associate director of enforcement and a member of the focus group. "There's been a lot of support for most of the concepts in these proposals."

As potentially ground-shaking as the rules are, the punishments come with equally sharp teeth.

Head or assistant coaches could be suspended from participation from regular-season games as well as the NCAA tournament, and the penalties would follow him to subsequent jobs.

Also, basketball players caught in the web could be rendered permanently ineligible at a school found guilty of one of these infractions.

[+] EnlargeJamie Dixon
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesJamie Dixon said the proposed penalties to coaches are "potential career-killers."

"These are potential career-killers," Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said. "I'm not saying that it's too strong, but I just expressed that the punishment to a person's career will be much greater than the single game we're talking about."

That, however, could be the best solution.

"My view is, the head coach knows everything," Delany said. "That ought to be the presumption going forward. The notion that any CEO in a small operation can take the ostrich defense ought to be eliminated."

The only proposed change that is receiving any real resistance is a limit to who can and can't work on-campus camps.

Otherwise there is almost universal consensus on the package and an expectation that it will pass.

The lunatics long have been running basketball's asylum, with more and more clever people conniving to profit off a high school kid's talent.

In some regards, the NCAA rulebook opened its own Pandora's box. By putting more and more restrictions on how often a college coach can either meet with or talk to a prospect or a prospect's family, the NCAA has opened wide the door for other people associated with high school players to waltz through and demand attention.

"It used to be, you had to recruit the mom," Haney said. "Those days are over. You don't have the time for that kind of contact, so we've almost legitimized these third parties."

And taking more than their offered inch, some of the third parties have turned college basketball into a world of shakedown-for-profit, a land where peripheral people use players as pawns in a high-stakes game for profit.

It is quid pro quo at its best -- or maybe more accurately, at its worst -- and has led to a crisis of conscience for some coaches who are tired of being forced to play dirty to survive.

"It's never been voiced to me, but there's an unwritten rule: You want my kid, you pay the price," said Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel. "You just know it because people have that reputation, and the problem is, if you don't do it, someone else will."

Out of such frustration grew the focus group. Put together in June 2008, it marks the first time three members of the NCAA enforcement staff have been asked to concentrate exclusively on one sport.

Using opinions, information and suggestions it solicited from coaches and conference commissioners, the focus group developed the rule suggestions that will go before the board.

The primary targets:

Package deals: Around for decades, the hire-me-get-him deals have grown exponentially as basketball staffs have mushroomed to the point that a 4:1 staff to player ratio is common. Video coordinators have assistants; strength coaches have assistants. Even assistants have assistants.

Under the proposal being considered, "during a two-year period prior or subsequent to the anticipated or actual enrollment of a prospective student-athlete, an institution may not employ and individual associated with the prospective student-athlete in any athletics department noncoaching position."

The key words: noncoaching position.

"I'm no angel and I'm no altar boy," said Seton Hall's Bobby Gonzalez. "But in 10 years as a head coach, I can tell you I've never had to hire a guy to get a kid. Maybe it's because I've been at schools like Manhattan and Seton Hall, where we didn't have the resources even if we wanted to, but I'd like to think that I'd never be that desperate. Now if they put the rule in, it's the same for everybody: You have to work to get a kid. It eliminates another line between the haves and the have-nots."

And it's not just the head coach who would be penalized if he tried to pull off a package deal. "If such a hire is made following the enrollment of a prospective student-athlete after they enroll at the institution within the two year-period," the recommendation reads, "the student-athlete becomes permanently ineligible for competition."

Payments to not-for-profits run by people associated with prospects: Call this one a borrowed page from the football playbook -- the end-around. Countless summer-league teams are organized as not-for-profit organizations, making payments to them seem like little more than a charitable donation. The truth is, the money goes to the basketball team, which means indirectly it's going to a prospect.

No more.

The new legislation would require every coach to annual state in writing that he has not donated or solicited funds on behalf of such nonprofit organizations.

Payments to recruiting services run by people associated with prospects: These aren't to be confused with the legit services run by people like Dave Telep, Tom Konchalski and Clark Francis, who work independently of any team. Presumably these services in question contain information on a coach's various players at various tournaments. Except most of the time they aren't updated with new information, or they contain no information at all.

[+] EnlargeJeff Capel
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonJeff Capel is in favor of most of the proposed legislation, but has an issue with the one involving camps.

Yet to stay in with the people with the connections, a basketball program can spend upwards of $15,000 on recruiting services alone.

"When you have the amount of money generated like we do in college athletics, there will always be people who would like to be compensated, some fairly and some unfairly," said Florida head coach Billy Donovan. "Some of these provide legitimate information, but others? There's nothing, and yet if you don't subscribe to their service, they'll give you a hard time recruiting."

Who can and cannot work at camps: This is the stickler. As currently written, the rule would only allow a coach to hire students and staff members from his own campus.

The real target is ending the gravy train of excessive payment to people associated with prospects. But because of the broad language of the rule as written, coaches are concerned that the best networking tool for young coaches could disappear.

"When I was just getting started, Mike Krzyzewski told me to work camps to get my foot in the door," Capel said. "If we couldn't work camps, my father never would have been a head coach, so I don't think you can eliminate that across the board."

The real wrinkle in all of this is whether the new rules will work.

Eradicating cynicism in college basketball is almost more difficult than erasing rule-breaking.

The pie-eyed and naive opinion is that this will eradicate the problems forever and that coaches will at least wipe one level of grime off their sport.

The reality?

"We are incredibly resourceful in this business," Gonzalez said. "We're like the best thieves in the world, the guys who figure out how to break into the impossible-to-break bank. There are things we won't even think of until the rules are put in, so we'll see. We'll see."

At least this is a start.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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