Commentary

What's wrong with college basketball?

In a survey of 20 high-profile coaches, the shadiness of the recruiting trail is exposed

Originally Published: July 22, 2010
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. -- The image of college basketball has taken a beating in recent years, with rumors, murmurs and innuendo about cheating spreading like wildfire. Cynics believe no one is trying to follow the NCAA rulebook and that the game has fallen victim to the begging hands of agents, runners and hangers-on looking to collect on the next NBA star.

Is it that bad? What are the real problems? And is the NCAA doing enough to fix those problems?

To get the answers, ESPN.com went to the sources. During the EYBL Peach Jam last week, we interviewed 20 high-profile head coaches, representing each of the six power conferences. With the promise of full anonymity, we asked them to tell the truth about their sport.

And they did.

What is your least favorite part of summer recruiting?

No one likes the constant travel, the bad basketball and the emphasis on individual skills instead of team play.

[+] EnlargeSean Miller
Liam Foley/Icon SMICoaches travel everywhere to watch high school kids in July, but can't keep an eye on their own.

But of the coaches surveyed, many -- eight of the 20 -- cited the time away from campus and their own players as the biggest problem with the summertime.

"I have my team over for a barbecue before I leave in July,'' one coach said. "Little do they know it's a farewell, not a welcome barbecue.''

"You walk into a living room and promise a mother that you'll be there for her son,'' said another. "And as soon as they get on campus, you're gone.''

"They're all on campus and I'm on the road,'' added another. "If they do something stupid, I'm going to get fired -- but I can't be there to see what they're doing.''

Some other popular grievances:

"What don't I like? All of it. I don't think there should be summer recruiting, period. They want to clean it up? Get rid of it.''

"I'll tell you another problem -- 70 percent of the kids we're sitting here watching should be in summer school. They shouldn't be here.''

"What don't I like about summer? Everything. The babysitting, the ass-kissing. Does that cover it?''

If you could change, add or delete one rule in the NCAA Manual, what would it be?

Like the endless rulebook, the suggestions here were endless. In fact, there were so many opinions that it was impossible to get any sort of consensus.

One coach even offered a sweeping renovation: "All of it. Get rid of the whole thing. There are so many stupid rules in that thing that you can't enforce. We need to throw it away.''

The hottest topics?

April recruiting: In 2009, the NCAA board accepted a proposal from the Basketball Issues Committee to prevent college coaches from evaluating prospects in April, unless the prospects are on a high school, prep school or junior college campus. The idea was to keep high school kids in school.

"That passed with 60 percent of the vote,'' one coach said. "Where are all those people who were in favor of eliminating it?''

Apparently overruled, because no one seems happy that the spring evaluation period essentially has been eliminated.

"They stopped it because they didn't want the kids out of school,'' one coach said. "Well, they're still having the events, so why can't we go?''

"Give me April and time in July off the road so I can be with my players,'' another said, combining the two biggest complaints. "Everyone likes to talk about the APR [Academic Progress Rate] and they want to hold us accountable for the APR. Well, let me be on campus in the summer when my guys are getting started. Let me make sure they get off on the right foot.''

Phone calls: In an age of immediate technology, most everyone agreed that the limit on phone calls was laughable, though there was one dissenter who said, "To me, your brain is like this [making a fist] and with enough phone calls to a kid, you can mold that brain by twisting it and turning it with the information.''

That coach, however, was a lone wolf screaming in the wind.

"Everyone has caller ID; everyone has unlimited texting. If you don't want to talk to me, hit ignore. I hit ignore all the time.''

"I get a kick out of the phone calls. Who gets caught with that anymore? It's a joke. They're out there catching the guy with the one phone. How about the guy with two and three bat phones?''

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim
AP Photo/Mark DuncanWhile recruiting, coaches better keep their eye on the court and steer clear of the players.

The so-called bump rule: Back in the day, summer league games ended with an on-court receiving line, with coaches lined up to glad-hand and talk to the prospects and their coaches.

It got so ridiculous that the NCAA decided to make the summer an evaluation-only period. That means no talking at all, as in no hello in a crowded hallway.

"We have the NCAA gestapettes around here like World Cup officials,'' one coach said, referring to the NCAA representatives -- most of whom are women -- who monitor the summer circuit. "You smile at a kid, they give you a yellow card. Do it twice, it's a red card and you're off the road.''

How many of your peers do you trust?

Let's put it this way: There is more honor in politics. Here's the breakdown:

• Eight said flat-out no, they do not trust their peers.

"No, not at all. Maybe some of it is hearsay, but I don't trust them at all.''

• Five said they trust fewer than 10 of their colleagues.

"How many? Five,'' one coach said. Five percent? "No, five total,'' he said. "And those five are my assistants.''

• Three said they actually have faith in their fellow coaches and trust "most."

"I'd say 95 percent. There have been very few times in my career where someone did something absolutely underhanded to me. It's happened, but not a lot.''

• One said 50 percent with a caveat.

"Half, but maybe I'm overly optimistic.''

• One dodged the question.

"That's a loaded question. I think at heart, coaches are in it for the right reason. But I also know that everyone is trying to gain an advantage.''

• One evaded it.

"I would say I respect everybody because I know how hard they work.''

• One gave an answer within a non-answer.

[+] EnlargeCoaches Recruiting
Liam Foley/Icon SMICollege coaches generally play nice in public, but apparently don't trust each other much privately.

"Well, everybody talks about you. You do this long enough, someone is going to say something bad about you. Last year someone said I didn't go to practice.''

The one thing everyone agreed on: The lack of trust is disheartening.

"I would send my kid to play for seven coaches,'' another said, before going on to name them. Those names, however, could compromise his identity, so they won't be revealed here.

"It's sad,'' another coach said. "I grew up in this game with an idea of what I thought it was or what I thought it should be. Now I see it's not like that at all. You have low- to mid-major guys aspiring to move up who will do anything to get there and you have guys who, once they get used to a certain lifestyle, will do whatever it takes to keep it.''

"There's less of a brotherhood here than there is in football and that bothers me,'' another added. "We have more guys stabbing each other in the back or using you guys [the media] to go after their agenda. That's a big problem.''

How many programs do you think are committing major violations? Secondary? And why does no one snitch?

Here's the silver lining for college basketball: Virtually every coach thinks that the majority of Division I programs are not intentionally breaking major rules. Of the 20, only four said 25 percent or more of the programs were, in the words of one coach, "committing felonies.''

"I had a question about e-mailing a kid and I asked another coach,'' someone explained. "He thought we could; I thought we couldn't. We both called our compliance directors and got two different answers."

So why, then, do most people think college basketball is like the Wild Wild West, full of outlaws and renegades?

Backstabbing.

"Here's what I think happens a lot -- a team loses a kid to someone else and all of a sudden that someone else is cheating. Every time North Carolina loses a kid, someone else is cheating. It's like there's so much arrogance with them; they can't believe someone would rather go somewhere else, so the other team has to be cheating.''

I had a question about e-mailing a kid and I asked another coach. He thought we could; I thought we couldn't. We both called our compliance directors and got two different answers.

Those who have been around the game the longest will tell you cheating has been going on as long as the game has been played.

"In the old days, the coaches had bird dogs. A guy would walk in a gym and you knew, 'OK, he's working for Frank McGuire; he's working for Al McGuire.' But funny enough, there was almost an honor in the fact that it was so out in the open. Now you don't know who the bad guys are.''

Indeed, most everyone agrees that the cheaters have become far more nuanced. Gone are the days of the bags of money; in their place are people inventing ways to circumvent the meaning of a rule.

"I know guys help a kid get into a school that's not really a school. Is it breaking a rule? Technically, no. Is it on the up and up? Absolutely not. I don't think guys are climbing in windows and changing grades, but they are massaging things to make it easier for kids.''

"One of my players [who left early for the draft] was working out with another top-five draft pick,'' a coach said. "They got to talking and my kid said something about not having money or whatever on campus. The other kid said, 'My coach set up expense accounts all over town for me. Yours didn't?'''

So with so much information on teams, why doesn't anyone snitch?

"If you snitch, you're Abar Rouse [the former Baylor assistant who taped the phone conversation with then-coach Dave Bliss and has since been ostracized from coaching]. That's why no one talks. Plus, how do you prove it? I know stuff. I know stuff that is 100 percent happening right now, but the NCAA wants proof. How can I prove it?"

Which league is the cleanest? The dirtiest?

Congratulations, Jim Delany. Your league wins in a landslide. Of the 20 coaches surveyed, 11 said the Big Ten was the cleanest in the country. Three others cited the land where time stood still, also known as the scholarship-less Ivy League. (Although even the Ancient Eight earned one disparaging nod: "The Ivy League,'' one coach said before pausing to add, "I mean the Ivy League a couple of years ago, before all of that stuff at Harvard.")

But coaches cited the Big Ten's perceived willingness to police itself and rosters that "made sense," in which players traditionally come from the footprint of the schools they choose to attend.

"Look at Michigan State,'' one coach said. "They're there every year. When you see the dips, then you wonder. What happened? What didn't happen? But a guy like Tom Izzo, he's there every year because you know what his program is about and so do his players. There's a consistency and an integrity.''

[+] EnlargeSEC Logo
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe SEC has made an effort to clean itself up, but its perception among coaches is still not favorable.

As for the dirtiest, despite Mike Slive's best efforts to clean up the image, the Southeastern Conference was perceived as the worst, with three coaches partnering the SEC with the Big East and another tossing in the Big 12 (one coach went league-by-league, counting up schools). All in all, the SEC was named by 14 of the coaches.

"Oh no, it's not just a myth,'' one coach said about the SEC. "It's the truth.''

Others weren't so sure, however.

"Everyone says the SEC, but that's because of [the] football thing," said one coach. "That's the standard answer, but I'm not sure it's true.''

Added another: "The perception is the SEC doesn't have a good reputation. I don't know if that's legit or fair. I was on the other side 10 years ago. If a program starts getting better, starts getting kids, the question is always the same: What's he doing? He's gotta be doing something. And that adds to the perception.''

One longtime coach said the image is slowly getting repaired.

"I do think by hiring guys like Anthony Grant at Alabama, the SEC is on the right track to cleaning things up.''

If you could land a top-five player but had to break a major rule to do it -- knowing there was a zero percent chance of getting caught -- would you?

This interesting ethical/moral question brought out a lot of interesting answers.

Only one coach hinted that he would consider it, asking: "Where am I in my career? It's a risk-reward. If you're at the beginning of your career or at the end of your contract, you might take the risk.''

And one other admitted, "Now would I break a minor rule? A secondary? Yes, absolutely.''

Everyone else said absolutely no way they would take the devil trade (though, naturally, everyone agreed that someone else would and has).

But here's where it gets interesting. Six coaches said they wouldn't do it because they couldn't look at themselves in the mirror or because they wouldn't knowingly break a rule, regardless of the outcome.

Most everyone else?

The rationale went like this: "You can't coach him,'' one coach explained. "He'd always have something over you, so how do you make him practice hard? How do you make him go to class?''

Or they pointed to strict liability, which means a head coach can be fired for the transgression of an assistant, or new contractual clauses as deterrents.

"A lot of universities now have clauses where, if you're found guilty of a major violation, you have to pay for any costs incurred from the investigation,'' a coach said. "You start adding up lawyer costs and that will stop people.''

Are rules being broken here this week at Peach Jam?

The simple answer: Yes. The more complicated: Define "rules."

Only two coaches thought something truly nefarious was happening on the Georgia/South Carolina border.

"I may bump into a coach at a hotel and say hello," said one, "but I also know there are people who purposely stay in a hotel because a team is there. That's shady."

"Are there meetings going on in hotels right now? Absolutely. The deals and plans are being hatched.''

Everyone else thought it was of the minor violation type -- i.e., saying hello to a recruit in the hallway or his parents in a restaurant.

However, the silly bump rule can get downright dirty if taken to the extreme. Most of the NCAA reps are women, and women can't go into men's rooms. There's a real paranoia that some coaches are following prospects or their coaches or parents into the restrooms to broker deals.

"I don't know. I've never won a recruit in the bathroom,'' one coach said. "Maybe I need to pee more.''

How often during the recruitment of a player does someone -- a coach, a parent, someone else -- ask for something in return? How does it happen?

Here's where it really gets ugly. This hasn't happened to every coach (12 said they've faced it directly), but all 20 of them know it goes on.

Bruce Pearl and Billy Donovan
Jim Owens/Icon SMIWhile at tournaments, coaches attempt to evaluate but often run into people with their hands out.

"It happened to me this morning,'' one coach said. "I had a guy try to hand me a résumé, get them a job.''

Sometimes it's subtle; sometimes it's overt, but the implication is understood -- if you want to recruit my player/son, you'll need to take care of me first.

"It will start off as, 'You know, he's had a part-time job and now that he's going to college, I won't have that income … what can you do to help me?''' one coach said. "Or it's, 'I've never missed one of his games. How am I going to afford to travel to see him play now?'''

"I almost cringe when I have a job opening,'' another coach said. "Here it comes. I used to get calls from other coaches. Now it's AAU coaches, trying to place their guys.''

No one admitted to completing the transaction, yet all 20 said they lost a player because they chose not to complete the transaction.

"I think a lot of times they're just floating it out there, see if you'll bite,'' another coach said. "But you know what? If you don't, someone else might.''

What is the biggest problem facing college basketball?

Finally, 100 percent consensus: It's agents and runners. Not only are they sullying the game, but they're also changing the way players look at their college careers.

That's no news flash. Agents have long been considered the boogeyman of college athletics. What's interesting? How they're doing business:

Loans or lines of credit: "Say you've got a top-10 kid but you don't have a lot of money,'' one coach explained. "The agent will get a line of credit through his financial adviser for you in your name. When your kid goes pro, you pay it back.''

Prepaid debit cards: Slightly different than a loan, these allow an agent to offer a constant stream of cash by giving a prospect or a prospect's family member a card with a cash value that can be constantly stuffed with more money, not unlike an actual bank account. The kicker: As of now, the NCAA has no way of tracking the transaction.

"That's the latest one I've heard,'' said one coach.

Tying in to a summer league program: Numerous coaches said that agents now have ties to specific summer league teams and that the people serving as coaches are actually already agents' runners.

Another coach, who recently coached a top-five draft pick, said that every agent who came to sign his player offered the same thing: "If you sign with me, I'll deliver you this guy and that guy. Every single one of them is tied to an AAU team. Every one. They cook the deal with the AAU coach. He gets the kid on campus and then cuts a cut.''

Hiring parents as "consultants": Shoe companies sponsor virtually every summer league team. The team wears the shoe company's gear and plays in the shoe company's sanctioned events.

"I've heard of shoe companies hiring parents at ridiculous salaries as their consultants,'' one coach said. "Parents are making a big comeback. They look at their children as property or dollar signs, not children. They all see the big cashout.''

The big cashout, of course, is the NBA, the albatross hanging around many a coach's neck. Hemmed in by the league's age limit, many coaches are wondering what exactly they're doing for a living.

Parents are making a big comeback. They look at their children as property or dollar signs, not children.

"We don't coach anymore,'' one coach said. "This job isn't about coaching. It's about acquiring talent.''

"What's happening at Kentucky, all these one-and-dones, that's not good for our game,'' another added.

Indeed, many coaches thought that the one-and-done rule has diminished the value of a college career -- even a one-year college career. They point to players who are more concerned with their individual stats or who are so preoccupied with their future, they aren't paying attention to their present.

"I told a kid recently, 'If you say NBA one more time I'm walking out the door,''' a coach said. "If you're good enough, you'll leave after one year or two years or three years. I'm here to talk to you about coming to college and playing for me. I had six kids leave early. The ones who were all-in went [top 10]; the ones who had one foot out the door went late.''

Do you have faith in the NCAA to monitor and control college basketball?

Sort of.

All but three coaches thought the NCAA was at least trying to get a handle on the problems of college basketball. The catch? No one thought it could succeed.

"They're trying,'' said one coach, echoing the sentiments of the majority. "But no matter what the rule, people are going to cheat and the problem is, the best of the best, you're never going to catch them.''

[+] EnlargeNCAA Logo
G Fiume/Getty ImagesThe coaches interviewed didn't seem to have a whole lot of confidence in the NCAA.

Coaches pointed to an unfair numbers advantage -- more coaches than NCAA investigators -- and a savvier coaching fraternity as the top problems.

And others thought the organization was little more than a bureaucratic hypocrisy.

"The NCAA is stealing money from television and they don't want to kill the golden goose,'' one said. "Look at the people on the NCAA committees. The guys who are doing things the right way, they aren't on the NCAA committees. Why is that?''

There's also an interesting gender dynamic at work. As noted earlier, almost all of the NCAA investigators are women and they are policing a man's game. That doesn't go unnoticed by the coaches, nor does it help the investigators get taken seriously all the time.

Along with the coach who called the women, "the gestapettes," another said, "If the NCAA was serious, they'd hire someone who knew what they were doing, not these women out here trying to get a husband.''

Are you optimistic/pessimistic about the game?

Mixed bag here. Most coaches (15 of 20) thought the game was more scrutinized and regulated than it's ever been and believe that the sport is on its way to redemption. Yet even they concede there are major problems with college basketball's image and its actions.

"I think there are more good than bad out there,'' one coach said. "But if you keep saying something, people believe it and we keep saying it. Things have been going on for 50 years and they'll be going on 50 years from now, but we make it seem like it's the worst it's ever been now. I don't think so. I don't know if the game has ever been better or the competition has ever been better.''

Others, however, were far more pessimistic.

They see coaches perceived as rulebreakers being rehired -- and the NCAA, in their opinion, is doing little to stop them.

"I sometimes wonder, 'Can I survive in this profession without compromising who I am?''' one said. "I'm not sure about that answer and it really disappoints me.''

Added another: "I know this: I'm glad I'm not 40 and just getting started in this business. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I would say I'm a little more pessimistic about things than I was a few years ago. It just seems like we can't stop it. The bad guys keep winning.''

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

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