- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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LAS VEGAS -- Billy Donovan landed in Las Vegas on Tuesday morning to a message from his secretary, suggesting he call Florida's compliance office.
Shortly after he hung up with his compliance people, Donovan was back on the phone, explaining to Gary Charles, the president of Grassroots Basketball of America, why he wouldn't be attending the GBOA dinner that evening in honor of former shoe executive Sonny Vaccaro, an NCAA needler and basketball marketing guru considered the godfather of amateur hoops.
Donovan wasn't alone in his absence. Hours before his dinner, Charles received countless calls from coaches who said they wouldn't be coming.
The reason? The NCAA had sent out an e-mail blast that morning, strongly urging coaches to stay away.
"I was told that there could be repercussions for anyone who did go," Donovan said.
But five high-profile coaches did attend, including Bill Self of Kansas, Paul Hewitt of Georgia Tech and Norm Roberts of St. John's.
"[My compliance officer] said you can go as long as you don't pay for dinner or are at an event with prospects," Roberts said. "I didn't pay and there weren't any prospects."
Self also told ESPN.com that he did not pay. Hewitt declined comment.
A coach who did attend the dinner told ESPN.com, "No one paid to my knowledge," adding that he had not yet been contacted by the NCAA but expected he would be.
Unsure where the $800 a table/$195 per-person funds were going and concerned that some of the money could end up in the coffers for GBOA, a start-up youth basketball organization that counts 35 summer-league teams among its members, the NCAA cautioned coaches that attending the dinner and paying the entry fee could be a violation.
In a copy of the memo obtained by ESPN.com, the NCAA warns coaches. "There is a concern that the donation to Coaches vs. Cancer by GBOA is somewhat suspect and that the money solicited from our coaches will go directly to benefit non-scholastic individuals and entities."
The memo continues, " ... we are asking that notice be given to our institutions to 'proceed with caution' on this one."
By NCAA rule, college coaches cannot contribute financially to organizations or individuals with ties to prospective student-athletes.
"We had at least 30 coaches we expected to be there," said Charles, who estimated between 50-60 people were at the dinner. "Then they all started canceling. Eventually some said they could come but they couldn't pay. Excuse me, but what event do you get to attend for free? I was told that was the best they can do.
"Losing the coaches was a big hit for us. Without the money [from the coaches] to pay for the banquet, I was forced to raise the price on my showcase," Charles added.
Indeed, on Wednesday stunned coaches forked over $160 per person (cash only) for the all-day GBOA Challenge. Many were at the Henderson International gym for just one game.
"When they said 160, I thought they meant $1.60," Florida International head coach Isiah Thomas said, laughing.
Charles did say some of the money would be used to fund GBOA's national programs, including travel and academic expenses. He added that a portion was earmarked to cover the cost of the banquet at the Palms Resort and Casino, with some of the proceeds also going to Coaches vs. Cancer. The plan called for each coach in attendance to receive the team packet for the GBOA Challenge the next day (the packet contains the names and phone numbers of all participating recruits; traditionally those books run as much as $300 at other summer recruiting events).
But the NCAA memo said it had contacted the National Association of Basketball Coaches and Coaches vs. Cancer and neither organization was contacted by GBOA.
"There is some indication that the American Cancer Society may have been contacted and informed that a couple thousand dollars would be donated, but based on the large amount of the donations, there is some question as to whether a minimal donation will suffice," the memo states.
At least one conference -- the Big East -- forwarded the NCAA's e-mail directly to its compliance officers, who were asked to then send it on to coaches on the road.
"I didn't go," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said, echoing the sentiments of Georgetown's John Thompson III, Villanova's Jay Wright and Rutgers' Fred Hill. "I thought about it, but once I got the memo I told our staff we weren't going."
A league source said that it had no problem with Roberts' decision to attend, that the memo was NCAA-generated, not Big East-generated.
One Big East assistant, however, told ESPN.com that he fears the coaches who stayed away might have lost some credibility with Charles and that whatever minimal penalty the NCAA dishes out would be outweighed by the brownie points earned by attending.
Because the NCAA reacted late -- on the morning of the dinner -- not all of the coaches in Las Vegas were aware of the situation. After being invited by Charles, Donovan called his compliance office first, concerned that attending the dinner could be construed as contact with a summer-league manager during a non-contact period.
Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli, who serves on the basketball ethics committee, knew nothing about the dinner or NCAA e-mail and Indiana's Tom Crean said he only heard about it in passing.
As the NCAA sorts out the mess of this dinner -- Charles said he met with NCAA officials in Las Vegas last week -- what is clear is that this is yet another gray area in the rulebook, another can of worms the folks in Indianapolis are going to have to unravel.
Part of the problem here is that the GBOA is new and no one is quite clear what it's about. The organization's Web site says it's endeavoring to clean up youth basketball by making a more formalized league structure. It even has an advisory board of college coaches, a board Charles said he contacted about the dinner and the cost.
But GBOA also sponsors tournaments and lists a number of summer-league coaches and managers on its board of directors.
Charles, who also is the longtime director of the New York Panthers, certainly isn't the first person associated with recruits to drum up a way to get coaches together.
The late Paul "Doc" Nocelli, who coached the Madison (N.Y.) Broncos and counted Duke's Jay Williams and Pitt's Carl Krauser among his former players, for years hosted a benefit dinner on Chelsea Piers attended by college coaches.
The New York Gauchos host a gala every September, and the Pump brothers, founders of a West Coast-based summer-league organization called Double Pump, host a glitterati event in Southern California every August, complete with movie stars and swag bags.
"What's the difference?" Charles said. "What exactly is the difference?"
Some college coaches wondered if this dust-up had more to do with Vaccaro than anything. The Big East source, in fact, made it a point to say that his league's response to the NCAA memo had "nothing to do with Sonny."
A chronic thorn in the NCAA's side, Vaccaro received the Pioneer Award on Tuesday night and then spent the better part of his hour-long speech railing against the insufficiencies and double-standards he sees in the NCAA.
This run-in won't smooth the waters.
"We wanted this to be an annual event," Charles said. "We wanted this year to be the year we showed what we were trying to do. We hope we can clear this up before next year. If not, I guess we have to go on without the coaches."
ESPN.com senior writer Andy Katz contributed to this story. Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.