SAN FRANCISCO — Pac-12 Conference men’s basketball has an image problem.
The league isn’t alone, of course. Not after the sweeping bombshell that dropped two weeks ago that rocked the sport.
For those who somehow missed the eruption, an FBI investigation resulted in the arrests on Sept. 26 of 10 college basketball figures—four assistant coaches, along with agents and apparel company executives — on a laundry list of various bribery, conspiracy, and fraud charges. Two of those four assistants, Tony Bland at USC and Emanuel Richardson at Arizona, did their alleged dirty work in the Pac-12.
Two other programs, Miami (Fla.) and Louisville, were implicated as well, with the fallout including the firing of Louisville’s Hall of Fame coach, Rick Pitino. On Wednesday, Louisville also fired assistant Jordan Fair.
It was a surreal setting Thursday, as all 12 coaches paraded to the podium at the league’s annual media day spent far more time discussing the sordid state of college basketball than the outlooks of their respective teams for the upcoming season.
As much as USC coach Andy Enfield and Arizona coach Sean Miller would prefer otherwise, the questions aren’t going to disappear throughout the 2017-18 season. If anything, the ongoing FBI probe will reveal more bad actors by the time fans start filling out their March Madness brackets. In response, the NCAA and the Pac-12 took commendable first steps in the right direction the past two days, with the NCAA announcing the formation of a Commission on College Basketball to be chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The Pac-12 followed suit on Thursday, with league commissioner Larry Scott announcing the formation of a task force charged with addressing “systemic issues threatening college athletics.” While the full roster of the 10-to-12 member task force will be finalized in the coming weeks, Scott announced the first five members on Thursday — Hall of Fame coach Mike Montgomery, former football star Charles Davis, longtime basketball administrator Tom Jernstedt, USC athletic director Dan Guerrero, and Utah athletic director Chris Hill.
The formation of these panels is only the first step. In order for them to have teeth, to affect real change instead of coming across as timely PR moves, they must reexamine every aspect of a sport whose “seedy underbelly,” as CU coach Tad Boyle often describes it, has become the status quo. They must address the mega-million deals all universities make with apparel companies, agreements that have opened the door to the sort of abuse of the system uncovered by the FBI. They must appeal to the NBA and its players union to end the requirement of one year of college before draft eligibility, paving the way for the best high school prospects to get paid over the table instead of under it. Those are just two starting points for a sport requiring an extreme makeover.
Making matters worse for the Pac-12 is the programs with the stink of scandal surrounding them are undoubtedly the top two squads in the league, with the Wildcats and Trojans finishing one-two in the preseason media poll. Unless one of them takes the bold step of self-imposing a postseason ban like Louisville did in 2016 — don’t hold your breath on that one — chances are either Arizona or USC will be cutting down the nets in Las Vegas at the end of the Pac-12 tournament in March, celebrating while the coaches who helped recruit those players face the specter of prison.
Unless the panels formed by the league and the NCAA start making inroads toward change by then, it will be hollow victory celebrations for either team in Vegas. And a conference title by either Arizona or USC will be a loss for the Pac-12.