Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Before she took over the Colorado women’s basketball program in 1983, Ceal Barry cut her coaching teeth at Cincinnati. In those days there was no sanctioned NCAA national championship for women’s basketball, and the manner in which she often filled her roster was almost as quaint as peach bucket baskets and Chuck Taylor high-tops.
“You’d have an open audition in the gym, and all the athletes that you had recruited came to your gym,” Barry recalled. “They came to you. You picked out three or four of them and offered them a scholarship and walked them around campus. We can’t go back to that. But I always thought the coaches of women’s basketball had seen some of the path that men’s basketball had gone and we had the opportunity for foresight.”
These days those auditions for men’s basketball often are held at AAU showcases funded by one athletics apparel company or another, with young athletes who often are doted upon like superstars from the moment they throw down their first dunks as pogo-legged youngsters. By the time they’re first seen by Division I coaches, that 16-year old might already have upwards of 100,000 followers on Twitter.
The culture of the recruiting trail — a sordid world of street agents, apparel company reps, athlete hangers-on, and Division I coaches forced to sort through the quagmire while straining to keep their own noses clean — that has festered for decades boiled over, perhaps inevitably, in late September. That’s when the college basketball world was rocked by the revelation a years-long FBI investigation had resulted in the arrests of 10 people, including four prominent Division I assistant coaches.
Two of those coaches were from rivals of CU in the Pac-12 Conference — Tony Bland of USC and Emanuel “Book” Richardson from Arizona. Barry, who overcame those rustic roots to win 427 games in 22 seasons as CU’s head coach before becoming the university’s senior associate athletic director, is part of a Pac-12 task force formed in the wake of the arrests to try and address the myriad issues staining the game.
It is an unenviable challenge. How do you fix a broken system? And even if the task force comes through with meaningful ideas when it presents its findings to the Pac-12 CEO group in March, how to you implement change when the reach of the NCAA to enforce such rules extends only so far?
Best in the biz
On Oct. 12, just two weeks after the FBI arrests marred the image of the league, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott announced the formation of the league’s task force.
Scott revealed half the committee that day — former Stanford and Cal coach Mike Montgomery; FOX Sports football analyst and former Stanford administrator Charles Davis; longtime basketball administrator Tom Jernstedt; UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero; and Utah AD Chris Hill. A month later the commission was finalized with the addition of Barry; Alan Green, the Pac-12 faculty rep from USC; former Stanford basketball star Brevin Knight; former UCLA coach Steve Lavin; former Stanford women’s basketball star Jennifer Azzi; Yogi Roth, a former player at Pitt and coach at USC who now works for the league network; and Bob Myers, the general manager of the Golden State Warriors and a former player at UCLA.
It is an impressive cache of athletics brains in general and basketball wisdom in particular. The group is scheduled to present its findings to the Pac-12 CEO group, which is comprised of the member schools’ presidents and chancellors, in March. Even with some of the most accomplished basketball minds diving into the myriad problems, the task force faces a number of hurdles in implementing real change through whatever recommendations come to light in March.
Firstly, the meek power of the NCAA to actually enforce its thick catalogue of rules has been exposed. The NCAA obviously doesn’t have the warrant and subpoena power of the FBI. In turn, its ability to investigate the more egregious of institutional crimes is limited. Just because prominent assistants like Bland and Richardson are arrested doesn’t mean the NCAA can instantly hand down sanctions against the respective programs, no matter how distasteful that reality is to the majority of college basketball fans.
“The best takeaway from the FBI investigation is that it’s forcing us to talk about real issues in collegiate athletics,” Roth said. “One might argue that we’ve talked about those behind closed doors too often. We’re just trying to find answers to save the game, whether that’s college basketball or college football. It’s forcing us to talk about something that was kind of assumed and known in college basketball, even college football, recruiting landscape but never necessarily addressed. And now we have to talk about it.”
While the arrests of the four assistant coaches highlighted the FBI bust, it also brought to light the manner in which apparel companies attempt to manipulate top prospects like puppets on a string.
Among the others arrested was Jim Gatto, a director of global marketing at Adidas. Gatto and other defendants are charged with giving $100,000 to a family of a big-time recruit for, as FBI documents stated, a “public research university” in Kentucky. That player was later outed as Louisville’s five-star incoming freshman Brian Bowen. Louisville announced in November Bowen would never play for the Cardinals, and the scandal cost Louisville head coach Rick Pitino his job.
Still, the notion the influence of apparel companies can simply be removed from the equation is impossible, if not laughable. Such companies typically sponsor the major prep-player showcases where college coaches gather to woo recruits. Additionally, big-time athletics programs have been in bed with these same apparel companies for years. Colorado, for instance, has had a business relationship with Nike since 2001, and the latest renewal of the deal in 2016 gives CU roughly $3 million per year in compensation and product through the 2024-25 school year.
A 2016 report published by Forbes (before CU’s Nike renewal that same summer) shows the Buffs’ deal with Nike is relatively modest compared to other Division I institutions. At the top of that Forbes list are UCLA, Ohio State, Texas, and Michigan, all of which receive over $15 million in benefits per year in their respective deals with apparel companies.
Think any recommendations from the Pac-12 task force will work toward eliminating the influence of apparel company agents from the equation? Not if anyone follows the money.
“The one thing that I do know is that shoe companies are part of our business,” CU head coach Tad Boyle said. “They’re not going to go away from our business. Our guys do have to wear sneakers. I think the task force is certainly looking into that aspect and angle of our business model, if you will. What they find and what comes of it is yet to be determined. Let’s wait and see what that commission comes up with, and what thoughts and ideas they have, what information they uncover. We’re a Nike company, and certainly we’re not in conversations with Nike when it comes to recruiting at all. Maybe there are some schools that are but I don’t know that. I’m certainly not going to make any accusations on things I don’t know.”
Inhibitors to change
Just before the Pac-12’s October announcement of its task force, the NCAA made a similar move, convening a Commission on College Basketball to tackle many of the same issues being researched by the Pac-12 group. A week ago at the NCAA convention, NCAA president Mark Emmert declared there will be meaningful change in college basketball in 2018…without detailing what those changes might look like.
And therein resides a major hurdle for either task force. Beyond the various coach contact rules, the NCAA can’t regulate what happens at AAU showcases. While an appeal to the NBA to drop the one-and-done rule might be in the offing, it remains an NBA rule and not an NCAA regulation. The money infused into athletic departments by apparel companies isn’t going anywhere. And even if the Pac-12 task force brainstorms a few valid rules proposals, Barry noted, “You don’t want to disadvantage coaches by saying, ‘This is going to be a Pac-12 rule.'”
In the end, offering ideas for change might prove far easier than actually implementing change.
“I think a lot of people feel change has got to happen. That we can’t continue along this same path. And I think there’s some real strong-minded people that feel that way,” said Montgomery, who was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016. “But college basketball is a billion dollar business. And so like any billion-dollar-plus business, there’s stuff. Whether you talk politics, whether you talk business, there’s people that are bad actors. I think most of the people would like to see it done the right way. But as long as you can benefit from going outside the law, there’s going to be people who are going to do it. The notion that any group can completely solve all of the problems is not realistic. But I think that there are a lot of people who are calling for change. I’m hopeful that something comes out of it.”
Around the same time the Pac-12 task force shares the results of its months-long research with the CEO group, the league will host its men’s basketball tournament in Las Vegas. If the two most talented teams reach the championship game, Arizona will take on USC.
In that scenario, when the book is closed on the 2017-18 Pac-12 men’s basketball campaign, one of the coaches whose longtime assistant is awaiting trial in what essentially is a pay-for-play scandal will be cutting down a net and hoisting a trophy.
More than a few college basketball fans are likely to find such a sight disgusting. And it will be easy to wonder if it’s too late for a set of reactive rules changes — no matter how well-meaning the intentions — can correct the course of a college basketball train that already is careening off the tracks.