Opinion: Purge May Be Only Way to Save College Basketball

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Copyright 2017 The Evansville Courier Co.
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Evansville Courier & Press (Indiana)


They are flailing now, reaching for answers that aren't there, but say this for the presidents of Purdue, Butler and Indiana: They are reaching nonetheless. University presidents are the ones who allowed college basketball to spin out of control 25 years ago, and it is the presidents who must respond to the corruption scandal uncovered last week by the FBI. Only they can fix the sport now.

They just don't know how.

Don't mock. Don't laugh. What the FBI discovered, leading to the arrests of assistant coaches at four schools and the ouster of coach Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich at a fifth, is the result of seeds planted years before Michael McRobbie became president at IU, James Danko at Butler or Mitch Daniels at Purdue. It was 1992 when university presidents chose to outsource recruiting camps to shoe companies rather than put what were then called "exposure" camps under the purview of the NCAA. In 1992 they were trying to save a few bucks.

Today they are trying to save their sport, one that seems beyond saving.

The money, great big gobs of it that has led men to break NCAA rules and criminal laws, isn't going away. Coaches have contracts worth tens of millions of dollars. Athletic departments have contracts with shoe companies worth hundreds of millions. Some AAU coaches, willing to steer their players to this school or that one, see the money and want a piece. So do some recruits. And some of their parents.

A problem this large, this many years in the making, this human? It could require a radical solution. And one of these presidents, he has some radical notions.

"This is probably a crackpot idea," says Purdue's Mitch Daniels, "and I've got a lot of those. But what would happen if ..."

Whoa, Mr. President. Hang on. These people aren't ready for that idea yet. Let's start with something safer.

* * *

Let's start with the one-and-done rule, which is a nice and rhythmic way of saying: Identifying the most valuable young commodities in basketball, the teenagers who can and should be rich right now, and forcing them to spend a year in school, of all places.

These players, no-doubt NBA stars like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant (and Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony), will eventually earn hundreds of millions in contracts and endorsements. Working for pennies on that kid's dollar, the agent who signs one of them will be set for life. So will the money manager. The college coach who gets one of these kids, he'll be one season closer to his next eight-figure contract extension. The assistant coach who makes it happen, he'll be one step closer to becoming a head coach.

The AAU coach who travels the country with that kid when he's 16, the most important person in that kid's life - his father figure, in many cases - he can see the money everyone's going to make off the youngster. Where's his piece? Doesn't he deserve a taste? Sure he does, and he knows how to get it.

AAU coaches, the kind who have a kid with even a mediocre NBA future, have deals with shoe companies themselves. And the shoe company - hypothetically speaking, let's call it Adidas - has a vested interest in that kid, too. Adidas is giving money and product to that AAU team for one specific reason: So that kid will wear Adidas shoes when he reaches the NBA. An AAU coach with no scruples can get paid under the table by the shoe company, the agent, the money manager or the college coach. An AAU coach with no scruples and loads of ambition? He can get paid under the table by all of them.

Ending the one-and-done rule, allowing the best high school players to go directly to the NBA, won't end the flow of money as it relates to those players. But it will carve the colleges out of it.

"Once and for all, end the one-and-done rule," says Indiana's McRobbie. "I think there is a case to be made that it has played a role in this (corruption) issue. It just makes a farce of intercollegiate athletics. It's time that rule was eliminated."

Daniels concurs: "I really think the one-and-done thing hurts the game badly."

Problem: The NBA has the one-and-done rule, not college basketball. The Kentucky Wildcats aren't forcing kids like Anthony Davis and Malik Monk to spend a year in Lexington before heading to the NBA. The NBA is doing that, and the NBA is protecting its own interests. The league wants its players as mature and polished as possible, and furthermore, that year of college raises the player's profile, and therefore his value. That's the owners' position. The NBA players? The union? It also prefers those kids stay in school, not rush to the league to take roster spots from NBA veterans.

What I'm saying: Until a high school player comes along and challenges it in court, the one-and-done rule is firmly in place.

We need another idea, presidents.

"Do I have a magic answer?" Butler's Danko is telling me. "I wish I did. What I have is ..."

Well, wait. Let's get back to President Daniels and one of his crackpot ideas. Because it relates to AAU coaches. And let me tell you something: AAU coaches are the biggest reason behind college basketball's corruption. Not the only reason, no. And not every AAU coach, or even most AAU coaches, are guilty. But some of these guys? Some of these guys are capitalists. And they know free labor when they see it.

* * *

"What would happen," Mitch Daniels is saying, throwing an idea out there, "if we cut out the AAU teams?"

Go on, I say.

"However that little beast grew up, I now understand it a little better," he says. "I used to wonder: Where's their revenue come from? It's not like they're selling millions of tickets to AAU games, and it's not the TV people. It's the shoe companies doing it. I think we'd be better off if high school coaches once again had the lead position."

That would help, even more than eliminating the one-and-done rule if you ask me - only a handful of players attract the attention of NBA scouts, but hundreds attract the attention of college coaches - but the question is: How to do it?

Mitch Daniels, former governor of Indiana, one of the most respected Republicans in years past and perhaps again in the future, is spit-balling now. He wonders: "What would happen if an organization like the IHSAA says you can play one or the other, you can go through this whole AAU thing or you can play high school sports, but you can't do both?"

Daniels answers his own question.

"It's probably unfair, I don't know," he says. "I'm not trying to limit opportunities for young people, but high schools need to be more involved."

No question, I tell Daniels, and presidents don't need the IHSAA to do it. They can eliminate the summer recruiting period, allow college coaches to watch high school players only at high school games. That would be a hardship on college coaches, who are busy coaching their own teams, but it would eliminate the meat market that is the summer AAU scene.

"Maybe that's a great idea," the Purdue president says. "I do like that."

Daniels has other ideas. He's an outside-the-box thinker, and this problem will require lots of those. Because the box is filthy. And the IU president, McRobbie, wonders why it took the FBI to notice all that slime.

"I think the NCAA has to have a look at the kinds of enforcement tools they have in place," McRobbie says. "They're clearly inadequate."

Indeed. Perhaps the federal government, since it obviously is going to concern itself with corruption in schools that receive billions in federal subsidies, can grant the NCAA some sort of subpoena power - form a joint alliance with the group in charge of policing schools. Deputize the NCAA, in other words. McRobbie doesn't know about that, but he likes the sound of the NCAA having more tools at its disposal.

"These kinds of issues," McRobbie says, referring to the corruption unearthed by the FBI, "you could make a case some of this should have been uncovered a lot earlier - and maybe by the people who are a part of the collegiate athletic world."

You could, and Danko does. The Butler president, whose school has risen from a jaunty underdog to a powerhouse rubbing elbows with historical giants like Georgetown and Villanova in the Big East, has a solution that is painfully practical, if hopelessly romantic.

* * *

"The money in athletics has just grown so disproportionate that I don't know how you reverse that. I really don't," Danko says. "There's too much money, and it's flowing."

It's hopeless, I hear myself muttering. Bank robbers will always find a way to rob banks. Houses will never be completely safe from burglars. Danko hears me, too.

"You're talking about the human condition," he says. "I don't want to say we're helpless or it's hopeless, though. To me, it all starts with integrity, and I feel a great deal of hope when it comes to Butler, and then the next area I have confidence in - though not as much as I can at home - would be the Big East Conference because I know we have these conversations. But the more that circle pushes out, the less control you can possibly feel."

Dumb that down for me, I'm asking the Butler president.

"You're able to make significant strides in your own area of control," Danko says. "It's like what Reagan said, that Russian proverb: 'Trust, but verify.' We trust people who work here, but we also have to verify. We have to double- and triple-check and make sure our ethics and morality and integrity is understood by everybody. You keep preaching that and you hope to God nobody decides to go rogue on you.

"But you can't trust and verify the farther that degree of separation goes. Can you put together a basketball conference of like-minded institutions where the athlete is second to the academics, that indeed you do have legitimate student-athletes? That very much was the premise of the Big East, but even then, could I guarantee something wouldn't go haywire with one of our member schools? I can't."

And this scandal here, it has ensnared schools from coast to coast. The FBI arrested assistant coaches from USC, Arizona, Oklahoma State and Auburn. Also, Louisville and Miami have been identified as having some level of involvement. Danko knows those schools. He has worked closely with some of their presidents.

"I sat around a table three or four years ago with an NCAA strategy group, and some of these schools were there," the Butler president says. "As you go around the table and listen to everybody talk, everybody is saying the right things, but you just don't have X-ray vision into what they're really doing. Why are they saying one thing, but it doesn't resonate in the media and elsewhere?"

It's the money, I tell Danko. Not every man has a price - but some do. Some always will. So now I'm asking him, same as I've asked Daniels and McRobbie: Is there any way to stuff that genie back into the bottle? Can presidents regain control of a misshapen salary structure where the football coach or basketball coach makes five times what the president - the boss - makes?

"I've never seen it go in reverse," Danko says. "I'd love for somebody to show me a model where a lot of people are making money and they said: 'You know what? We're going to walk away from it and hit the reset button.' I can't think of a model or situation where that's ever been the case."

No, but ...

"It is something that has been brought up at (NCAA president) meetings before," Purdue's Daniels says. "There have been a few runs made at it."

Now we're getting somewhere.

* * *

"It's been brought up," Daniels says again of the idea of salary reform, "but I don't know if you run into the legalities of anti-trust. It's not that people aren't concerned. Nobody knows how to get a handle on it. And nobody wants to unilaterally disarm."

Says Danko: "You must worry about collusion and monopoly. We can't just get together and say: 'Henceforth we're not going to pay a coach more than 'X' dollars.' I don't see how you turn that around."

Now we're nowhere. Again. It just seems so hard, I tell Mitch Daniels.

"It is," he says. "It's just so damn hard."

Daniels, the one with the most unorthodox ideas, starts ruminating some more. He remembers the old industrial leagues that competed with the NBA for players in the 1950s. When Milan hero Bobby Plump graduated from Butler, he turned down the NBA to play for the Phillips 66ers out of Bartlesville, Okla. Daniels contemplates various modern forms of that sort of professional-level ball - not the NBA, but not too far away.

"I could almost imagine the Crimson Tide, sponsored by the University of Alabama," the Purdue president says. "Pay them, and if any of them want to come to class and pursue an education while there, encourage that every which way. But you make it more of a professional team."

Now Daniels is arguing with himself.

"No, I don't suppose that's the idea," he says. "How does it work? Nobody can figure that out. I've tried, and I can't figure it out."

The idea is just so large, I tell Daniels. It's easy to say: Let's pay the players. But it's so hard to put it into practice. As I'm talking, I can almost hear Daniels, on the other end of the phone line, nodding his head.

"Every reform you think of has 13 pros and 12 cons attached to it," he says. "I haven't seen something yet that didn't risk all kinds of unforeseen consequences, and I think that's why everybody hesitates to do something serious."

Which brings him back to the investigation that started this whole thing, the FBI probe roiling college basketball and terrifying its coaches. And they're terrified, scores of them. Believe that. Because the FBI hasn't found all the cheaters. The FBI hasn't come close. And maybe therein, as the FBI continues to dig, is the only hope for the sport's salvation.

"The starting point, I hope, will be an absolute bulldozer of an (FBI) investigation that doesn't stop until they've flipped everybody," Daniels says, talking about assistants who must choose: protect their head coach or go to prison. "Everybody knew this stuff was there - I heard it from our program - and we all know that this isn't about four assistant coaches and one or two programs. That has to be the starting point, and it sounds as though that's what a lot of people expect. That's a real start.

"Maybe if what's coming is a far-reaching cleansing, maybe that will reveal to us all what a smarter, fairer more honest system would look like."

It's the sport's only shot.

Find IndyStar columnist Gregg Doyel on Twitter at @GreggDoyelStar or at www.facebook.com/gregg.doyel.

Gregg Doyel


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