John Clay

For Rick Pitino and college basketball, the other shoe has finally dropped

Louisville head coach Rick Pitino walked off the court on March 19 after a 73-69 loss to Michigan in a second-round game in the men’s NCAA college basketball tournament in Indianapolis. Louisville acknowledged Tuesday that it is part of a federal investigation into corruption in college basketball.
Louisville head coach Rick Pitino walked off the court on March 19 after a 73-69 loss to Michigan in a second-round game in the men’s NCAA college basketball tournament in Indianapolis. Louisville acknowledged Tuesday that it is part of a federal investigation into corruption in college basketball. AP

Corruption. Fraud. Payments. Shoe companies. Coaches. Financial advisers. Handouts. Agents. College basketball. All wrapped in an explosive indictment laid out Tuesday by the FBI.

Surprised? Of course not. Those who follow both the sport and the shoe companies have long waited for the other shoe to drop. On Tuesday, thanks to federal prosecutors, it finally did.

Auburn assistant coach Chuck Person, Arizona assistant Emanuel Richardson, Southern Cal assistant Tony Bland and Oklahoma State assistant Lamont Evans were among 10 people charged in U.S. District Court in New York in a corruption scandal that included taking cash bribes to steer players to financial advisers and sports agents.

This is nothing new. In fact, Alexander Wolff and Armen Keteyian wrote about the shoe companies’ influence on college basketball in their 1990 book “Raw Recruits.”

“In the late Eighties, Raw Recruits era, the market incentives hadn’t yet reached their logical conclusion, the point where every last character in the system got a piece of the action,” Wolff responded Tuesday via email. “Back then, kids themselves actually told us they chose to sign with this school or that one in part because there was fashion cachet in some brand of sneaker. And you actually believed them. Now, apparently, every last snout is getting into the trough.

“As for the one thing that hasn’t changed: The NCAA’s enforcement arm is still feckless. It took the Feds to crack this case.”

Indeed, that’s the difference. The NCAA is not blind to the sport’s “dark underbelly” — acting U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim’s description — but it lacked possibly the desire and certainly the investigative powers to really crack down on the crooks.

“The difference here is criminal charges and the possibility of someone going to jail for 20 years,” college basketball analyst and attorney Jay Bilas said on ESPN.

Rick Pitino isn’t going to prison, but now that Louisville has acknowledged that it is part of the federal investigation, surely (this time) the U of L coach has to go. He claimed to be the victim in the Karen Sypher extortion scandal. He claimed to be the victim in the “Stripper Scandal” which landed U of L on NCAA probation, pending appeal. There are only so many times Pitino can say he didn’t know what was going on within his program and get away with it. Same goes for U of L Athletics Director Tom Jurich.

Meanwhile, fans of college basketball programs not mentioned or alluded to by the FBI should hold off on their celebrations. Tuesday’s bombshell might easily mushroom. Near the end of the federal news conference announcing the charges, an FBI investigator warned the sport: “We have your playbook. The investigation is ongoing.” Responded one analyst, “That’s chilling.”

That’s chilling because big-time programs know how the recruiting game is played. Coaches might not know specifics — or want to know — but they know who is shady, who is not and what is so often required to get players. Few are without secrets to hide. In those cases, they merely hope not to get caught.

After all, how many times has a player landed at a school only to have those in the know raise an eyebrow and say, “How did that happen?”

Example: Brian Bowen’s surprise commitment to Louisville in June. People asked: Why would a top prospect, not previously linked to Louisville, suddenly pledge to a program under NCAA investigation?

“We got lucky on this one,” Pitino told WHAS’ Terry Meiners at the time. “I had an AAU director call me and say, ‘Would you be interested in a basketball player?’ I said ... ‘Yeah, I’d be really interested.’ But (Bowen and his people) had to come in unofficially, pay for their hotels, pay for their meals. So we spent zero dollars recruiting a five-star athlete who I loved when I saw him play. In my 40-some-odd years of coaching, this is the luckiest I’ve been.”

For college basketball, and Pitino, the luck appears to have run out.

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