John Clay

Threat of more bombshells hangs over start of college basketball season

Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl high-fived his bench after a three-pointer banked in for his team during its 92-72 loss to Kentucky last January in Lexington. One of Pearl’s assistant coaches, Chuck Person, was charged in September in a federal investigation into college basketball recruiting.
Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl high-fived his bench after a three-pointer banked in for his team during its 92-72 loss to Kentucky last January in Lexington. One of Pearl’s assistant coaches, Chuck Person, was charged in September in a federal investigation into college basketball recruiting. Lexington Herald-Leader

This should be the time to celebrate. College basketball is starting. Kentucky men’s basketball media day is Thursday. Big Blue Madness is Friday. Kentucky’s first regular-season game, Nov. 10 against Mark Pope and Utah Valley University, is less than a month away.

Instead, it’s a time of trepidation. The art of biting fingernails has joined the sound of bouncing balls. Trepidation. Worry. Since the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York dropped its bombshell of an FBI college basketball investigation two weeks back, a dark cloud has appeared over the sport. And no one is quite sure what will happen next.

We could know more soon. Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman tweeted last week his sources say new charges could be coming soon. The Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday a source familiar with the investigation said as many as 40 to 50 coaches, assistant and head coaches, could lose their jobs before this is through.

[More charges in college basketball scandal could be coming soon]

Rick Pitino has already lost his job. Never mind he’s the only coach to lead two different schools to national titles. Never mind Pitino claims to have no knowledge of the alleged pay-for-play scheme that sent vaunted recruit Brian Bowen to U of L. Technically, Pitino has been placed on administrative leave at Louisville. In reality, he’s out.

He won’t be alone. Same goes for the four assistant coaches charged in the initial federal criminal complaint. This is a federal investigation, after all, which has ways of loosening lips. Once one coach talks, others will talk. Investigators have a saying: Once it starts rolling, it always rolls downhill.

In the long run, this could be the best thing that ever happened to college basketball. It re-frames the debate on the facade that is now amateur athletics. It exposes the dirty money involved. It questions the role of an athletic department at a major university. It exposes the shadowy world — “underbelly” according to the federal complaint — of AAU basketball and college recruiting.

In the meantime, however, off-the-court developments threaten to overshadow on-the-court happenings. Even when the investigation is not talked about, it will always be hovering, waiting to drop more bad news at any moment.

Nothing that we know of incriminates Kentucky, but you know John Calipari will be asked about it Thursday. It’s media day. With Calipari being one of the most recognizable coaches in the business, what does he know? What does he think? Where does he think the game is headed? Is he nervous?

Make no mistake, all head coaches are nervous. Suppose Player X plays for your school and the investigation uncovers that your shoe company gave money to Player X’s family to come to your school. Maybe you knew about it, maybe you didn’t. It may not matter. The latest trend in NCAA penalties suggests head coaches who didn’t know should have known. The head coach is responsible. Plausible deniability is out, program accountability is in.

Arizona Coach Sean Miller claims he did not know that his longtime assistant Book Richardson, one of the four coaches charged two weeks ago, was allegedly up to no good. So far, Miller has survived where Pitino did not, but Arizona has announced an internal investigation. Southern Cal, which employed assistant Tony Bland at the time Bland was one of the four charged, has hired former FBI director Louis Freeh to conduct its investigation. Such investigations never end well.

In the meantime, the games are about to begin. As always, Calipari’s team is young and talented and a probable Final Four contender. Duke will be very good again. So will Arizona. After a down year, Michigan State is primed for a comeback. Even with an interim coach in David Padgett, and without Brian Bowen, Louisville has talent. It will be interesting to see how it all turns out.

We’ll see if college basketball fans can enjoy the season while at the same time holding their breath.

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