John Clay

NCAA’s Midwest Region a testament to second chances

To hear the snickers, the head coaches of the four semifinalists of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament’s Midwest Region might have to pony up for extra charges given the amount of baggage they’re carrying to Kansas City.

There’s Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl, NCAA “show cause” judgment alumnus, now under scrutiny for questionable hiring decisions. There’s Houston Coach Kelvin Sampson, punished not once but twice for living through his phone. There’s Kentucky Coach John Calipari, with “vacated” listed next to two of his six Final Four trips. There’s North Carolina Coach Roy Williams, whose players appeared in an academic fraud scandal after taking fake classes.

Well, as they say, if you don’t like second chances then you shouldn’t eat refried beans.

That being the question in this age of FBI college basketball corruption investigations, embarrassing wiretap revelations — lookin’ at you, suspended LSU Coach Will Wade — and porn star lawyer indictments. At what point is a coach’s prior sins forgiven and we all move beyond the dark shadows of the past?

Not yet, apparently. Last week, Pearl chafed at a press conference question about his three years of forced exile after being fired by Tennessee for lying to the NCAA. The coach said he wanted the attention on his players. And it would be if two of Pearl’s assistants weren’t making news. Former assistant Chuck Person pleaded guilty to a charge of accepting money to steer players to certain agents and advisers. Current assistant Ira Bowman was suspended after being named in another alleged bribery scheme when he was at Penn.

I like Bruce Pearl. I think he’s a good coach and an even better promoter. For a football school like Auburn, he’s manna from hoops heaven. And after paying his NCAA debt, he’s done wonders at Charles Barkley U. Pearl just needs a more stringent vetting process when it comes to job candidates.

Sampson did Pearl one better. He left both Oklahoma and Indiana on probation for, among other things, making hundreds of impermissible phone calls to recruits. As a repeat offender, Sampson received a five-year “show cause” penalty. He spent six seasons in NBA assistant coaching purgatory before the University of Houston hired him in 2014.

His team’s rough-it-up style is not my cup of tea, but Sampson can coach. Oklahoma reached the 2002 Final Four. He was 43-15 before Indiana pulled the plug. His Cougars are 33-3 this season, proving W’s can trump a few redactions on the resume.

Roy Williams of the ACC
North Carolina head coach Roy Williams cut down the net after UNC beat Gonzaga to win the 2017 national championship. Under Williams, North Carolina also won titles in 2005 and 2009. David J. Phillip AP

Williams’ case is more complex. North Carolina’s problems came after athletes arrived in Chapel Hill. A significant number, including basketball players, ended up in sham classes. After a lengthy investigation and a flood of billable hours, the NCAA threw up its hands and said it “could not conclude that the University of North Carolina violated NCAA academic rules.” Ol Roy’s three title banners still hang at the Smith Center, but the “Carolina Way” took a bloody beating.

Locally, Calipari’s reputation exceeds his rap sheet. He’s never been personally cited in an NCAA violation, much less sniffed at a show cause. True, his programs have been called to the principal’s office — Marcus Camby’s money-taking at UMass; Derrick Rose’s suspicious test score at Memphis — and there were plenty of furrowed brows when Kentucky gave him “the call” in 2009.

First, a disclaimer: No program is completely clean. (“It’s not an excuse to say everybody’s doing it,” an LSU backer told me in Jacksonville when defending Wade, “but everybody’s doing it.”) But UK’s been free of scandal during Cal’s decade of gold-standard-setting. His blueprint: UK now, equals NBA later. Cal’s got framed jerseys — used as backdrops for ESPN interviews — to prove it.

So in a different world of one-and-done, maybe these guys get booted for life. That’s not this world. There’s too much money involved for winning coaches not to be given second, even third chances. You know that right now somewhere there’s an administrator thinking, maybe, just maybe, we could hire Rick Pitino.

And, personally, I like refried beans. 

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