Mark Story

Is newly aggressive NCAA going to be bad news for Louisville basketball?

The preseason college basketball magazines love Chris Mack’s 2019-20 Louisville Cardinals.

Lindy’s picks the Jordan Nwora-led Cards No. 2 in the country. Street & Smith projects the Cardinals No. 5. Blue Ribbon has Louisville No. 6.

It would behoove U of L backers to relish this coming hoops season. Judging by recent moves from the NCAA, there is ample reason to again be uneasy about what the college sports governing body might have in store for the Louisville basketball program.

NCAA actions this summer suggest it has moved into a new era in how its enforcement arm views the involvement of shoe companies in the recruiting process.

North Carolina State (in early July) and Kansas (this month) have received the first two NCAA notices of allegations arising out of the information gleaned during the FBI probe of college hoops recruiting corruption. In both, the NCAA refers to Adidas “as a representative of the institution’s athletics interests.”

That means, in NCAA parlance, that the schools can be held responsible for the actions of Adidas and its representatives.

As the Courier Journal’s Tim Sullivan pointed out last week, that is not stellar news for U of L.

Like Kansas and North Carolina State, Louisville, too, has an athletics apparel contract with Adidas.

U of L was already on NCAA probation in 2017 due to the “strippers/escorts for recruits” scandal when it was also linked to the “shoe company corruption” allegations uncovered that year by the FBI investigation.

A Cardinals assistant coach was allegedly caught via surveillance in a Las Vegas hotel room participating in the conception of a plan to have representatives of Adidas pay $100,000 to the family of recruit Brian Bowen to secure the player’s commitment to Louisville.

A touted class of 2017 prospect, Bowen shocked the recruiting world by picking U of L late in the process after not being linked with the Cards over most of his recruitment.

Brian Bowen
Class of 2017 standout Brian Bowen agreed to play for Louisville, but never got the chance after the circumstances leading to his surprise commitment to the Cardinals came under scrutiny in an FBI investigation into alleged college basketball corruption. Gregory Payan AP

Judging by the severity of the allegations it made against Kansas, it seems that NCAA enforcement is looking to make a bold statement about “cleaning up” college hoops.

Kansas was charged by the NCAA with five Level 1 violations by its men’s basketball program. KU was accused of “a lack of institutional control,” while Jayhawks Coach Bill Self was hit with a “head coach responsibility” charge.

Of all the schools implicated in alleged NCAA violations as a result of the FBI corruption probe, U of L is easily the most complicated case.

Following the initial FBI report two Septembers ago, Louisville cleaned house. U of L parted ways with men’s hoops coach Rick Pitino, two of his assistants, Jordan Fair and Kenny Johnson, as well as longtime Cardinals athletics director Tom Jurich.

A new guard is now in place at Louisville. New U of L president Neeli Bendapudi has seemed a breath of fresh air. Current AD Vince Tyra has said all the right things in terms of trying to create a culture of rules compliance. Entering his second season as Cards’ men’s hoops coach, Mack’s tenure has been free of NCAA controversy.

Chris Mack shaking hands with Vince Tyra
University of Louisville Athletics Director Vince Tyra, left, and Cardinals men’s basketball coach Chris Mack are trying to navigate U of L through turmoil left over from scandals that predated their hirings. Timothy D. Easley AP

Yet the NCAA will have to weigh the extent to which U of L’s cleaned house mitigates its past sins.

During last fall’s federal fraud trial of Jim Gatto and Merl Code of Adidas and aspiring sports agent Christian Dawkins, the prosecution stated that ex-U of L assistant Fair paid $900 to an unspecified recruit.

In the same trial, Brian Bowen Sr., the father of Brian Bowen the player, testified under oath that ex-Louisville assistant Johnson gave him $1,300 in cash in August, 2017, to help cover the monthly rent on a room at the Galt House hotel in Louisville.

The NCAA’s “repeat-violator” rule — commonly referred to as “the death penalty” — can be triggered when a school already on probation for a major violation is found to have committed another one within five years of the first case.

It was June 15, 2017, when the NCAA placed Louisville on probation and vacated its 2013 NCAA title and 2012 Final Four berth because some U of L recruits and players had received sexual favors from escorts allegedly hired by one-time Cardinals director of basketball operations Andre McGee.

If the allegations from the federal fraud trial are true, Louisville staff members were committing major NCAA violations only weeks after the university went on probation.

At least three national sports columnists — Dan Wetzel and Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports and USA Today’s Christine Brennan — have called for Louisville basketball to get the NCAA death penalty.

For myriad reasons, conventional wisdom is the NCAA will never again shut down a program.

Not all in the Lexington market will agree, but it would be bad for the commonwealth of Kentucky if that happened to Louisville basketball.

Regardless, the aggressive posture of NCAA enforcement suggests the anxiety is far from over for a scandal-exhausted U of L fan base.

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.
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