Editor Note: Luke Winn says that Milt Wagner stayed in the "lowly" basketball ops position for six years - this is true. However, he fails to mention that Milt had to earn his degree from the University of Memphis prior to being eligible to be a full assistant coach. For the record, I am unaware of when Milt actually received his diploma.
Breaking the rules: College hoops
Little separates adhering to rules from violating them
Posted: Wednesday July 25, 2007 12:29PM; Updated: Wednesday July 25, 2007 6:03PM
In the foreward to former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian's 2005 memoir, Runnin' Rebel, he wrote, "In major college basketball, nine out of 10 teams break the rules. The other one is in last place."
At least nine out of 10 instances of rule-breaking, it follows, occur in the murky world of recruiting, where revered college coaches take on the humbling enterprise of begging -- often by any means necessary -- 17 and 18 year olds to sign with their school. It is a widely accepted belief, not just from the towel-chomping mouth of Tark, that nearly everyone cheats, and we only hear of the ones who have the misfortune of getting caught, those being the Jim Harricks and Jim O'Briens of the college hoops world.
The unpunished masses are more discreet with their dealings, as well as more adept at devising other, above-board recruiting strategies that seem to fall in the same ballpark as NCAA violations, yet are considered legal. The NCAA's Division I Manual is 427 pages long, painfully complicated, and yet still, in many ways, inadequate at controlling the recruiting scene. "Believe me," said one current D-I assistant who requested anonymity, "Coaches will talk publicly about the rules being excessive and hard to understand, but all the good ones are fully aware of how to exploit every loophole in the book."
The line between an NCAA violation and something that's deemed acceptable conduct can often be absurdly thin. A game show -- Cheating or Not Cheating? -- could be created with examples from college basketball alone. These five are just the tip of the iceberg:
CHEATING: Making excessive phone calls to recruits.
This was Kelvin Sampson's misstep at Oklahoma, for which he was punished in May of 2006, just after taking the head job at Indiana. Sampson's wasn't the most salacious of scandals, but he and his staff did make 577 of what the NCAA called "impermissible telephone contacts" with recruits -- some of whom included the headliners of his highly ranked (and now dispersed) '06 recruiting class. The NCAA's phone-call window, at the time, began on June 21 following a prospect's junior year of high school, and generally restricted coaches to one call per week after that. Sampson completely ignored this rule -- and was hit with a one-year, off-campus recruiting ban at Indiana as a result.
NOT CHEATING (yet): Sending excessive text messages to recruits.
The NCAA's board of directors will be reviewing legislation on Aug. 9 to either ban text-messaging between coaches and recruits altogether, or restrict it in some form. But presently, and since the beginning of the texting craze amongst cell-phone carrying kids, it has been a completely unrestricted medium. A coach, if he so desired, could text a recruit -- of any age -- at any hour of any day of the year. Take the case of incoming Kentucky freshman Patrick Patterson, a five-star power forward from Huntington, W.V., who waited until the final moment of the spring recruiting season to sign his letter of intent. His mother, Tywanna, said the fierce recruiting battle between UK, Florida, Duke, Wake Forest and Virginia had resulted in a $507 March phone bill ... thanks to the 7,000 texts Patrick had received.
CHEATING: Lining up outside employment for a family member of a recruit.
When LSU was put on three years' probation in 1998 for improper actions surrounding its recruitment of Lester Earl, one of the things the NCAA alleged was that Tigers coaches had assisted Earl's mother in obtaining a job at a local casino, and Earl's sister in obtaining a job as a certified nursing aide. Bylaw 13.2.2 of the NCAA Division I manual states a number of prohibited benefits for recruits, including, "an employment arrangement for a prospective student-athlete's relatives." These violations, among others, helped bring about the end of coach Dale Brown's career in Baton Rouge.
NOT CHEATING: Hiring a family member of a recruit for a job within the basketball program.
Two of the most highly sought-after prep guards of the past decade coincidentally ended up playing college ball with their fathers on the bench -- as recently hired directors of basketball operations. Dajuan Wagner was a mega-recruit out of Camden, N.J., who had scored 100 points in a high-school game. In '00, the season before Wagner arrived in Memphis, his father, ex-Louisville star and 13-year pro Milt, was brought into the program in a basketball ops role. Of the move, Tigers coach John Calipari would tell USA Today, "It disappoints me for Milt and his career that everybody says I only hired Milt to get Dajuan. Milt will be an assistant with me for a long time because I really like him. I've known him for a lot of years, and he's going to be good." Wagner stayed in the same low-level position for six years with the Tigers, then left in the '06 offseason to become an actual assistant coach at UTEP.
In June of '05 a similar scenario unfolded at Kansas. Eight months after Alaskan Mario Chalmers, the top-ranked point-guard in the '05 class, signed with the Jayhawks, it was announced his father, Ronnie, a high-school coach in Anchorage, would be joining the KU staff. In response to speculation about rather obvious signs that it was a package deal, Ronnie would tell the Kansas City Star, "Mario's decision to choose Kansas was solely based on Mario. [My wife] Almarie and I made a decision to stay in Alaska until she retired this spring, then relocate to follow Mario. This is a great opportunity to get my foot in the door at the college level, follow my son and be a part of one of the best programs in the country."
CHEATING: Providing improper benefits to high-school coaches of a recruit.
In '90, when the NCAA cleared Illinois of allegations that it offered cash and cars to recruits Deon Thomas and LaPhonso Ellis, the Illini were handed a one-year postseason ban for a number of smaller violations -- including the sale of their NCAA tournament tickets to high-school coaches of recruiting targets. Illinois' three-year probation sentence was levied in the season directly after its famed Flyin' Illini made a run to the '89 Final Four in Seattle.
NOT CHEATING: Paying high-school coaches of recruits to speak at a university's summer camps.
This is regular practice all across the country; prominent college head coaches earn hundreds of thousands of dollars to run summer camps, which require staffers and speakers ... who frequently happen to be either high school or AAU coaches of recruits or recent signees.
An '06 report in the Dallas Morning News examined the summer-hiring practices of a number of Big 12 teams, and found that during the summer of '05, Texas had paid $3,200 to an assistant coach at Damion James' high school for working seven camp sessions, and Texas A&M had paid a total of $3,015 to three coaches from Donald Sloan and Derrick Roland's high school for camp jobs. Kansas, meanwhile, was the school that exploited this loophole to the max. There were seven coaches on KU's summer-camp payroll who received $2,000 each: One happened to be C.J. Giles and Rodrick Stewart's high school coach, another was Sherron Collins' high school coach, another Collins and Julian Wright's AAU coach, another happened to be Sasha Kaun's high school coach, another was Darrell Arthur's high school coach, while two more were Arthur's AAU coaches.
CHEATING: Head coaches running mandatory summer workouts -- or even being present at voluntary summer workouts.
The end of Nolan Richardson III's tenure at Tennessee State was marked by criminal idiocy, as he brandished a gun at assistant coach Hosea Lewis during a Christmas-night practice in '02. Ten months after Richardson's resignation, the NCAA handed him a three-year show cause (a designation that essentially bars other schools from hiring someone) for, among other things, putting recruits through "tryouts" during campus visits as well as supervising involuntary summer workouts. While the auditioning of recruits demonstrated a brazen disregard for NCAA rules, getting caught keeping tabs on players in the summer ... was simply a case of being too stupid to do it discreetly.
NOT CHEATING: Having an office in the school's basketball complex that happens to overlook -- or at least be adjacent to -- the practice court where offseason workouts are held.
In order for unsupervised offseason workouts to qualify with the NCAA as voluntary, players must not be told by the coach to attend, nor can they be required to report back to the coach afterward, nor can they be punished for not attending. But what happens, say, if in the school's posh new basketball practice facility, the head coach's palatial office happens to have a nice view of ... the court where players conduct their voluntary workouts?
An ethical coach surely wouldn't open the blinds and watch entire pickup games -- but he surely would at least note which players were showing up every day and dedicating themselves to the program. And those players, in turn, even if they weren't obligated to check in with the head coach, surely would deem it rude not to at least stop by and exchange information from time to time, seeing that his office is right next to the court? It's not cheating. It's just intelligent construction.
CHEATING/AGAINST NCAA RULES: Putting recruits through shady prep schools to raise their GPAs and thus gain NCAA eligibility.
A New York Times report from February of '06 -- headlined "Schools Where the Only Real Test Is Basketball" -- exposed the proliferation of sham prep schools that essentially allowed basketball players who would not have been otherwise NCAA-eligible to transfer in, then load up on necessary core courses. Players who did not graduate from their original high schools could transfer to a place like Philadelphia's Lutheran Christian Academy, do minimal classwork and boost their GPA to the point where it canceled out low SAT or ACT scores in the NCAA's sliding-scale eligibility formula.
This loophole served as the gateway for players such as George Washington's Omar Williams and Maureece Rice, Mississippi State's Jamont Gordon, and Georgetown's (now Delaware's) Mark Egerson to become D-I scholarship athletes. In May of '07, the NCAA passed legislation that effectively put an end to this practice; now, players are only allowed to obtain a maximum of ONE core class credit in a fifth year at an approved prep school -- thus severely limiting the opportunity to boost their GPA.
NOT CHEATING: Getting recruits designated as "learning disabled," thus exempting them from the core-class limits at prep schools.
As the rules stand following the NCAA's May '07 decision, this is the prime loophole for getting a recruit eligible, even if he bumbled through his first four years of high school. A recent Sportsline.com report addressed the hypothetical -- yet very plausible -- scenario of colleges encouraging "friendly" doctors to diagnose recruits as "L.D.," or learning disabled, allowing said recruit to attend an NCAA-approved prep school and load up on as many core credits as he needs.
L.D. designations have long been methods, during college, to allow academically challenged players -- whether they're truly L.D. or not -- to take untimed exams in low-pressure settings. Now, a shrewd college team can use a doctor's services to help them get access to recruits who might not otherwise be eligible. As devious as this seems, it's already a hot topic of discussion in the college hoops world ... and there's little doubt it will become a widely used strategy.