The Big Mac Blog

FBI investigation shows college basketball needs a good scrubbing

Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino was placed on administrative leave Wednesday along with athletic director Tom Jurich amid a federal bribery investigation.
Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino was placed on administrative leave Wednesday along with athletic director Tom Jurich amid a federal bribery investigation. AP

Speaking of excessive government spending, the FBI and the Department of Justice needed three years to investigate and confirm something most of us have known for years — college basketball is a Porta Potty.

No sport is covered in as much slime, sludge and grit as college basketball.

It’s a sport dressed in sweat suits, slick SWAG, overpriced shoes and a bunch of small-timers all acting as if they are big-timers. It’s a sport run by thousand-dollar millionaires who are enabled by college coaches who make them believe they are more important than they are only because they have what coaches want: Access to a talented high school player who can win the games necessary so coaches can keep their million-dollar jobs.

Two days before college basketball teams begin practice, the FBI announced the results of an extensive sting operation that found shoe company executives, AAU coaches and basketball assistant coaches who bribed and funneled cash to high school recruits.

“We have your playbook,” FBI assistant director Bill Sweeney told reporters on Tuesday, which was a warning to every college basketball coach and AD.

Yeah ... and? Everyone has known this is the playbook for years. The government is just late to the fun, and the NCAA is too busy counting the money to care that this playbook not only exists but has for years.

“There is nothing new here, really. We’re all just used to this,” one Division I coach told me. “The only thing that really surprised was how stupid some of the mistakes that some of the assistant coaches were making on this. On some of this you think, ‘What are you doing?’ 

High school basketball players have been “incentivized” for years to attend certain schools by any number of means. Maybe it’s a shoe box full of $20s. Maybe their mom is given a job where, coincidentally, she’s paid not to work. Maybe the dad is given a job on the coaching staff, like Ed Manning was by Kansas in the ’80s so his son, Danny, would play for the Jayhawks.

I spoke with three Division I basketball coaches, only one of whom would go on the record.

“No, I am not concerned about the future of our sport,” TCU basketball coach Jamie Dixon told me Wednesday morning.

Dixon didn’t want to expand further only because he said he was not completely familiar with the charges.

Nor should he be too worried, but this is more ugly for a sport that needs a scrubbing with a wire brush.

Nonetheless, too much money is at stake for widespread alterations. The headlines and the immediate reactions are going to be far worse than the widespread fallout that is projected.

The immediate overreaction to this story is that college basketball will be “rocked to its foundation” as it was after the point-shaving scandals of the 1950s.

What is going to happen is that a few coaches, Louisville’s Rick Pitino and Arizona’s Sean Miller, will lose their jobs, and the amount of involvement and money spent by the big three shoe companies — Nike, Under Armour and Adidas — to fund AAU coaches and their teams may decrease dramatically. It will be back on the agents, again, to manipulate a player or two on behalf of the college program, via an assistant.

Pitino and U of L athletic director Tom Jurich are the first to go; they were effectively fired Wednesday morning. The program was already fighting NCAA suspension for, among other things, the use of prostitutes during recruiting. Apparently that’s unwelcome.

I always enjoyed interviewing Rick Pitino, but the man’s reputation in his sport ranges somewhere between Horrendous and Godawful.

What will happen is that the NCAA will be embarrassed and continue to fend off the accurate allegation that it has neither the manpower nor the interest to investigate what are clear violations of its 85-million page rule book.

What will happen is that TV will continue to prop up college basketball and gambling. TV craves live programming, and now that Amazon Prime, Twitter and other media ventures are dipping their toe into the business of TV, rights fees for sports are likely to remain consistent or increase.

So college basketball, and specifically the NCAA Tournament, are not likely to change too much, because the financial model is so established.

College basketball coaches need to unify and do whatever is necessary to eliminate the weight of the AAU program and restore some power to the high school coach. That is how college football has retained some of its “cleaner” look.

To do this means that powerful suppliers of schools, AAU teams and TV sponsors Nike, Under Armour and Adidas, would have to agree to leave the youth gyms at the same time. That is an unlikely scenario. If one leaves, the other two may see it as an opportunity.

The only reason they simultaneously leave is because they are no longer interested in footing the bill.

And there is no real way to prevent an agent from hanging outside of the gym. Or the uncle who knows a guy who knows a guy who can “help us out.”

What needs to happen is the NBA and the players union need to draft some sort of agreement to try to create any means of cleaning up the youth and grassroots level of basketball. NBA coaches can often tell you who is the best seventh- or eighth-grader in the country.

College basketball just got busted for doing business, a business that is dirty and in need of a power wash.

The NCAA has no interest in doing it, so now the FBI and DOJ will give it a shot.

Mac Engel: @macengelprof