“Everyone’s dirty – some are just
dirtier than others.”
That’s the line from an industry veteran that
struck me. Everyone’s dirty? Everyone?
It was the early 2000s and I was in Las Vegas
watching the next generation of basketball talent
sweat it out in high school gymnasiums scattered
around the desert.
At each gym – Chaparral over here, Cimarron
Memorial over there, Desert Pines and Durango –
were a dozen teams playing a half-dozen games.
Every day in Las Vegas for a full week, the best of
the best high school talent played against each
other, first in round-robin games and then in a
At each gym, the people-watching was fantastic.
AAU coaches, shoe company executives from
Nike, Reebok and Adidas, former NBA players,
current NBA players and scores of high-level
college coaches mingled together on high school
Imagine the absurdity of seeing Roy Williams,
Rick Pitino and Jim Boeheim sitting just a few feet
from each other on wooden bleachers watching
the same game in a tiny, blistering hot gymnasium.
And yet, there they were.
The Atlanta Celtics were the main draw with
superstar center Dwight Howard (NBA) playing
alongside 6-foot-11 bruiser Randolph Morris
(Kentucky) and 6-8, high-flying wing Josh Smith
(NBA). There were stars from California like Arron
Afflalo and Jordan Farmar (UCLA), an incredible
wing from Maryland named Rudy Gay (UConn)
and some amazing guards: Chicago-area shooter
Shaun Livingston (NBA), Detroit’s Joe Crawford
(Kentucky), Louisville’s Rajon Rondo (Kentucky)
and New York’s Sebastian Telfair (NBA).
Many of the top stars in the 2005 class were
in Vegas at the same time, future stars like Greg
Paulus (Duke), Chris Douglas-Roberts (Memphis),
Gerald Green (NBA), Andrew Bynum (NBA) and
Tyler Hansbrough (UNC). The Seattle teams held
future Louisville Cardinals Terrence Williams
and Peyton Siva and a Southern California team
was led by a young guard named Andre McGee.
I remember asking one of the veteran recruiting
writers how this whole system worked. How do
the coaches know who to watch? How do the
tournaments keep the coaches and the high schoolers separated?
And how in the world can thousands of
youngsters afford to fly to Las Vegas and stay in
hotels for a week, not to mention the new shoes,
new socks, new jerseys and new gym bags?
“What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” an
assistant coach said with a smirk.
Turns out it doesn’t.
Fast forward to 2016, the FBI arrested 10
people, four of them assistant basketball coaches,
thanks, in part, to conversations recorded in
a Las Vegas hotel room during the summer
The FBI uncovered a scheme by agents and
shoe company employees to funnel money to
the parents of high school recruits and to pay
assistants to use their influence to steer prospects
toward future agents.
Those arrests, and the mention of a high
school phenom named Brian Bowen being
enticed to come to Louisville, broke open what
could go down as the biggest scandal in college
On the day of the arrests, Joon Kim, the U.S.
Attorney for the Southern District of New York,
put college basketball coaches and the high
school basketball recruiting complex on notice.
Kim vowed to expose “the dark underbelly of
FBI agent Bill Sweeney said, “Today’s arrests
should serve as a warning to others choosing
to conduct business in this way in the world of
college athletes: We know your playbook. Our
investigation is ongoing, and we are conducting
additional interviews as I speak.”
After that day, Louisville suspended Rick Pitino,
two assistant coaches and athletic director Tom
Jurich. Since then, they’ve all been fired. Assistant
coaches at Auburn, Arizona, Oklahoma State and
USC were all suspended and then later fired.
Over that next week, hundreds of articles
were written calling the arrests the “tip of the
iceberg.” We were all told that more arrests were
imminent and the college basketball world would
be rocked to its core.
Then there was a four-month period of relative
calm. Fans and media started to wonder if the
FBI’s tough talk of having college basketball’s
“playbook” was just bluster.
Then, in early February, all hell broke loose.
Yahoo Sports writers Pete Thamel and Pat
Forde got ahold of some of the FBI’s uncovered
Thamel and Forde wrote, “While three criminal
cases tied to the investigation may take years
to play out, the documents viewed by Yahoo
revealed the extent of the potential NCAA
ramifications from the case. The documents
show an underground recruiting operation that
could create NCAA rules issues – both current and
retroactive – for at least 20 Division I basketball
programs and more than 25 players.”
One of the documents was a spreadsheet
snagged during a raid of a sports agency with
names, dates and amounts of money “loaned”
to high school and college players, including
Kentucky’s Bam Adebayo, NC State’s Dennis
Smith Jr. and Yahoo also uncovered emails that
seemed to indicate assistant coaches at Michigan
State, Indiana and others bidding on Bowen, the
recruit that ended up at Louisville.
ESPN’s Mark Schlabach cited sources that
indicated Arizona coach Sean Miller was recorded
on a FBI wiretap arranging $100,000 for recruit
The scandal has already brought down Pitino
and Miller and is threatening to bring down
Michigan State’s Tom Izzo as well. And who else?
Veteran writer Dan Wetzel told Fox Sports he
believes 20 Power-5 head coaches will lose their
jobs before the scandal is done.
If that’s true, the entire system of college
basketball recruiting will have to change. All of
it. From the summer tournaments in Las Vegas
to the high school gyms across the country, if the
NCAA is serious about cleaning up its mess, the
whole lot will have to change.
And the scary thing for the NCAA? The
information that has leaked out so far has all
been from one agent’s office. What about the
other 15 agencies doing business in much the
Mark Emmert was on CBS and was asked about
the mess in college basketball. He said change
is on the way. “Following the Southern District
of New York’s indictments last year, the NCAA
Board of Governors and I formed the independent
Commission on College Basketball, chaired by
Condoleezza Rice, to provide recommendations
on how to clean up the sport. With these latest
allegations, it’s clear this work is more important
now than ever. The Board and I are completely
committed to making transformational changes
to the game and ensuring all involved in
college basketball do so with integrity. We also
will continue to cooperate with the efforts of
federal prosecutors to identify and punish the
unscrupulous parties seeking to exploit the system
through criminal acts.”
As a longtime observer of the recruiting process
each summer, I have a few notes for Emmert
The NCAA must remove the shoe companies
from the recruiting process. Removing shoe
company sponsorships from AAU and high school
teams would be a good place to start.
The NCAA must remove parents and assistant
coaches from the pockets of agents. Getting the
NBA to modify its one-and-done rule would
help this issue.
CBS’ Gary Parrish believes the NCAA should
allow college athletes to sign with agents above
board: “The fix really is simple. What the NCAA
should do is eliminate the black market by allowing
student-athletes to secure representation and
accept fair-market value in this billion-dollar
industry where just about everybody connected
to the biggest sports in the biggest conferences
are legally getting rich but them.”
The NCAA must figure out a way to let the elite
talent head to the pros while keeping enough
talent to make college basketball fun to watch.
None of that will be easy, especially considering
public perception casts the NCAA’s favorability
rating somewhere between the NRA and Congress.
And over the next two years as these cases
unfold, the NCAA must deal with the fall out of
multiple elite coaches losing their jobs thanks to
the investigation headed by the FBI.
College basketball won’t be the same after this
is all done. And that’s probably a good thing.
“What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” an assistant
coach said with a smirk.
Turns out it doesn’t.