LAS VEGAS – The July recruiting period in college basketball moonlights as the sport’s prime season for gossip. Coaches worn out by month’s end kick back in bleachers across the country during the day and belly up to hotel bars at night. Between red-eye flights and rental car counters, they attempt to solve the game’s problems.
The biggest problem, and hottest topic, remains the sweeping Justice Department investigation that rocked the sport 10 months ago. With more than two months until the first of three federal trials begins, a steady undercurrent of uncertainty remains prevalent in the sport. With the federal cases in a relatively quiet period, many coaches and administrators have equated the lack of headline news with a potential lack of action. That notion has been greeted with a chuckle for those experienced with federal cases.
“The Gatto trial starts in October,” said a source familiar with the case. “I’d be worried if I were some coaches about what’s on those tapes [from wiretaps]. No question.”
With another flurry of activity seemingly on the way, here are the five biggest questions Yahoo Sports heard from administrators and coaches this July that will attempt to separate summer gossip from current realities.
Why are things so quiet?
The complaints about a lack of activity in the case are likely a byproduct of scandal fatigue, as coaches and administrators are anxious for conclusions and clarity. Bad news: neither conclusion nor clarity is coming soon.
There have been several major developments in the case since the flurry of arrests on Sept. 26. In a vacuum, they’d all be huge stories. In the past few months, schools like North Carolina State, Maryland and Kansas have been subpoenaed by the federal government. In April, a superseding indictment detailed how people affiliated with Adidas helped arrange money to help Kansas recruit two top prospects. (The Billy Preston deal, documents allege, was for $90,000 and included cloak-and-dagger cash drops in hotel rooms.) An alleged $40,000 payment to keep Dennis Smith Jr. committed to N.C. State included an Adidas executive using “sham invoices.” Former Adidas consultant T.J. Gassnola also pled guilty to a felony and is cooperating with the government.
The original bombshells of arrested coaches and and a fired Hall of Fame head coach distorted the view of what qualifies as big news. Since then, updates on the case have come out in dribs and drabs.
“It’s not going to be over for at least 11 months,” said a person familiar with one of the three upcoming trials. “If anyone is convicted, then you’re looking at two or three more years for appeals.”
Why hasn’t NCAA done much of anything?
The NCAA enforcement officials were out at grassroots basketball tournaments this summer, wearing shirts with logos that read: “Protect the Game.” Those led to both chuckles and grumbles among coaches, who are wondering collectively why the organization has done little to the schools involved in the federal case.
The simple answer is that NCAA investigators essentially have been benched by the legal system. As long as the case is ongoing, they’re limited in what it can investigate. “It is clear the federal investigation remains ongoing,” NCAA executive vice president Donald M. Remy, who oversees legal affairs, told Yahoo Sports.
The NCAA has been in constant contact with the Southern District of New York, where the case originated. There have been some issues the NCAA could look at, like the eligibility of players. (For instance, Auburn’s Austin Wiley was cleared to play in 2018-19, and teammate Danjel Purifoy will be eligible after sitting 30 percent of the season. Both sat out the entire 2017-18 season after being implicated in the investigation.) Everything that NCAA investigators have done has come with federal clearance, which has limited the scope. “I can say we’ve been actively investigating related matters, from student-athlete eligibility to enforcement issues,” Remy said. “We’ve got a job to do, and I can assure you we’ve been doing it.”
The question is when anything will get done. Given the potential federal timeline, the NCAA may not begin significant enforcement measures tied to these cases for perhaps a year.
Will NCAA ever get evidence that feds accumulated?
This is a tricky question. The feds have 4,000 phone calls and 330 days of surveillance from tracking some of the shadiest characters from the sport’s underbelly. The potential release of this, to the public or the NCAA, still doubles as a timebomb ticking over the sport.
“Some of the documents the federal investigators have are outside our control,” Remy said. “We would love to get access to wiretaps, video surveillance and other documents. The federal government has access to all those things. In this case, the investigative timeline is somewhat impacted by the federal investigation.”
So will the NCAA or public ever have access to all that information? The first chance for it to be released would come through motions related to the three trials, which are slated for Oct. 1 (Gatto, et al), Feb. 4 (Person, et al) and April 22 (Evans, et al). “At this point, it’s tough to predict whether there will be testimony or other approved uses of the video surveillance and intercepts,” said Stephen L. Hill Jr., a partner at Dentons in Kansas City and former U.S. Attorney who prosecuted the case against AAU coach Myron Piggie in the early 2000s. “As the government’s efforts move toward trial or broaden to new charges, there remains a possibility they’ll look to use this evidence.”
Is NCAA’s enforcement team prepared to deal with it?
This is where much skepticism still lies in this process. The NCAA enforcement process has been traditionally slow and ineffective, and the Rice Commission has recommended complicated cases be handled outside the current NCAA enforcement structure. Depending on how much information comes out in these trials, this could be perhaps the biggest set of cases in NCAA history.
Can the NCAA deal with all this? “I think to some degree the answer depends on what the feds turn over to the NCAA,” ACC commissioner John Swofford told Yahoo Sports. “If they turn over information that’s signed, sealed and delivered, then the answer is yes. If they don’t, it’s difficult. It’s difficult from the NCAA’s standpoint.”
The difficulties of NCAA enforcement aren’t a new story. They lack subpoena power and have a ponderous process. “Even aside from the federal investigation of basketball, the timeframe has to shorten,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said. “We have to respect due process, but we have to get after these big issues. We’ve seen some of these cases that are five, six, seven years removed. Justice delayed is justice denied.”
Yet there also are questions about whether schools are delaying enforcing their own justice, avoiding taking action for as long as possible. That ties into the concept of head coach responsibility, a big issue during the investigation. Could coaches at places like USC, Arizona, Oklahoma State and Auburn have no idea what their coaches were doing prior to their arrests? Could coaches at Kansas and NC State not know about intricate deals being brokered for blue-chip recruits? Could that be an acceptable stance in the current climate?
NCAA legislation passed in 2012 was designed to make head coaches more accountable. It has been notable that only Louisville has held its coach accountable in this case, firing head coach Rick Pitino. And that was for an accumulation of misdeeds by he and his program, with the federal complaint serving as a figurative last straw for a coach whose team had just been stripped of the 2013 national championship a few months earlier.
Speaking generally, Sankey said there needs to be a change from rhetoric to action. “It’s not good enough to have meetings to say the right things if people don’t do the right things,” Sankey said. “We need people to do the right things. I’m one of those who has suggested, and continues to think, that it’s time for a re-crafting of head coach expectation. At our level, head coaches are well supported, well compensated, there are a lot of people around. The message that you are operating within the boundaries of integrity, that has to be even more clearly stated.”
So, what’s next?
Expect another flurry of activity – witness lists, motions and pre-trial motions in the upcoming weeks. With the first trial coming closer, that also raises the chances of forthcoming plea deals. According to USCourts.gov, more than 90 percent of federal defendants plead guilty rather than go to trial.
On the ground level in college basketball, schools other than Louisville have chosen to close ranks around their head coaches and see what comes next. Numerous coaches and administrators on the July recruiting circuit wondered how new Auburn athletic director Allen Greene could give Bruce Pearl – who was famously fired at Tennessee for lying to NCAA investigators – a contract extension before the trial of former assistant coach Chuck Person ended. “The most disappointing thing to me is the lack of institutional accountability, and to some degree the lack of conference accountability,” one veteran college head coach told Yahoo Sports. “As everyone talks about doing things right, now it’s time for the rubber to hit the road. What are you going to do?”
In reality, little has changed on the summer recruiting circuit and in the coaching environment.
Ten months after the federal basketball investigation went public, the only certain thing is that clarity and resolution are still months away.
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