The 2019 NCAA men’s basketball tournament tips off on Tuesday. And when it does, for three glorious weeks, the eyes of the hoops world will return to a sector of the sport still churning on in the shadow of scandal.
It has now been 18 months since an FBI probe into college basketball corruption exploded into public view. Throughout those 18 months, the investigation and fallout have taken countless turns. And as March Madness kicks into top gear once again, they are very much still ongoing.
One trial brought prison sentences. Another is on the horizon. Coaches will be subpoenaed. One is currently serving an indefinite suspension, and likely won’t appear with his third-seeded team at the NCAA tournament.
In some ways, the case has lost a bit of its zest since last March. But in other ways, it continues to roll on. Below is all you need to know about the scandal’s current state.
The college basketball scandal in 150 words
A years-long federal investigation uncovered widespread corruption involving universities, their men’s basketball programs, shoe companies, agents and players. In September 2017, authorities arrested 10 men, including active assistant coaches at Arizona, Auburn, Oklahoma State and USC.
In the 18 months since, a Hall of Fame coach was fired, his peers and their schools stung by controversy, and players barred from competition.
In October 2018, two Adidas executives and an agent were convicted, guilty of paying families of top recruits to steer them toward schools and agencies. In March 2019, the three men were sentenced to prison.
Days later, Yahoo Sports reported that LSU coach Will Wade had been caught by FBI wiretaps discussing an “offer” for a recruit. Wade and Arizona coach Sean Miller will be subpoenaed for the case’s second trial beginning April 22. After the wiretap revelations, LSU suspended Wade, and has not reinstated him for March Madness.
What happened at the first trial?
The first trial, which lasted three weeks and resulted in the three convictions, was simultaneously revelatory and absurd. The government, essentially, tried to prove to a jury that universities – yes, the schools landing top recruits thanks to black-market payments – were not beneficiaries but rather victims; that assistant coaches negotiating the payments were breaking rules unbeknownst to head coaches, athletic department leaders or university higher-ups, and that the schools were then harmed because the payments rendered those players ineligible and exposed them to NCAA sanctions.
The government did ultimately convince the jury of that, but six months later, a sentencing judge more or less scoffed at the premise.
Who’s been convicted and sentenced?
The three men found guilty of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud were:
James Gatto — Now-former high-ranking Adidas executive
Merl Code — Now-former Adidas consultant
Christian Dawkins — Aspiring agent and, at the time, middleman for NBA agent Andy Miller
Gatto also faced a second wire-fraud count, and a recommended 46 to 57 months in prison. The other two faced 30 to 37 months. Instead, they got nine, six and six, respectively.
The judge, as Yahoo Sports’ Dan Wetzel wrote, “all but tossed the federal sentencing guidelines out the 21st-floor window.” He never came to terms with the backwards idea that the schools being delivered NBA prospects – by apparel companies who pay those schools millions of dollars – were the ones being defrauded.
The real fraud is the NCAA – the entire sport. But that’s not what’s on trial here.
What were the spiciest details from the first trial?
With all that being said, the trial did bring star witnesses to the stand to expose college basketball’s underbelly.
One was Brian Bowen Sr., the father of highly-ranked 2017 recruit Brian Bowen II, who committed to Louisville in June 2017. Then the FBI probe uncovered a $100,000 payment to Bowen Sr. designed to funnel his son to the school. Louisville suspended Bowen II indefinitely, and later told the freshman he would never play for or practice with the Cardinals. Bowen subsequently withdrew from Louisville, enrolled at South Carolina, and appealed to the NCAA. But months later, he left college, declared for the 2018 NBA draft, and now plays professionally in Australia – a journey that brought Bowen Sr. to uncontrollable tears less than 10 minutes into his testimony.
When he composed himself, Bowen Sr. detailed the dirty dealings of his son’s recruitment, which included:
A $25,000 deal between Dawkins and Bowen Sr. for Bowen II to play a spring and summer of AAU ball with the Adidas-sponsored Michigan Mustangs.
An offer of $100,000 plus a “lucrative” job from a Creighton assistant coach.
Notice from Dawkins that Arizona was willing to pay $50,000 for Bowen II’s basketball services.
Notice from Dawkins that Oklahoma State was willing to pay Bowen Sr. $150,000, plus $8,000 for a car and “an undisclosed amount to buy a house” if Bowen II would commit to play for the Cowboys.
Negotiations with Dawkins in which Dawkins initially told Bowen Sr. that Adidas would pay him between $60,000 and $80,000 if his son went to Louisville. That offer was then increased to $100,000 because Billy Preston, a similarly rated recruit, was given a similar amount to attend Kansas.
A first payment of $19,400 – an envelope of cash, plus a sandwich – from financial planner Munish Sood to Bowen Sr. during a clandestine parking-lot meeting in New Jersey. (That according to Sood’s testimony.)
Defense attorneys acknowledged the agreement to send $100,000 to Bowen’s family. They also argued, however, that the offer was to “level the playing field” in a recruiting battle with Nike-supported Oregon. Oregon, Gatto’s attorney said, “offered an astronomical amount of money.”
Gatto’s attorney also acknowledged that Gatto provided a $20,000 payment to the guardian of then-recruit, now-Kansas forward Silvio De Sousa. He did so, however, only after “Under Armour had paid for De Sousa to [commit] to the University of Maryland,” Gatto’s attorney said.
There was also discussion of a $150,000 payment to steer five-star recruit Nassir Little to Adidas-sponsored Miami – only after Arizona had also offered $150,000. Little is currently a freshman at Nike-sponsored North Carolina.
Another key witness was T.J. Gassnola, the AAU coach described as Adidas’ “bag man,” part of its “Black Ops” program. Gassnola admitted to payments to current and former college players and their families, including Bowen, Preston, De Sousa, Dennis Smith Jr. (North Carolina State) and Deandre Ayton (Arizona).
When the payments to Preston’s mother were discovered – after Preston crashed his Dodge Charger, which was suspiciously registered under the name of a deceased great-grandmother who lived in Florida – Preston’s mother concocted an absurd story: That she and Gassnola had a clandestine “intimate” relationship, a fake affair she hoped would throw investigators off the scent.
Gassnola’s notes also detailed meetings with head coaches at Adidas schools: N.C. State, Indiana, UCLA, Miami and so on. “Met with [Kansas] Coach [Bill] Self and his staff,” one note read. “Talked recruiting targets and the upcoming season. Assured them we are here to help.”
Also among the evidence presented at the trial was a tape of Wade, the LSU coach, discussing the recruitment of 2019 recruit Balsa Koprivica. “I can get you what you need,” Wade told Dawkins. And Gatto’s attorney clarified that “what you need” meant “money.”
Have any head coaches lost their jobs?
Rick Pitino, who was effectively fired – along with athletic director Tom Jurich – by Louisville a day after the federal investigation came to light, remains the only head coach to lose his job in connection with the scandal despite not being directly charged with wrongdoing. He, as Code put it, maintained “plausible deniability.” Pitino has since sued and been sued by the school.
More recently, Wade was suspended indefinitely by LSU after a Yahoo Sports report revealed an FBI-wiretapped conversation between Wade and Dawkins, in which Wade discusses a “strong-ass offer” for a recruit. More on the LSU situation in a bit.
As for Self at Kansas, he has mostly managed to avoid direct impact. But the NCAA is reportedly honing in on his program.
Elsewhere, Sean Miller has, thus far, retained his job at Arizona amid controversy. Last February, Miller vehemently denied an ESPN report that the FBI had intercepted a phone call in which Miller and Dawkins discussed a $100,000 payment to steer Ayton – an eventual Arizona signee and No. 1 overall NBA draft pick – to the Wildcats. The school stood by Miller then.
However, with a subpoena for April’s trial impending and the scandal encircling, Miller sure seemed to be saying a goodbye to Arizona fans when he thanked them after the final home game of a disappointing season. He was forced to fire an arrested assistant coach, nearly lost his entire 2018 recruiting class, and in 2018-19 went 17-15, including 8-10 in a dreadful Pac-12.
What about the assistant coaches who were arrested?
They were all fired in light of the investigation, and have all reached plea agreements. They are:
Tony Bland — Now-former USC assistant coach
Emanuel “Book” Richardson — Now-former Arizona assistant coach
Lamont Evans — Now-former Oklahoma State assistant coach
Chuck Person — Now-former Auburn assistant coach
All four were accused of taking bribes to steer players at their schools toward certain financial advisers or business managers. All four were set to stand trial in 2019. But with Person accepting a plea deal this month, all four have now pled guilty.
What players have been affected or implicated?
Bowen’s college career hasn’t been the only one crushed by the weight of scandal. In February, the NCAA ruled that De Sousa – whose guardian, court testimony revealed, accepted payments designed to steer him to Kansas – was ineligible for the remainder of this season and all of next. Kansas had already made its own post-trial decision to sit De Sousa as the investigation unraveled. The NCAA effectively handed down the athlete version of its “death penalty.”
Earlier this month, Javonte Smart appeared to be headed down a similar road at LSU. Wade’s wiretapped negotiations with Dawkins pertained to “this Smart thing.” Two days after the Yahoo Sports report, LSU, connecting the dots, held Smart out of its regular-season finale against Vanderbilt.
But Smart met with NCAA investigators the following week, and was reinstated the Friday morning of LSU’s SEC quarterfinal, shortly before the team boarded its bus. Smart played, and addressed media after the game. When asked about the contents of the wiretap, the freshman guard said, "No, sir, I had nothing to do with that."
What’s going on at LSU? And how will it affect the NCAA tournament?
So Wade and Smart were both suspended indefinitely. Smart returned after one game, and will play in the NCAA tournament. Wade, it appears, likely won’t coach.
After suspending Wade on March 8, LSU officials reportedly informed him that he could return to the sidelines if he met with school administrators and provided satisfactory answers to questions about the FBI wiretaps. Wade, according to an LSU spokesman, declined when LSU refused to A) limit the scope of the questions, and B) hold the meeting without an NCAA representative present. Wade’s attorney, in a letter to LSU’s president and AD, wrote that Wade “will be happy to meet” with LSU officials “upon the conclusion of the pending [federal] criminal investigation.”
But that won’t be until after the season, meaning Wade is sacrificing the postseason – which his team enters as a No. 3 seed – to dodge questioning. Instead, he released a strange, evasively worded statement in which he asked the school to reinstate him but never denied wrongdoing. In fact, he never has throughout this investigation.
The school, of course, ignored his request. The situation remains at a standstill. Assistant coach Tony Benford will lead the team into its first-round tourney matchup with Yale (Thursday, 12:40 p.m. ET, TruTV).
Any other recent developments to be aware of?
Nothing ground-breaking. Two days after the lenient sentences were handed down to Gatto, Code and Dawkins, prosecutors alleged that two more assistant coaches had taken bribes from Dawkins to steer future pros to Dawkins’ agency. Sources told Yahoo Sports that those coaches were Creighton’s Preston Murphy and TCU’s Corey Barker. A day later, both were placed on administrative leave by their respective schools – both of which narrowly missed the 2019 NCAA tournament.
As for the other, lesser-known men who were among the 10 arrested back in 2017 …
Sood, the financial advisor in on the scheme, pled guilty to three bribery- and fraud-related counts this past September.
Brad Augustine, the AAU director originally thought to be a middleman taking payments and passing them on to players’ families, was apparently pocketing the money instead. “Effectively, he was in his own scheme to rip off Mr. Gatto,” Gatto’s attorney said last March. All charges against Augustine have been dropped.
Rashan Michel, the high-end clothing company owner implicated in the case, is expected to stand trial in June.
What’s next in the corruption case?
Two weeks after the Final Four concludes in Minneapolis, trial No. 2 will begin in New York. Code and Dawkins, both already facing six months in prison, are the defendants. Wade and Miller will presumably be summoned to the witness stand. Other coaches could be as well. "As many as I can get in the courtroom,” Dawkins’ attorney said in February. "We are going to pull back the curtains [on the sport].”
There are grand promises that the second trial will be even spicier than the first. Whether those promises are met, and whether new revelations actually have the power to shake up the sport, remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the NCAA has begun investigating. The FBI gave it the green light in November, two weeks after the first trial ended. That’s significant, because, as Yahoo Sports’ Dan Wetzel noted in October: “While much was heard in court over the past month, there was even more – wiretaps, under-oath allegations, documents – that wasn’t included because it didn’t fit the prosecution or was denied admission by Judge Lewis A. Kaplan.”
So while a lot has happened in 18 months, a lot is likewise yet to come.
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