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'How do these guys keep their jobs?' Major NCAA programs prepare for federal corruption trial fallout

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From Coral Gables, Florida, to Eugene, Oregon — and everywhere in between — college basketball is moving to a new rhythm of scandal this week. Shortly after noon ET each day, and again after 5 p.m., coaches and administrators are checking their phones to see the latest schools implicated in the federal corruption trial in New York.

The afternoon and evening trial breaks at the Daniel Patrick Moynihan United States Courthouse allow media members covering the federal proceeding – USA vs. Gatto et al – to tweet out the latest developments. Reporters aren’t allowed to bring electronic devices into the courtroom, and the trial is not televised, so news is breaking only at recess times. That’s prompting daily binges of speculation in anticipation of the Twitter updates.

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Just three days into the trial, here’s what we’ve heard: Six figures for Brian Bowen to attend Louisville. A bidding war up to $150,000 for recruit Nassir Little and competing $20,000 sneaker company payments to Silvio De Sousa. A $40,000 payment to Dennis Smith. Another $90,000 for Billy Preston. A $30,000 kickback to the personal trainer of Markelle Fultz. An “astronomical” bid by Oregon for Bowen. A multi-layered compensation package for Collin Sexton and his family.

More are sure to follow. This trial is expected to last most of the month.

“The other shoe is dropping, and it’s dropping hard,” said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. “It’s amazingly captivating, and I have a feeling it’s going to be a lot worse before it gets better. This is really a crossroads.”

The intriguing part of the sport’s dirty laundry being hung across social media is that it’s actually part of the plan for defense attorneys in the case. To prove the innocence of two men affiliated with Adidas (Jim Gatto and Merl Code) and a runner (Christian Dawkins), the lawyers are demonstrating in detail the pervasive nature of transactions that violate NCAA rules — but may not violate the law. Stephen L. Hill, a partner at Dentons in Kansas City who prosecuted the Myron Piggie case a generation ago, summed up the strategy this way: “We admit to everything. We’re going to burn down the house completely and you can’t convict us for burning the house down. It was a bad house to start with.”

That leaves a fascinating question percolating through basketball offices, athletic departments and university administrative offices: How are schools and administrations going to respond to a scenario that’s seemingly unprecedented in the last generation? There’s an expectation that day after day in October will reveal sworn testimony about different programs attempting to buy players. And as the trial goes on, there’s the expectation of prominent coaches appearing on federal wiretaps discussing actions that would be major NCAA violations.

“What’s a really big deal is when someone under oath or a piece of evidence demonstrates what actually occurred,” Hill said. “The evidence of violations coming in at trial is a five-alarm fire for anybody that’s concerned about whether their school has complied with the rules.”

The blunt revelations that have come via FBI wiretap, video surveillance, seized documents and from witnesses under oath have made the sport’s commonly accepted mythology more real. The scope is sobering, the problems widespread. (“Seeing how the sausage is made is discouraging,” one coach said. Another asked, “How do these guys keep their jobs?”)

In this file photo, a player runs across the NCAA logo during practice in Pittsburgh before an NCAA tournament game. Major programs are bracing for substantial consequences from the federal corruption trial. (AP)
In this file photo, a player runs across the NCAA logo during practice in Pittsburgh before an NCAA tournament game. Major programs are bracing for substantial consequences from the federal corruption trial. (AP)

College basketball has been dirty for a long time, and now here is the proof. In devastating detail.

“If the speed and nature of these revelations continues, there’s going to be a lot of work for NCAA investigators, and a lot of heartburn and uncertainty for schools and coaches,” said Atlanta-based lawyer Stu Brown, who has a long history of representing coaches and universities in NCAA-related cases.

Schools included in the initial set of charging documents in September 2017, and in subsequent superseding indictments, knew this day was coming: Arizona, N.C. State, Kansas, Maryland, Louisville, USC, Auburn and Miami. Others have been mentioned in testimony this week: Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi State, Washington and Utah. More will follow. On Monday, Judge Lewis A. Kaplan mentioned LSU, Creighton, DePaul, Oklahoma State and Texas to jurors.

So far, the reaction to the flurry of scandalous courtroom revelations has mimicked the initial reaction in the case. Schools were put on blast by the feds and responded with little action outside promises of internal review. Beyond clichéd, jargon-filled statements, not much quantifiable movement has happened at the university level.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino remains the only head coach fired in the wake of the scandal, and that was for an accumulation of sins as much as the school allegedly orchestrating a deal to pay Bowen $100,000. (Pitino denies knowledge of the transaction.) After the scandal erupted a year ago, the NCAA directed all its Division I member schools to self-investigate their men’s basketball programs, and the results were barely noticeable — few players were suspended, fewer staffers were disciplined and the 2017-18 season rolled along as if nothing had happened.

Fast-forward a year to a trial full of sensational allegations and revelations, and the public response from implicated universities ranges from more bland statements to no response at all.

“My main takeaway is that there’s no action at the school level,” said Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick. “There’s no outcry from the faculty senate or president’s office. The lack of reaction surprises me.”

But Brown, the Atlanta-based lawyer, believes there is more activity behind the scenes in response to the trial revelations than meets the eye.

“Many schools, including those named in the first days of the trial, were already aware of issues that had come up,” he said. “Many had already taken investigative steps. There are other schools and coaches, whose identities have been disclosed this week, that are now beginning internal reviews.

“Has my phone rung? Yes.”

The question is whether schools would be willing to take decisive action in the wake of persuasive trial evidence of major violations within their basketball programs. October would be a terrible time to make a coaching change — but bad timing isn’t much of an excuse at this juncture. Schools have had a year to get their houses in order, and it appears that not many have.

What would be the line of delineation to fire a coach? One Power Five athletic director who spoke to Yahoo Sports on condition of anonymity broke it down to two levels. If there’s an accusation under oath, he said he’d likely bring in outside lawyers to independently investigate and attempt to corroborate. “But if my coach is on wiretap talking about paying players? I fire him.”

Some around the sport want actions to be initiated above the athletic director level. University presidents, who often set the tone for how much rule breaking and aberrant behavior is to be tolerated in athletics, will be watched as closely as ADs when it comes to reacting to the trial.

“I still contend the trial is important to weed out the cheaters and send a message to college presidents that who they hire and how they prioritize winning versus education will impact behavior,” said former college basketball coach and athletic director Peter Roby, now working for the search firm Pivot Management Partners.

Beyond the university level, the NCAA response to the week’s events is unclear. Whatever presence the association may have in the courtroom is imperceptible, and president Mark Emmert’s absence is noteworthy. NCAA investigators have been instructed by the feds to largely wait their turn before wading into the steadily growing pool of allegations, but they have picked their spots to act on matters of player eligibility and other areas not directly affecting the government’s investigation.

One summer rule change could accelerate the NCAA’s ability to act in scandal-related investigations: importation. It basically gives NCAA Enforcement the right to “import” information from other investigations without having to independently confirm it themselves. Simply put, can the FBI do the NCAA’s work for it?

It remains unclear what evidence the NCAA would be able to import from this trial, and the process of determining that could be arduous. The NCAA membership has long called for faster investigations, but legal challenges to importation would snarl a process meant to expedite the disposition of cases.

These are all challenges that the NCAA — and perhaps more acutely, its member schools — must reconcile quickly. A new season draws nigh, and the damage done to the credibility of college basketball by another year of university inaction in response to scandal would be immense.

“There better be some ineligible players this year,” Brey said. “Some guys better not be playing. It’s on NCAA enforcement to get moving.”

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