While Bill Self and Kansas dig in heels for a fight, NCAA might finally have ammo to win

Dan WetzelColumnist

The NCAA on Monday went after the throat of Kansas basketball, and Kansas basketball responded right back, setting up a potentially fiery battle over just how much cheating the Jayhawks have been doing under Hall of Fame coach Bill Self.

The NCAA delivered a notice of allegations to KU detailing widespread rule breaking that includes three separate Level I violations, a head coach responsibility charge against Self and a lack of institutional control allegation due to a violation also occurring in football.

Officially, each Level I violation is punishable by one-to-five years of postseason ban and a potential one-year ban for the coach. It’ll never get to that, but it’s clear if the NCAA enforcement staff has its way, it could get to something significant.

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What’s that old Jerry Tarkanian line about Kentucky and Cleveland State? Well, not this time. The NCAA is so mad at Kansas, it might give Kansas two more years of probation.

Perhaps the association felt the need to act after the federal basketball fraud trials of the past two years dragged its general impotence into the spotlight. It was clear through weeks of testimony and wiretaps that no one respected or feared the NCAA.

At least that’s what Self is claiming. In a statement, he cried about the NCAA’s “unnecessary aggressive manner” born from “its haste and attempt to regain control.” He declared it all a “false narrative.”

That’s the kind of rhetoric that is rarely thrown at the NCAA, whose infractions committee has generally given leniency to those who play nice and admit wrongdoing. It’s unlikely there is going to be much cooperation this time. The lines in the sand have been drawn.

“The narrative is based on innuendo, half-truths, misimpressions and mischaracterizations,” Self said.

Well, that should play well among the KU faithful but the reality is that much of the notice of allegations comes from the under-oath federal testimony and other evidence provided from T.J. Gassnola, a longtime Self confidant and friend who also served as a so-called “bag man” for Adidas grassroots basketball.

Kansas Jayhawks head coach Bill Self reacts during the first half in the second round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament. (USAT)
Kansas Jayhawks head coach Bill Self reacts during the first half in the second round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament. (USAT)

Gassnola is the kind of figure the NCAA usually never gets to interview. With no way to compel cooperation, figures such as Gassnola, who doubled as a Massachusetts AAU coach, would never speak with the NCAA — let alone share bank records or cell phones.

However, once the FBI and the Southern District of New York began charging figures in a scandal that played out two years ago, Gassnola took a non-prosecution deal to avoid trouble.

That meant handing over texts and other communication between he, Self and KU assistant Kurtis Townsend. That meant nearly two days on the stand in a Manhattan courtroom where he detailed how he met and paid various Kansas recruits (among others) so they would play for his buddy Self and the Adidas-sponsored Jayhawks. That meant bank statements and wire transfers to back it all up.

Self claims, “There is only one version of the truth” and that “the truth is based on verifiable facts, and I am confident the facts we will demonstrate in our case will expose the inaccuracies of the enforcement staff’s narrative.”

Those better be some good facts because they would, presumably, also have to prove that Gassnola is a liar and that he duped both the FBI and seasoned federal prosecutors in New York.

Good luck with that one.

Kansas has previously claimed it was just a victim of Adidas, a public-relations line that went from laughable to pathetic when it quickly re-upped to another endorsement deal with its so-called victimizers.

In truth, they are part of a symbiotic business relationship that only exists because of the NCAA's ethically bankrupt amateurism rules. In this, Kansas took millions from Adidas, which in turn protected its investment by steering many of its best high school players to the school so the Jayhawks would keep winning Big 12 championships.

In the process, Self got rich and into the Hall of Fame. Kansas sold out its gym and showed up on ESPN a couple times a week.

The players didn’t get much.

The rules that create the underground economy should be abolished, but as long as they exist, Kansas and Self should be forced to follow them.

It’s not like they don’t know what is going on. Self is a smart guy, not some rube who really thought the best players in the country, many of whom coincidentally played in the Adidas grassroots system, arrived in Lawrence because they like watching sunsets over wheat fields.

“I’m happy with Adidas,” Self texted Gassnola right after KU and the shoe company agreed to a $191 million deal. “Just got to get a couple of real guys.”

Gee, Bill, that must be the innuendo part.

“In my mind, it’s KU, Bill Self,” Gassnola texted back, intimating how Kansas deserved the best players before other Adidas schools such as Louisville and North Carolina State got theirs. “Everyone else fall into line. Too [expletive] bad. That’s what’s right for Adidas basketball. And I know I am RIGHT. The more you win, have lottery pics [sic] and you happy. That’s how it should work in my mind.”

“That’s how ur [sic] works. At UNC and Duke,” Self texted, mentioning a couple of Nike-sponsored schools.

Soon enough, Gassnola was out looking for real guys. That meant coincidentally meeting the mother of Billy Preston at a Lawrence hotel and the beginning of payments that totaled $89,000. That meant working with the guardian of Silvio De Sousa, all while texting back and forth with Self, to the tune of $20,000.

“I talked with [the guardian],” Gassnola texted Self on the eve of the college decision.

“We good?” Self asked.

“Always,” Gassnola texted. “That’s [sic] was light work. Ball is in his court now.”

More innuendo, of course. Mischaracterizations. Or something.

The evidence that was laid out in court was damning and dramatic. It was clear Kansas didn’t care. The question was whether the NCAA was going to.

It showed Monday it did. Now Self is basically declaring it all a witch hunt and counting on KU to circle the wagons.

This time the NCAA appears to be itching for a fight, as well. Thanks to the FBI, it might actually have enough ammo to win.

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