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SAN ANTONIO – As college coaches and administrators from around the nation gather here at the Final Four, one school has been the buzz of the Riverwalk dives, taco shops and tequila bars that dot this city’s unique landscape.
It’s not Loyola Chicago and its beloved 98-year-old team chaplain, Sister Jean. It’s not Villanova and coach Jay Wright, attempting to win its second national title in three years. Nor is it Kansas or Michigan, the other blue-blood schools.
The buzz among coaches, administrators and industry executives has centered around Cal State University Northridge, a Big West Conference school with only two all-time NCAA tournament appearances. Northridge stunned the basketball establishment by hiring the former North Carolina State coach Mark Gottfried shortly after that program landed in the middle of the federal college basketball corruption scandal. A few days before the hire, The Washington Post reported that NC State had received a federal grand jury subpoena seeking NC State records in the investigation.
Northridge released a statement citing Gottfried’s “excellent compliance record” and claimed “no red flags whatsoever” in relation to the federal probe of his former program. (A university spokesman said there’s “nothing official yet we can report” in regards to the hiring of former UCLA coach Jim Harrick, who has had his own NCAA issues, as a Northridge assistant coach.) This news was greeted with eye rolls of skepticism around the sport, as the hiring of Gottfried highlights how little has changed in college basketball since the federal probe shook the sport last September.
“This is presidential malfeasance,” said a person involved in the collegiate hiring process. “The school’s public relations release said there were ‘no red flags.’ In terms of red flags, it’s like the May Day Parade in Moscow in 1946. There’s red flags everywhere you look.”
At the least, the hiring is indicative of what Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli generally calls “business as usual” around the sport. At a time when many predicted the hiring market to be conservative, schools didn’t hesitate to bring on or extend coaches tied to the federal probe or with significant NCAA issues in their background.
With the hiring of Danny Hurley, Connecticut welcomed back assistant Tom Moore, who was tied to an NCAA case that resulted in a three-year probation, scholarship reductions and recruiting restrictions for UConn in 2011. Pittsburgh hired Duke assistant coach Jeff Capel, who was fired in March 2011 at Oklahoma amid an NCAA investigation that led to sanctions against the program eight months later. (Moore was not directly charged by the NCAA and did not have to appear at the Committee on Infractions hearing. Capel was not named in the Oklahoma violations and was not personally sanctioned by the NCAA.)
Louisville fired head coach Rick Pitino soon after the federal probe went public in late September, in what was the most significant reverberation of the scandal to date. But none of the four schools who had assistant coaches arrested in the federal corruption investigation – USC, Auburn, Arizona and Oklahoma State – have parted ways with their head coaches. USC replaced fired assistant coach Tony Bland with Eric Mobley, an AAU coach with no college coaching experience who is the father of two top prospects.
“It once was true that a coach who got in NCAA trouble could not get hired at another school,” said Jo Potuto, a Nebraska law professor and longtime member of the NCAA Committee on Infractions. “That no longer is the case. I regret this trend. I do not see how universities can recapture the ethical center, can demonstrate that athletics does not run the show, if these hires continue to happen.”
To veteran industry observers, the federal investigation that was supposed to change everything in a scandal-scarred sport has really changed nothing. “I thought it would be different,” Martelli said. “I’m watching these hires from the outside looking in, and I’ll say, ‘Huh?'”
The flurry of curious hires have produced the predictable administrative clichés regarding “due diligence” and “full debriefs,” which double as coverage for the reality of schools looking to win and coaches not being sufficiently scared of NCAA rules. These are old themes, playing out in a new hiring cycle. “This is not rocket science,” said Minnesota president Eric Kaler, chairman of the NCAA Board of Directors. “What we need to do is have a set of incentives and disincentives, also known as punishments, that are in place and that will influence the behavior that we want to see. If we have a coach with a blemish … that’s a coach that probably shouldn’t be coaching in the NCAA.”
The Big West is an anonymous mid-major conference with a university membership of hyphenated names, puzzling acronyms and obscure destinations – UC Davis, UCSB and Cal Poly, to name a few. The league has sent eight different teams to the NCAA tournament the past eight seasons, a list that does not include Cal State University Northridge.
That school hasn’t had a player drafted since 1984. Cal Northridge’s best-known affiliation to the mainstream basketball world is that David and Dana Pump, the infamous Pump brothers known over the years for controversial dealings in tickets and grassroots, went to school there.
The presence of a former Atlantic Coast Conference and Southeastern Conference coach like Gottfried at an undistinguished program in a modest league is surprising. So was the six-year contract that will pay Gottfried $400,000 in base salary in the first year. In some circles, that hiring is viewed as a coup. “Until any proven evidence comes out from the FBI, people are going to hire the best available option,” said Bob Williams, the former coach at UC Santa Barbara. “Mark Gottfried would be an attractive option for a Big West institution.”
The reason why Gottfried has become the buzz of the Final Four is his ties to Andy Miller, the disgraced former NBA agent at the center of the federal corruption probe. Miller represented many NC State players over the years — some of whom predated Gottfried’s arrival in 2011 — and his connection to that program ran so deep that the school disassociated Miller in 2012. The school made that disassociation letter public after Yahoo Sports published documents last month that alleged former star Dennis Smith Jr., who was a one-and-done player in 2016-17, received a $73,500 loan from Miller’s agency that would have compromised his eligibility.
While there weren’t any arrests in the FBI investigation directly tied to NC State, few schools have had more dealings with Miller. The federal subpoena, which was made public days after Gottfried’s hiring, included a request for Gottfried’s personnel files and all communications between the school and assorted individuals tied to the case. That included two sneaker executives and an AAU program director with strong ties to Miller and Adidas.
CSU-Northridge president Dianne Harrison did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story. A school spokesman, Jeff Noblitt, said the school did “a full background check,” which included the services of Chicago search firm DHR International and its head, Glenn Sugiyama. “I think we have the same information that they have,” Noblitt said of NC State. “They literally said, ‘No red flags’. That’s what they said about their program. We feel confident in the steps we’ve taken on this hire.”
The feeling around college basketball is the school, at the least, may have exposed itself to greater risk considering the extent of the federal probe may not be known until the final trial in the spring of 2019. “If there’s problems here with Mark, this is total incompetence at the presidential level at Northridge,” said Bob Burton, who is the former coach at Cal State Fullerton. “Who is running the asylum? The inmates, obviously. I hope they know something we don’t know.”
Connecticut hired Hurley to great fanfare last week, as the school outflanked Pittsburgh and other schools to lure him from the University of Rhode Island. His hiring came two weeks after firing coach Kevin Ollie and claiming “just cause” for the termination, with the program under NCAA investigation for actions during Ollie’s tenure.
With much less fanfare, the university simultaneously hired back former assistant Moore, who had been on Hurley’s staff at Rhode Island.
Moore’s last stint at Connecticut included a role in the actions that led to the university’s last major infractions case. That resulted in Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun being suspended for three games, three years probation and scholarship losses. Moore brokered the introduction between an agent and recruit that became the centerpiece of the case. Moore left UConn a few months after linking player Nate Miles to Josh Nochimson, a former UConn manager-turned-agent who was accused of stealing more than a million dollars from former UConn star Richard Hamilton.
UConn is quick to point out that Moore, who left for the head job at Quinnipiac in 2007, received no penalties from the NCAA and did not have to appear before the Committee on Infractions. But his role in brokering what could be regarded as the most toxic relationship in school history is also apparent.
UConn athletic director David Benedict called a query from Yahoo Sports asking about Moore’s hire back to the school “a fair question.” He said that the university fully vetted Moore and found no NCAA issues. “Certainly, we reached out to the NCAA and got a full debriefing on what, if anything, has come up since that time,” Benedict said in a phone interview with Yahoo Sports. “We felt comfortable based on the feedback that he hasn’t been involved with anything since.”
Similar lines were spoken by Pittsburgh athletic director Heather Lyke after hiring Duke assistant coach Capel this week. He was fired at Oklahoma in 2011 in the wake of a pair of losing seasons and amid an ongoing NCAA investigation into former star Tiny Gallon’s family allegedly receiving thousands of dollars from a financial advisor with the knowledge of an Oklahoma assistant coach. Capel wasn’t charged by the NCAA, but if those violations had occurred today he would likely have received additional NCAA scrutiny under the head-coach responsibility legislation.
“Obviously, it’s a really tenuous time in the world of college basketball, and it did cause certain candidates to maybe not be on the radar…” Lyke said at the press conference to introduce Capel. “We definitely had a very frank, candid conversation about integrity, about decisions, about the staff you surround yourself with, how you run your program. Real open, real honest with Jeff, and I felt very comfortable with his comments, his philosophy and how he’ll lead this program.”
While embroiled in the federal probe, USC raised eyebrows last week by replacing the arrested and fired Bland with Eric Mobley, who has no college coaching experience. Mobley was the girls coach at Rancho Christian High School and also a coach of the Compton Magic AAU program — but perhaps most importantly he is the father of two of the highest-rated players in their classes: Isaiah Mobley is the No. 30 player in the Class of 2019 according to Rivals.com, and Evan Mobley is the No. 20 player in the Class of 2020.
Yahoo Sports asked for comment from USC head coach Andy Enfield about the hiring process for Mobley, and his coaching credentials. Enfield declined to answer questions but through an athletic department spokesman reiterated the quote he issued when the hiring of Mobley was announced: “We are excited to add Eric to our coaching staff. He brings to our program a wealth of playing and coaching experience at a variety of levels. He is an outstanding coach and a terrific person.”
Frank Burlison, who has covered the Southern California basketball scene for many years, said Mobley’s hiring at USC is more legitimate than other “nepotism-type” hires over the years in college basketball.
“Mobley is a whole lot more qualified to be hired to a college coaching staff than most [fathers of prospects] who’ve been hired,” Burlison said.
Still, it was a hire seemingly made expressly for the purpose of landing two players and tapping an AAU pipeline. “My feeling is this,” said Kevin O’Neill, former USC coach and Pac-12 Network analyst. “If it’s not illegal, it’s not a problem.”
When the feds dropped their bombshell last September, there was belief that the arrests of 10 men were the proverbial tip of the investigative iceberg. Accordingly, there was an expectation that college basketball would be scared straight. But as the months have passed and the hiring-and-firing cycle renewed, the Final Four chatter is about more of the same.
“I can feel the momentum of this [federal investigation] ebbing away because the next shoe hasn’t dropped,” said one athletic director at a prominent school. “I think that’s a shame. I know these federal processes have their place, but with no additional indictments or plea deals announced, I think people are making some decisions like [they did before].”
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