There are really only two ways a podunk basketball program like Cal State Northridge is going to make national headlines. One way is via the 40 minutes of fame afforded by a rare berth in the NCAA tournament (there have been two in school history). The other is to do something so jaw-droppingly stupid that the world can’t help but notice.
The Matadors have taken the latter route.
When the NCAA formally charged Mark Gottfried on Tuesday with a major rules violation dating to his tenure at North Carolina State, Northridge’s hiring of him as its basketball coach officially became the most willfully tone-deaf personnel decision in recent college sports memory. Gottfried was hit with a failure of head coach control of his program and failure to monitor assistant Orlando Early, who was directly implicated by federal testimony in an alleged $40,000 cash buy of star recruit Dennis Smith Jr.
This outcome was visible from space since January 2018, when a grand jury subpoenaed North Carolina State for documents and information in the Southern District of New York’s investigation of corruption in college basketball. It became all the more real in February 2018, when Yahoo Sports reported that ASM Sports agency documents listed $73,500 in impermissible payments to Smith.
Clearly, at that point, NC State was in big trouble for things that occurred when Gottfried was in charge. Yet Northridge ignored the obvious and named Gottfried its coach in March of that year, complete with a Baghdad Bob-level statement from the school claiming there were “no red flags whatsoever” in making that hire.
Nobody in college hoops could believe it then, and everyone is laughing at the school now.
"This is exactly why the hiring was greeted with such astonishing skepticism in the coaching community," said a source familiar with the college hiring process. "Everyone knew by that time, that even if Mark is not found to violate the coach control rule, that at minimum he was going to face this issue."
So which administrative ostrich gets credit for this epic, head-in-the-sand hire? That would be CSUN president Dianne F. Harrison. The basketball program at her school has been a mess for a while, and Gottfried is the latest layer of complication.
The Matadors self-imposed a postseason ban for the 2015-16 season for academic fraud and were placed on a three-year probation by the NCAA in December of that year. In March 2018, Harrison fired her athletic director, Brandon Martin, a day after Martin fired coach Reggie Theus. The reasons for firing Theus were abundant — five straight losing seasons, plus NCAA issues — but Martin had to go as well after a physical confrontation with Theus.
Clearly, the best way to restore some professionalism and respect at this point was to hire … Mark Gottfried?
Why him? There were a few fairly flimsy reasons. He and Harrison both attended the same high school in Mobile, Alabama, though not at the same time (Harrison in the 1970s, Gottfried in the early ‘80s). He was a name coach for a no-name school, although he’d been fired by NC State in 2017 (for losing, not cheating) and resigned under pressure at Alabama in 2009. He also had Southern California ties dating to his tenure as a UCLA assistant under Jim Harrick.
(The cherry atop the scofflaw sundae: Gottfried hired Harrick as an assistant. Harrick, of course, was fired by both UCLA and Georgia — the former for falsifying an expense report that may have covered up an NCAA violation, and the latter for a full-fledged NCAA scandal.)
Another theory on Gottfried’s improbable hiring: The skids were greased by the Pump brothers, Dana and David, who went to school at Northridge (but did not graduate) before becoming sketchy power brokers in the shadow world between grassroots basketball and the college game.
However it happened, the results to date of the Great Gottfried Hiring Coup are these: A 13-21 debut season and now the looming specter of sanctions potentially directly applied to the head coach for shenanigans elsewhere. This was quite literally a readily identified compliance problem that Harrison invited onto her campus.
Harrison has been the CSUN president since 2012, and somewhere along the way she came up with an eight-point plan to improve the school. The last of the eight points: “Using athletics as a tool for engagement.”
Well, the outside world has been engaged. Or perhaps it is enraged. Or at least highly amused.
“This is presidential malfeasance,” a person involved in the collegiate hiring process told Yahoo Sports not long after Gottfried was brought onboard at CSUN. “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.”
Of all the schools implicated in the basketball corruption scandal, obscure Northridge now looks like the industry leader in disregard for both propriety and consequences. The red flags they somehow couldn’t see have been planted in the middle of their bland campus northwest of Los Angeles. Hard to miss them now.
But the Matadors are merely the industry leader in ignoring the implications of the basketball scandal, not alone. Plenty of other schools have simply opted to do nothing with their implicated coaches, playing the same waiting game to see if the NCAA can pin anything on their guys.
Arizona has kept Sean Miller. Kansas has kept Bill Self. LSU has kept Will Wade. Auburn has kept Bruce Pearl. USC has kept Andy Enfield. And so on. Across the board, the play seems to be this: Self-sanctioning is for suckers, and we aren’t doing anything until we have to.
Where Northridge separated itself from the shameless pack was by going out and hiring a guy whose program had been dragged into the scandal. The others already had their men.
That might not be a winning play, long term. This North Carolina State notice of allegations takes direct aim at coaches — Gottfried and former assistant Orlando Early — and it will be instructive to see if that continues as NOAs are delivered to more schools through the rest of the summer. Between the harsh penalty applied to former Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie earlier this month and the Level I charge against Gottfried, a precedent could be forming.
If you have an implicated coach at your school, maybe you should have done something about it. Or, in the brazen case of Cal State Northridge, maybe you shouldn’t have made the most tone-deaf hire anyone can remember.
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