SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Dan Wolken goes inside the scandal that has rocked the sports world and the ripple effect it will have on college basketball and Rick Pitino’s legacy.
USA TODAY Sports
Two weeks have passed since the FBI unveiled a major case of alleged corruption in college men’s basketball, a longtime covert investigation that resulted in the arrest of 10 men, and Sonny Vaccaro’s phone won’t stop ringing.
The former longtime marketing executive at Nike and Adidas has spent the last two weeks talking with reporters and appearing on TV, telling anyone who will listen that the NCAA might be facing major reform with this scandal — and that no one should be shocked that this was happening.
“The NCAA is not a virgin here,” Vaccaro said. “They’ve had scandals forever, they’ve had scandals since the inception of the NCAA 100 years ago. There’s no surprise here, except someone’s gonna talk, someone is gonna give someone else up.
“I don’t think the FBI knows what it has here. They have a case that violates every law, from antitrust to corruption to money laundering to bank fraud, everything. This isn’t, ‘Come to my school and a booster’s going to give you a car.’ ”
More: Federal probe could uncover deeper roots in college basketball scandal
The difference in this case, of course, is that the NCAA has no say in what the FBI and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York decide to do, or who they decide to charge. Ten men, including four assistants at major programs — Auburn’s Chuck Person, Southern California’s Tony Bland, Arizona’s Emanuel “Book” Richardson and Oklahoma State’s Lamont Evans — were arrested two weeks ago on charges of bribery, money laundering, fraud and corruption. The first arraignments are expected Tuesday morning in Manhattan, and will include all of the assistant coaches.
Jim Gatto, director of global sports marketing at Adidas, and Merl Code, also of Adidas, also were among those arrested. Gatto, who spent more than 20 years at Adidas, is expected to be arraigned Thursday.
Vaccaro often is credited as the individual responsible for big-time sneaker deals between coaches, schools and companies and with the invention of elite summer camps. He was there for the inception of what is now commonly referred to as “the circuit,” dozens of showcase tournaments around the country that top level prospects and their (often hand-picked) AAU teams participate in during summer months. Vaccaro believes Gatto and Code could hold the key to the entire investigation.
While federal authorities have wire taps and video recordings that allegedly prove Gatto and Co. were trying to funnel money to players — with coaches’ help — to persuade those players to attend specific schools, no one knows what, if anything, either of the shoe company executives has on other companies, specifically Nike, where Code worked for more than a decade. Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League offices were also subpoenaed, but it came 24 hours after the initial wave of arrests.
Vaccaro emphasized that this case is unlike any other that has previously played out in public view.
“What was going to happen (with previous NCAA investigations) to the little guy, the assistant coach? He was going to get suspended, or get a show cause and not coach for a few years,” Vaccaro said. “These are felonies. These guys, if they’re convicted, they’re going to be felons. They’re not getting jobs anymore. Their lives are going to be over. … The little guy has got to give up the big guy.”
Currently only one head coach, Rick Pitino of Louisville, has paid a price for alleged involvement with the scandal. Last week Louisville interim President Greg Postel issued a scathing letter to Pitino that signaled the school was prepared to fire him for cause, which would mean the university would not be on the hook to pay Pitino more than $40 million left on his contract. Postel also referenced the prostitution scandal that last summer brought NCAA sanctions, including suspending Pitino for the first five games of ACC play after it was revealed that a basketball staffer had provided strippers and prostitutes to players and recruits in a campus dorm over a period of several years.
“Your involvement in these recent scandals cannot be considered isolated events,” Postel wrote. “Instead, they are illustrative of a pattern and practice of inappropriate behavior. The charges will be considered in the context of your full employment history (with the university).
More: If not Louisville, then who gets the death penalty?
More: John Calipari on FBI probe: Solution could be to mimic NCAA baseball
Practice for Division-I schools across the country started last week, and games will begin in mid-November. This story line will dominate the season, even if coaches and athletic directors insist on “basketball questions only,” as Arizona did at its local media day last week.
Arizona head coach Sean Miller and USC head coach Andy Enfield — both of whom had assistants arrested in the sting, and both of whom claim to have no knowledge of any wrongdoing — are expected to speak with reporters Thursday at Pac-12 basketball media days in San Francisco.
Of all the schools implicated in the federal documents, Arizona is the most high-profile program (aside from Louisville). Miller has taken the Wildcats to the Elite Eight three times since 2011, including back-to-back appearances in ’14 and ’15. Arizona President Robert C. Robbins issued a statement of support for Miller, but it was carefully worded.
“Based on the facts that we know at this time, we support Coach Miller and intend to provide him with all of the tools necessary to meet our goals and expectations,” Robbins said.
More: Sean Miller seeks to reassure Wildcats fans in news conference
DOYEL: Amidst scandal, presidents trying to save game — but is it beyond saving?
A handful of other high-profile coaches have shared thoughts on the matter. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski praised the sport while admitting that the conversation about paying players “those are good discussions.” He also went on record as saying the NBA should do away with its one-and-done rule, allowing high school athletes to jump straight to the pros if they want.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams, currently embroiled in an academic scandal and waiting word from the NCAA on potential penalties, told ESPN that Nike had “never helped me get any player, never insinuated, never done anything.”
Twenty-four hours after the scandal broke, Jay Williams, a former All-American point guard at Duke, said on ESPN’s Outside the Lines that he believed the FBI shining a light on the misconception of amateurism would be “the beginning of the end of the NCAA.”
“The only way to change (the corruption), or to start to change it, is to go to some sort of revenue-sharing model like the NBA already has,” Williams said. “At the very least, why can’t a kid own his likeness? As a student, I walk around campus and see people wearing my jersey, but I see none of that money. Meanwhile, if I take a hamburger from an agent I have to sit out a game. How is that fair?
“You can’t take everything from these kids and not expect them to go under the table and try to get some of it back.”
Like Vaccaro, Williams was not surprised to hear that this type of corruption had finally blown wide open.
“We’ve been talking about this (corruption in the sport) for 10 years,” Williams said, adding that in his brief stint in working for a sports agency, he got a front row seat to the inner workings of high-level recruiting. “From the outside you say ‘Oh, this is great, (college sports) are the last bastion of purity in sports.’ Then you realize, this is a business, 24/7, from the time these kids are 8 or 9 years old.”
Eventually, the IRS is expected to get involved, and there will be more fallout because of athletes and their families, not to mention assistant coaches, taking significant cash payments that were likely not reported as income on annual filings.
Vaccaro pushes back on the notion that athletes and their families are just as much to blame for the corruption.
“Players could put an ad in USA TODAY tomorrow and say, ‘Give me a million dollars and I’ll go to your school!’ But if no one is giving them the money, there’s no crime,” Vaccaro said. “That’s the tough thing. … Do I think these people (coaches) are criminals? No. Do I think they were tempted by money and other glorifications? That’s the killer. Anytime something is available to an individual, temptation arises, and you do things that you normally wouldn’t do … the pressure is high (on coaches) to win.”