SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Adam Woodard talks with college basketball insiders Lindsay Schnell and Scott Gleeson for insight on the upcoming season.
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After he left the coaching business for good at age 65, Tom Penders decided to write a book. His career had encompassed 649 wins at seven programs, with 11 NCAA tournament appearances and plenty of stories about his health, his big upsets and some of the unique players he recruited along the way.
But toward the end of Dead Coach Walking, which was released in 2011, Penders devoted a chapter to the seedy side of college basketball that, in retrospect, reads like a playbook for the scandal that has suddenly overtaken the sport for nearly two months.
“Sadly, if you don’t play ball with these AAU characters they will do all that they can to ruin you as a head coach,” Penders wrote. “By playing ball I’m talking about dead presidents (money). Many of the AAU coaches and owners won’t give you the time of day unless you can help fund their programs and habits.”
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Penders went on to describe how laundered money from boosters of certain colleges would filter to grassroots basketball programs to pay for expenses, and he described a meeting in 2007 as coach at Houston when an agent and AAU coach tried to cut a deal with him for an unnamed star 7-footer, whom Penders has never named specifically but is widely known to be DeAndre Jordan.
“Many of the top programs in the country are involved in deals like this. It’s like being in the Mafia because there is no way out,” Penders wrote. “Does somebody have to wind up in the trunk of a car before this is cleaned up?”
When Penders’ prescient words were published six years ago, they made a few headlines but quickly dissipated into the ether. After all, there was another season coming, a new batch of recruits to get excited about, big games to play and tournament brackets to fill out.
That’s how it’s always been in college sports. Scandals come and go, cheaters get exposed, and everyone acts embarrassed until the first tip-off.
Officially, the 2017-18 college basketball season starts Friday. And history suggests the conversation will naturally start to shift from indictments and FBI wiretaps to Duke vs. Michigan State.
But this time feels different because Sept. 26, 2017 made it different.
From now until One Shining Moment is played next April, what becomes of college basketball is far more important than anything that happens in college basketball. And no matter how many times Miles Bridges dunks for Michigan State or Michael Porter, Jr., goes off for 30 points during his one year as a Missouri Tiger, trying to separate the sport from the sport’s problems will seem, for now, anyway, like an apologist’s doomed mission.
In this environment, even the secondary scandals get amplified beyond their normal scope and size. This week, as Georgia Tech and UCLA prepared to play a game in Shanghai, they inadvertently attempted to out-do each other in contributing to college basketball’s ick factor.
At Georgia Tech, two starters including all-ACC sophomore guard Josh Okogie are suspended indefinitely as a result of accepting benefits from an ex-convict and hanger-on named Ron Bell whom head coach Josh Pastner had given significant access to the program and his players. Now, after a personal falling out, said hanger-on is going public via CBS sports to claim that Pastner directed him to give the benefits, a claim for which he has not yet produced proof but could cause significant headaches for Georgia Tech. (Why someone with Bell’s, uh, credentials and obsessive personality traits, which became clear during an appearance Gary Parrish’s radio show in Memphis, was allowed around the program in the first place is another troubling matter altogether.)
Of course, it only took about seven hours for Bell’s exposé to get trumped by the news three UCLA players, including LiAngelo Ball of the Big Baller Brand, were arrested by Chinese authorities for allegedly shoplifting some sunglasses from a Louis Vuitton store. While 18 and 19 year olds may not be the most sensible people, thinking it’s a good idea to stealing anything in a foreign country — especially one with more of an authoritarian spin on the legal system — is a different level of stupid.
But this is college basketball right now, folks, as is Wednesday’s newly unsealed indictment in the federal government’s case against 10 men for fraud and bribery that further and more clearly alleges that former Louisville coach Rick Pitino knew and approved of a scheme to funnel $100,000 from Adidas to recruit Brian Bowen.
Also college basketball on the even of the season: Auburn coach Bruce Pearl refusing to cooperate with the school’s internal investigation into the program, according to an ESPN report. Former Auburn assistant Chuck Person was indicted earlier this week by a grand jury in New York. That scenario will likely set up Auburn’s decision whether to fire Pearl with cause for refusing to cooperate, but could protect Pearl legally.
And, finally, also college basketball: A spate of players who will be revealed as ineligible because of NCAA issues potentially related to the FBI investigation, including Alabama star freshman Collin Sexton.
Meanwhile, have a great season everyone!
“People who think they have a handle on the landscape would be shocked to find out about some of these schools,” Penders wrote six years ago.
Nobody’s shocked anymore, as the FBI brought the reality of big-time college basketball from the shadows into the headlines. And while games will be played Friday and pretty much every night for the next four months, the other stuff isn’t going to go away or even fade into the background. This time, corruption is college basketball’s front porch, and it’s going to stay there all season long.
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