Wiedmer: Scandal with legs may overhaul college hoops

Wiedmer: Scandal with legs may overhaul college hoops

September 28th, 2017 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Joon H. Kim, second from right, and FBI Assistant Director William Sweeney, Jr., right, speak Tuesday while announcing the arrest of four assistant men's college basketball coaches on federal corruption charges.

Photo by Bebeto Matthews

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The email arrived early Wednesday afternoon, and it came from an old friend and longtime fellow college hoops junkie.

The subject line read: "This is the way ..."

Once opened, the rest of the message read: "... the world ends."

My friend wasn't talking about the fate of Louisville men's basketball after the university's announcement that both Cardinals coach Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich had been placed on administrative leave.

That decision was pretty much a foregone conclusion as soon as news broke Tuesday that the FBI had video and audio evidence of an unnamed Cards assistant coach helping broker a deal with the family of a player believed to be prep All-American Brian Bowen for a cool $100,000.

And Louisville fans might be right to believe this is the way their basketball world will end for the foreseeable future, given they were already on the edge of surrendering their 2013 NCAA title for Stripper/hookergate. Talk about your sausage factory.

But my buddy was speaking more to the sport in general, to all those schools with national championship banners hanging from their rafters that have been rumored — or proven — to have broken NCAA rules in the past, not to mention what this burgeoning scandal that has already smeared six high-major programs might do to foster public disillusionment and rejection.

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The whispers have always been there, of course. Secret meetings in hotel rooms with folks you'd hide your jewelry from before you'd let them in your home. Briefcases filled with cash. Secret bank accounts. Phony jobs.

A single story, but no names to protect the long-ago guilty: One Southeastern Conference school was fortunate enough to have an in-town booster who was a furrier when fur coats weren't yet on PETA's blacklist. The school's players would go to the fur shop and buy a coat for a greatly reduced price. In the pocket was a phone number. The player would then call the number and sell the coat to that person for a large profit.

Pitted against FBI charges of wire fraud and conspiracy, such a scam seems almost quaint. And those scams have been going on in one form or another since the first wealthy college sports fan decided it was much more fun to win than lose and the best way to ensure such victories was to make sure you had better players than the other team.

But this isn't the NCAA stretching out its alligator arms to nail some easy, helpless prey because, in the immortal words of the late UNLV sinner Jerry Tarkanian, "The NCAA's so mad at Kentucky they just put Cleveland State on three years' probation."

This is the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's office. They arrest people, and those people often go to jail. Because of that, it stands to reason most of those folks fingered by the FBI are about to sing like canaries regarding all they know or have heard about other programs.

So it could get really ugly really quickly, especially since ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla — a former head coach at Manhattan, St. John's and New Mexico — said Wednesday he believes only 70 percent of coaches in Power Five conferences are doing it the right way.

Assuming the other 30 percent are cheating, you have to believe those are the schools making the NCAA tournament.

To be fair, 46 percent (30 total) of the 65 teams that make up the Power Five leagues — the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — made last year's field. Of the six schools thus far implicated by the FBI, only Auburn failed to get an invitation. So crime doesn't always pay.

But we're also but two days into this scandal. This may not be the way the college basketball world ends. But it certainly feels like the beginning of the end for the college hoops world as we've long known it.

And that's a good thing.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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