The thought keeps dribbling through the mind: it is wrong for Lefty Driesell, Bill Foster and other college coaches to be paid to hawk basketball shoes. But why? It certainly is not because they cannot make an entertaining pitch, for a mininal amount of imagination allows one to see . . .
"The Ol' Lefthander here reminding you all that one thing I especially like about Nike is that padded sole. See, I stomp a lost. Matter of fact, my stomping used to sell tickets at Maryland. But ordinary sneakers made my feet hurt. For hours. Even days. But stomping on a Nike is like a stomping on a cloud."
It is not wrong because the fees, nearly $10,000 in some instances, are too high. These coaches are the elite of their profession, equal to the Jason Robards and Candice Bergens one sees so frequently.
Also, college basketball coach probably is the most insecure of all athletic jobs, the one dependent on the whims and health of a few oversized and mobile teen-agers. Would you put your fate in the hands of Jo Jo Hunter?
If Duke stays healthy, it has a fine chance to win the NCAA championship this season. One knee injury to one important player and Duke might not make the round of 16. So Foster and his colleagues earn every penny they can muster.
There even is precedent in academe. Who cannot recall a professor insisting a dull or useless book be required for his course because he happened to write it?
But coaches should get out of the shoe business because of the nasty step it suggests - that college players will be the next ones offered money by overzealous salesmen. Of course, this assumes some of them are not getting money under the laces now.
The battle among shoe companies has become more intense the last few years, and some of the fighters leave distinctly odoriferous trails. Not long ago, there was one major brand, Converse. Now there are a half-dozen in intense competition, each with a distinctive marking.
"Little boys can identify shoes now like we used to identify cars," said the Georgetown coach, John Thompson.
Some of the shoe companies have been paying pro all-stars handsome fees for years.But the college teams now appear on television nearly as often as the NBA teams, so the shoe wars has escalated at that level.
Because it is against the rules to pay Albert King and Gene Banks, shoe firms do the next best thing: They pay the coaches to coax their players into the proper footwear.So every game is a relatively cheap ad.
And college basketball teams might well be treated in the same vein as Indy cars. In addition to the annual so-and-so rode such-and-such tires to victory messages, we could see: "IOU won the NCAA basketball tournament wearing . . ."
Not that this is necessarily evil.
Commercialism ranks behind hypocrisy in any list of intercollegiate sins. Nobody pays to watch a coach perform - and none of them wears sneakers in public anyway. So if a player can earn money by wearing a special brand, why not let him?
The colleges say no. They also should say no to their coaches. If they do not, it will establish the sort of atmosphere that leads to scandals.
How could that happen?
The best players see coaches in all manner of compromising positions during recruiting. And a coach endorsing a special brand of shoe and at least indirectly pressuring his players to wear it clearly has a conflict of interest.
A player sees this and says to himself: "My coach has no trouble justifying this and I'm the one everyone comes to see wear the shoes, so if somebody wants to slip me some money, what's the harm?"
The history of intercollegiate athletic cheating shows that players can be bought very cheaply. And who is the first person who would get wind of any illegal shoe payments? Your friendly neighborhood blackmail-minded point shaver.
And the athlete is trapped.
This is not to question the integrity of Driesell or Foster or any of their players. But only the naive would insist such an athletic mood is impossible. For evidence, administrators might talk with word-class track and field athletes.
The administrators, if their own hands are unsoiled, must set the tone here. And the cost-cutting excuses offered by such as Maryland Chancellor Robert Gluckstern simply are not valid.
"It would be most unwise if we didn't take opportunities for free equipment or reduced prices if there are no strings attached," Gluckstern told Mark Asher.
I think Maryland would get as much free equipment in open competition as it gets now. Perhaps more. If money must exchange hands, let it be in the form of a scholarship donation.
There are enough endorsement avenues now for clever coaches. And enough temptations for their players.