First, the disclaimer: this is not meant as assistance for college basketball thieves, although some might find it so. Admittedly, it is several hundred words on how to cheat your sneakers off and escape punishment, and from an NCAA insider.
A man who chases outlaws long enough, who experiences more frustration than success, sometimes is almost certain he could become one and prosper. An NCAA source felt that way not long ago, and I'm using it here because the UCLA case probably has created some misimpressions about collegiate justice.
With the arrest and conviction of the most glamorous program in the recent history of college basketball, many might think the once nearly impotent NCAA now catches everyone it should. Probably, its rate is about the same as real-world enforcement.
If a nonsports criminal were wise and dedicated enough, he surely could elude capture for quite a while. Here is how a sophisticated college basketball cheater might operate, what the 14 NCAA investigators very likely are up against:
"You don't bring in six guys a year," the NCAA man said. "We're suspicious of that here, like we're suspicious of kids traveling a couple thousand miles to go to school. So you build, but you do it slowly.
"If I was a coach, I'd know how guys here work. And they work hard. But in a way we're bound by our honesty. We don't fool around with kids; we don't claim to be more than we are. So I, as coach, would probably act as a lawyer, tell my kids: 'You don't say anything to anybody. You just don't. You shut up. You have them come through me.'
"We have an idea of who's doing what, but it doesn't mean we'll get 'em. We know what goes on, but proof is a different thing. If I were a coach, I could, in a sense, use the honesty of the workers here to my favor. I'm just not gonna let 'em prove it. I'm not gonna let my boosters go crazy. I'd get personally involved. If they're gonna get anybody, they've got to get me, the head coach, maybe even a personality, somebody the country's seen on television, maybe who's writing a newspaper column. Not some Joe Blow who'll crack under pressure.
"I'm not gonna delegate the chores of cheating to some car dealer. I'm gonna know exactly what's going on. And I'm not gonna offer stuff indiscriminately. I'm gonna get to know the kid a bit. I'm gonna approach his family. I'm gonna go after a kid who will be agreeable to this. So we're not talking about rich kids. We're talking kids who have a motive to cheat.
"I'm gonna sit down and explain to him. I'm gonna be honest with him, in that I'll tell him what we're doing is against the rules. But I'm also gonna say we can do it and nobody ever has to know. Ever -- if you keep your mouth shut and don't brag to your friends and girl.
"I'll tell him: 'We're not gonna get you an extravagant car, but we will get you transportation. Maybe it'll have leg room, if you're 6-8. We'll get you a nice (sound) system, so you'll enjoy the ride, but you're not gonna have the car polished all the time and draw attention to yourself.
" 'And don't go wearing a new leather coat every day, even though you're gonna have money in an account. You're gonna have some security and your mom is gonna have some security. Just do these things and low-key it. If you take this offer, fine. If you don't, I want you to know it's gonna be my word against yours (in an NCAA investigation) and nobody's gonna believe you.'
"I might scare 'em, say: 'You'll never play (if you talk to the NCAA).' Tell 'em this nonsense: 'I can wreck your career.' But I would show him how serious I was, emphasize that dissension could wreck the team.
"Rather than just say: 'What would it take to get you?' I'd go in with specifics. Lay it out. I'd cut down on the booster involvement; cut down on the people who could talk to these (NCAA) guys. And if the NCAA got me, I'd deny it to my grave. "I'd sue. I'd think like a lawyer, attack 'em on every possible grounds, thwart 'em at every step using legal means. I'd wage a battle in the press, say these guys are killing me, hurting my reputation. I'd keep bobbing and weaving, 'cause the guys here aren't gonna take any shortcuts. If we can't do something, we can't.
"So who do they interview if I (as a cheating coach) have chosen my guys carefully? If I'm getting outbid, that's one thing. Then maybe what I can do is call up the other coach and say: 'Lookit, we've got to have an understanding. I know how you got the kid, because I know what I offered him. And they're bound to be by to talk to him.
" 'And when they're talking to me about the kid I did get, they're bound to ask about you. So here's the deal: my kid shuts up, says all the right things, and your kid does the same.' "
Who is to say such a network of dishonesty does not now exist? Or that dozens of coaches are not bright enough to have been enacting this scenario for years? The NCAA spent about $660,000 last year on enforcement, nearly a quarter of it on travel.
To skeptics who wonder if this UCLA conviction vindicates John Wooden, since it involves the years after he retired, the answer is: yes and no. When he was winning those 10 national championship in 12 years,from the mid-'60s to the mid-'70s, the NCAA investigated his program. It looked at Lew Alcindor's car, his apartment, his lucrative summer job, and found no rules broken.
But the NCAA had only four full-time investigators then; it has more than three times that now.
"If you have the time and the manpower," the assistant executive director for enforcement, Bill Hunt, insists, "you can get them." In more elegant terms, he said that if two newspaper reporters can essentially bring down a president, his 14 tigers ought to be able to round up most of the college sports bandits.