Jim Valvano, North Carolina State's coach, says he got into coaching because he loves basketball, that he started out to teach English and coach on the high school level. "I stayed in basketball," he says, "because I wanted to have fun."
But Valvano says the game is no longer fun. He thinks college basketball is in trouble, mostly because of recruiting.
"Look at the scores of games today," he said. "Games in the 30s, 40s, 50s. Is that fun for the players? Mine tell me no. Is it fun for the coaches? No, absolutely not. Every possession is life and death. Is it fun for the fans or the media? I seriously doubt it.
"Okay, then, why are the games being played this way? The answer is easy. The guys who control the way the games are played are the coaches and, because of the way the game has become, the coaches have too much to lose.
"You can't afford to get fired in the big time. Look at the money you lose if you get fired. To avoid getting fired, you have to recruit. Because no one is going to judge you on how well your kids do after college. The alumni magazine at Rutgers did a story on the team I played on as a senior. Every guy on that team graduated and is doing well somewhere now.
"Would that happen today? No way. Coaches know damn well they're just going to be judged on wins and losses. So, do they really worry about whether a kid can do well at his school? No.
"The parents are just as guilty. They think education is a tangible thing, that it comes wrapped up. They think, even if their kid is a lousy high school student, that if a coach comes in and says, 'I'll give your kid an education,' that it's guaranteed. You know, the kid goes to school and he gets a pair of sneakers, a sweat suit and an education, all wrapped up.
"Recruiting is easy. You say to a kid, 'What do you want to do?' The kid says, 'I like chemistry.' You go, 'Chemistry, chemistry! We've got the greatest chemistry department in the world! I go fishing with a chemistry professor every weekend!'
"Last year, one of the first things I did was sit down with my three seniors, Craig Watts, Kenny Matthews and Art Jones. I wanted to see what they were thinking about doing after college.
"So I asked them. And all three of them said they wanted to play pro basketball. I said, 'What a lucky guy I am. There are only 250 guys in the whole world who can play pro basketball and I've got three of them sitting right here. This job's going to be easy.' "
Today, Matthews is in Raleigh looking for work, Watts is playing basketball in France and Jones is in school working toward the degree his two former teammates don't have.
"Everyone knows the hardest thing for an athlete is dealing with life after the cheering stops," Valvano said. "But when we recruit them, we aren't concerned with that at all. We're concerned with getting wins, any way, by any score. It's easy for a coach with a long-term contract to tell a guy, 'Sure, go to class, miss practice.' But if you're on the last year of a contract, you're probably going to say, 'Get your butt over here and work.' It isn't right, but I can't really blame guys for it either. The schools have put them in that position.
"We're not even really part of the schools anymore, anyway. I work for the N.C. State Athletic Association. That has nothing to do with the university. Our funding is totally independent. You think the chancellor is going to tell me what to do? Who to take into school or not to take into school? I doubt it. I'm paid to win games. If I say a kid can help me win, I'll get him. It's the same at 99 percent of the places in the country.
"I remember my first game as a college coach. Rutgers frosh against Pennsylvania frosh. The other coach was Digger Phelps. We won, 99-96. This year, when I coach against Digger, I'm gonna have to get my guys ready to run the down-and-out or something. The final score will be 17-14. It'll be decided by a late field goal.
"Will it be fun for anyone? Probably not. But that's the way the game is today. And, if you want to do something about it, you start where it all starts. With recruiting."