The NCAA wants to make an example of Mark Komara. In April, when it issued the results of its investigation into the Auburn men's basketball program, the NCAA infractions committee made Komara the first summer league coach ever deemed a representative of a college.
While the intent was to limit Komara's influence by discouraging colleges from dealing with him, Komara gives no indication he will change his ways, and the immediate effects have been minimal. It illustrates the NCAA's difficulty of regulating summer league coaches, including some, the organization feels, looking to profit as middlemen between the top high school players and colleges searching for the next superstar.
"I'll tell you what: I invite NCAA representatives into my gym," said Komara, speaking publicly for the first time since the close of the two-year investigation. "They can sit down with my players and their parents and explain the NCAA rules to them. If I have to, I'd pay for the plane ticket."
The ruling in the Auburn case was viewed as the NCAA's latest attempt to regulate summer league basketball, which continues to be a source of frustration for the NCAA. Summer basketball competitions have few rules regarding who can coach a team and the conduct of those coaches, although no convicted felons are permitted.
But by labeling Komara an Auburn representative (or booster), a relationship established in part by the 1,100 phone calls made between Auburn's staff and Komara between 1999 and 2001, the NCAA stated that the school was responsible for his actions. Komara has denied accusations that he provided money and other gifts to two of his former players, both of whom Auburn had recruited. Auburn was put on probation and received minor sanctions.
Thomas Yeager, infractions committee chairman, said the committee wanted to debunk the notion that AAU coaches have "immunity" from NCAA rules. Yeager said following the ruling that he was not sure "why anyone would want to go back and recruit a kid off [Komara's] team or kids he's involved with." In the absence of any real way to regulate summer league coaches, the NCAA has attempted to discourage schools from dealing with them.
By all accounts, however, the ruling has done little to rattle Komara nor dampen his popularity. A married father of four, Komara splits duties as the owner of a Huntsville sports bar and the organizer of a usually star-studded summer team. He has many of the biggest coaching names in the business on speed dial; several have been in his bar. At least five called Komara in one day last week.
Alabama Coach Mark Gottfried, asked if he planned to shy away from any of Komara's players post-ruling, said, "I don't think you can."
Several summer league coaches around the country said they either were unaware of or unaffected by the ruling.
"No matter what the NCAA does, they are not going to stop [AAU basketball]," said Houston-based coach Hal Pastner, unaware of the ruling.
"Nothing is going to stop traveling teams. It's just the opposite. It's exploding because kids want to play year round and basketball is surpassing baseball."
Long ago, summer basketball competition was under the auspices of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), and even today, many people use the term AAU to refer to all summer leagues. But as interest in top high school players grew, shoe companies became involved, staging their own camps and competitions and increasing visibility.
Concerns have existed for more than a decade, though. As Texas coach in 1992, Tom Penders wrote a letter to the state's high school University Interscholastic League that said summer league coaches had gained too much influence over players. While the problem has only gotten worse, Penders, the University of Houston's new coach, said this week that "you have to get along with them. You have no choice. If you don't, you're cutting your own throat. You don't get involved with coaches who are marketing or selling their players."
Jim Harrick, the former Georgia and UCLA coach, said the first thing he did when he visited a recruit's home was ask who was involved in the decision-making process. Harrick, who had "no ambition" to cultivate relationships with summer league coaches, said recruits with stable, two-parent homes often relied less on summer league coaches during the process.
"I was careful who I recruited, if someone had a hold on a guy," Harrick said. "It's really a complex thing. There used to be a saying about teenage drivers: So few give so many a bad name. Half [of the summer league coaches] are good and half have an agenda of some kind, either to make money, charge you to talk to their kid. . . . You learn if the guy has a good job and just does it for the love of it. Or is that all he does and he lives off what the shoe companies give him? There is a lot of difference between those two guys."
Some believe the NCAA's focus to curtail the growing influence of summer league basketball began with Myron Piggie, a former Kansas City summer coach who pled guilty to felony fraud in 2000 after paying five players more than $35,000 to play for his team.
And thus, some say, the national reputation of hundreds of legitimate coaches, many in the game to coach sons or to help the community, was tarnished. Proponents of summer league basketball argue that most coaches are legit, offering kids a positive outlet for their summer free time and giving a few a chance to travel around the country.
But critics, the NCAA included, contend that some AAU coaches have curried increased influence in the recruitment of players.
"The NCAA's ability to reach these folks is limited," Yeager said. "For one, they are not employees of NCAA member institutions. They operate outside the high school ranks. It's kind of indicative of what the problem is. They are in between the cracks on some governing organizations. . . .
"The kids need to be aware that playing on some of these teams as information starts to come out that they are paying players, they are going to spend a lot of time clearing their own name. . . . [Players] better think long and hard with who they are signing on with."
Because of Komara's success in finding talent -- more than two dozen players have earned college scholarships -- some say he's been the NCAA's elusive target in its recent attempts to manage summer league basketball.
"I think the NCAA always needs a fall guy and a scapegoat," Reebok power broker Sonny Vaccaro said, "and they pick and choose who these people are."
Komara had refused the NCAA's interview request during Auburn's investigation because, he said, he was not given a list beforehand of the allegations that would be addressed. He had been down this road before. The NCAA's investigation of another former player Komara had coached, Marvin Stone, found no violations but cost Stone a portion of his senior season at Louisville.
Komara repeatedly called the Auburn ruling "comical", said it angered him and called the depth of the probe "embarrassing" during two days of interviews last week.
"They went into every nook and cranny to try to investigate me . . . " Komara added. "And here I am, I felt like a criminal, and that's crazy."
Recently, there have been other attempts to control the power of amateur basketball. Dana and David Pump, founders of the California-based Double Pump summer league program, were most affected by the NCAA's ruling last month that restricted college teams from playing exhibition games against AAU clubs.
The Pumps are twin brothers who own the five EA Sports teams -- comprised of former college players and sponsored by the video game company -- that play exhibitions against college teams for tens of thousands of dollars each year. The NCAA was concerned about colleges paying money to AAU clubs for an exhibition game while concurrently recruiting players within that AAU program.
"It's going to hurt us," Dana Pump said. "We're going to lay down. We're not going to fight them."
The NCAA adopted a series of other regulations in recent years, attempting to curb the influence of summer league coaches and camps. In 2002, it prohibited contact between summer league coaches and college coaches at camps, a rule enforced by two NCAA representatives who roamed the gymnasium at ABCD Camp in New Jersey.
Perhaps the most controversial, though, was the 100-mile rule, since modified, which limited high school players to compete on summer league teams in their immediate area. Komara, however, countered with a loophole he found.
Komara said he and an attorney did not see a residency clause in the rule that stipulated a player had to live somewhere for a requisite amount of time. So the mother of Jackie Butler, a talented player from McComb, Miss., rented a small apartment in Huntsville for a few weeks, solely so Butler could play on Komara's team.
"You could move in one day and move out the next and play with that team," he said. "They didn't write the rule right. It's not my fault."
The NCAA has maintained that it does not practice selective enforcement, punishing some while protecting what are referred to as sacred programs and coaches. But Komara said last week that a coach of another school recently told him there were 780 calls made between Komara and that school over a two-year period. Yet it is Auburn that is prohibited from contacting Komara regarding player recruitment until 2006.
"I know what I've done," Komara said. "I've done it right. I'm not going to say I'm a complete saint. I'm really not. Anyone in this business . . . you got kids, if they need something to eat, I'm going to feed them. They need shoes, I'm going to give them shoes. If that's wrong, I'm sorry."
Though he is now an Auburn booster in the eyes of the NCAA, none of the trinkets in Komara's office -- including framed pictures of former Alabama football coach Bear Bryant, oversized liquor bottle souvenirs and the book "Undue Process: The NCAA's Injustice for All" -- is Auburn related.
As Komara said, "I need to put on an Auburn shirt, I guess."