College basketball opens Friday night, so we can talk about whether North Carolina will be able to survive Joel Berry II’s injury or whether Maryland actually might benefit from the departure of Melo Trimble or whether a Duke team that will start four freshmen is deserving of the No. 1 ranking.
In this environment, though, that’s the minutiae, and who really cares? The sport is shaken, flawed, corrupt. It can be a beautiful game on the court. It has been revealed to be a disgusting endeavor off it.
“I’m scared to death,” North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said Thursday, a day before his Tar Heels begin a quest for consecutive national titles by hosting Northern Iowa.
The fear, for Williams and fellow coaches, is real. It’s not just about what has happened — with the FBI investigating coaches at four schools and representatives of one shoe company, with the first indictments coming down 48 hours before the season begins — but about what will happen because of it. These games that are played this weekend, they’re played under a cloud.
“I’m looking at it, and I’m depressed about it,” Williams said by phone from Chapel Hill, N.C. “I’m very sad about it. And I’m shocked — I don’t mind saying I’m shocked. People say, ‘How can that be?’ and I get criticized for saying that.
“But it’s the FBI. It’s wiretapping. It’s not two coaches and an alum standing over in a corner trying to do something to get a kid. We’ve got to change some things.”
What needs to change? So, so much. And it has to start with a willingness for honest self-evaluation.
We know this college basketball season opens with one Hall of Fame coach, Louisville’s Rick Pitino, shoved out of his job because he was named in the FBI’s investigation, because federal authorities believe the Cardinals used money from Adidas officials to buy recruits.
We know this college basketball season opens with three UCLA freshmen, including LiAngelo Ball — younger brother of Los Angeles Laker Lonzo — arrested on shoplifting charges while in China for the Bruins’ season opener, and it’s unclear whether they will be allowed to travel back to California with their team.
We know this college basketball season opens with allegations that Georgia Tech Coach Josh Pastner knew that one of his former friends — an ex-con, at that — paid for meals and transportation and groceries for two Yellow Jackets players.
We know this college basketball season opens with Auburn legend Chuck Person, an assistant on Coach Bruce Pearl’s staff, out of work after he was named by federal officials as someone who profited by hooking up players with agents and financial advisers.
And we know that this college basketball season opens with so many coaches handling these issues as they always have: saying nothing, doing nothing.
Pastner, in a statement released through Georgia Tech’s athletic department: “Any allegations that NCAA rules weren’t followed will be investigated thoroughly by our compliance department while I focus on coaching my team.”
Pearl, to the media in Auburn on Thursday: “You just focus on the opponent; you focus on the kids; you focus on what’s ahead of us. Right now, I’m focused on Norfolk State.”
Why focus on the future of your sport when you could spend time deciphering the Spartans’ man-to-man defense?
We could ask NCAA officials for guidance on these matters, but that’s pure folly. What they will do is what they do best: set up a commission. They already have done that, so they will study and they will stew, and who knows what after that? (They almost certainly won’t come up with the correct decision — pay the players — because that would take money from their own coffers. But I digress.) They will do . . . something.
“I think we’re a year away from major changes,” Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon said. “It takes time.”
That might be realistic. Given the circumstances — utter crisis — it sure sounds ponderous.
The reason Williams said he’s criticized for his initial shock over the charges is that this kind of malfeasance has all but defined college sports for more than a century. There would be no NCAA if Theodore Roosevelt hadn’t grown weary of college football scandals at the first part of the 20th century.
“It’s not a new problem,” Williams said.
And everyone in college basketball knew it. They wouldn’t say it, but they knew it. And that remains part of the problem. Can we talk about this?
“We’ve probably had 20, 25 guys call just to talk it out,” said Jim Haney, the president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. “I think we all recognize that we’re all painted as guilty.”
The reason: For so long, basketball coaches — not just the head guys but the assistants — cringed when a scandal broke but said nothing to break them themselves. A newspaper might uncover indiscretions. We now know that federal authorities will chase them. But college coaches? If you want to talk about problems in the game, they will give you the rigors of an 18-game conference schedule or the limits on offseason practice sessions.
But that’s just it: If college basketball is going to move from the shade and into the light, the coaches can’t be cut from the process. They must lead it.
Last month, Haney’s group convened a teleconference for all 351 Division I head coaches and their staffs. About 20 had media day responsibilities and missed it. About 330 staffs called in.
“There was disappointment, concern, anger just depending on where you were in processing all this,” Haney said. “We’ll do what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to make effective change.”
The “we” here is important. The NCAA’s commission is littered with sparkly names: former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice as the chair, retired Army general Martin Dempsey, ex-NBA stars Grant Hill and David Robinson. But there are just two coaches, neither currently working: Mike Montgomery, formerly of Stanford and Cal, and John Thompson III, formerly of Princeton and Georgetown.
“I’m worried that people who don’t understand basketball will make some decisions that may not get to the problems,” Williams said. He’s not alone in that concern.
No, college basketball coaches can’t change the NBA’s rules on draft eligibility. No, college basketball coaches can’t control the influence of shoe companies on the summer basketball landscape. No, college basketball coaches can’t, as Williams said, “legislate morality or legislate honesty.”
But they can control what’s discussed about their game. There is room, of course, for offensive and defensive breakdowns. And when we get to the conference season, let’s highlight Michigan State-Minnesota or Kentucky-Florida.
But there’s also room for discussing — honestly — how the game has been conducted for decades and what must change going forward.
“Hopefully, we can learn from it and off the court we can become better,” Turgeon said. “Because I think on the court we’re going to have a really good product.”
Right now, “off the court” matters more. Coaches, stop saying it’s just a small fraction of your fraternity that causes the problem. Stop focusing, for a minute, on Norfolk State. Focus on your sport, or it won’t be one about which people care.
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