Black assistant coaches get hurt the most in recruiting scandals
They are told to recruit the best talent at all costs, while head coaches are insulated
The most remarkable aspect of the government case that ripped apart college basketball last week is that the closest thing to a victim might be the alleged perpetrators in the middle of this, the ones who were doing what their job required: the African-American assistant coaches.
Everyone got what they wanted from the transactions detailed by the FBI. The shoe companies, agents and financial advisers got their “in” with potential moneymaking clients of the future. The players and their families got their cash. The basketball programs got their recruits.
Maybe you could say the players’ choices in schools and representation were narrowed, thanks to the money circle.
The court documents allege that there was a conspiracy to “commit an offense against the United States” through unlawful bribes that entailed interstate travel, wired money and communication. Yeah, there might have been some untaxed transactions, but as a U.S. citizen — as we, the people — do you feel personally wronged?
There’s also an almost hilarious allegation that the alleged offenses served to “deprive” the university of an associate coach’s “honest services” and “deprived [the university] of its right to control the use of its assets” (i.e., scholarships). If your takeaway from this ugly inside look at the college basketball business is that the universities are being deprived, then you’re looking at it wrong.
Here’s who gets deprived repeatedly in this game: black assistant coaches who want head coaching jobs at the major programs. A Minneapolis Star-Tribune study last season found only 13 African-American head coaches among the 75 major-conference college basketball programs. That’s 17 percent, in a sport where well over half of the players are African-American. The message is once their eligibility is used up and they are no longer of service on the court, there are few prominent places for African-Americans in the sport.
So they take the jobs they can get and rise until they hit the glass ceiling, which often means an assistant coach with heavy recruiting responsibilities. Delving into that world without getting your hands dirty would be like diving into a pool without getting wet. They are valued for their connections (look at the glowing tributes to the people skills of USC assistant Tony Bland, one of the four assistant coaches connected to the case so far, in this Los Angeles Times story) and their ability to keep the heat off the head coach.
For instance, a Louisville assistant coach could be accused of arranging for sex parties with escorts for recruits on campus and head coach Rick Pitino got to say, “I don’t know if any of this is true or not.” Andre McGee got the boot, and Pitino lived to see another day.
There might not be another sunrise in Pitino’s college coaching career after this latest scandal. He and Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich were placed on leave by the university. It’s a dramatic turn, and the headline-grabbing aspect of the investigation so far.
Here’s the thing: Pitino and Jurich aren’t facing federal charges with 80-year maximum sentences. That burden falls on Bland, Chuck Person at Auburn, Lamont Evans at Oklahoma State and Book Richardson at Arizona, the assistant coaches, all African-Americans. They were adept at playing the game, until the game played them.
I’m reminded of Jimmy Collins, the longtime assistant coach at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who brought in most of the “Flying Illini” squad that went to the 1989 Final Four. Collins popped up all over an NCAA investigation of the program shortly thereafter. He was cleared of the most serious allegations, that he offered cash and a car to recruits, but was dinged on “misdemeanor” recruiting violations. In the short term, he was banned from recruiting off campus. In the long run, the accusations probably cost him a head coaching opportunity at a major program, including the Illinois job when it opened up.
Collins went on to coach at Illinois-Chicago and did quite well, becoming the winningest coach in program history, with three trips to the NCAA tournament. He never got one of the big 75 gigs, though.
When Collins was in the midst of the investigation, another black assistant coach gave me a sympathetic assessment of the situation: Jimmy just did what he had to do.
These are the roles, the expectations, the traps. This is the game. Yeah, game is the appropriate word. It’s possible to have criminal cases in which there are no victims. In basketball games, there are always losers.