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Blockbuster arrests not shocking to college hoops followers

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PHOENIX (AP) — Top-level basketball recruits played in gyms across Las Vegas over the summer, their final shot to impress college coaches during a live-recruiting period.

Around the same time in July, an undercover FBI agent was in a Sin City hotel room where more than $12,000 changed hands, money earmarked for influencing a high school player’s choice of colleges.

The meeting was one of several recorded by federal investigators during a three-year probe that led to the arrest of 10 people, including four assistant coaches at prominent schools. It also illuminated an aspect of college basketball the NCAA has failed to fully uncover for years: the shadowy world of recruiting.

“The NCAA’s never had the ability to enforce rules,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “I was told this summer by a coach, ‘If you’re not cheating, you’re cheating yourself.’ Certain conferences, I think, are notorious for doing that, and if you’re trying to compete in those conferences and you don’t do it, you’re going to be subpar. It’s a big egg on a lot of our faces.”

On Sept. 26, federal prosecutors announced the arrests of 10 people , including assistant coaches from Arizona, Southern California, Oklahoma State and Auburn. An Adidas marketing executive also was arrested, along with a tailor known for making suits for NBA stars in a case that alleges bribes were exchanged to influence high-level recruits’ choice of schools, agents and financial advisers.

The federal probe also implicated Louisville in paying a player to attend the school, leading coach Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich to be placed on administrative leave. Louisville has since started the process of firing Pitino for cause.

The arrests and accusations, though blockbuster in nature, were not exactly shocking to followers of the sport.

The shady side of recruiting has always been college basketball’s dirty little secret, standard operating procedure for numerous programs across the country about which little could be done.

The NCAA has had some success in uncovering the seamy underbelly of the sport.

In the 1990s, California coach Todd Bozeman was fired and the school was forced to vacate victories from two seasons after a pay-for-play scandal in which a recruit’s parents were given about $30,000. Kentucky was placed on probation for three years in 1989 after the NCAA found an assistant coach sent money to the father of a recruit to get his son to play in Lexington, among other violations.

Michigan was forced to forfeit 112 wins from five seasons, including a pair of Final Four appearances, after the NCAA found booster Ed Martin lent four players more than $600,000 as part of a gambling and laundering scheme. Coach Steve Fisher was fired in 1997 for violations involved in the scandal.

But for every NCAA takedown, countless others slip through the massive cracks in the system.

“When I did play, there was always rumors about guys getting this or that to be where they were, so this is nothing that is completely unexpected,” said Arizona State coach and former Duke standout Bobby Hurley. “It doesn’t appear to be a system that works right now, so I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of conversation about that.”

The conversation may start with the shoe companies at the grass-roots level of basketball.

It used to be that high school coaches were the conduits to top recruits. Now the shoe companies run the show.

Adidas, Nike and Under Armour — a relatively new player in the hoops game — are on constant lookout for the next LeBron James or Steph Curry to make them millions.

The courtship starts early.

Today’s recruits often identify with a brand at a young age, in part because the shoe companies are so involved at the lower levels of the game, sponsoring tournaments and travel teams.

The shoe companies hope the early bond holds so the players — the ones who are good enough reach the NBA — will sign sponsorship deals with their brand.

Paying a player to attend a certain school or sign with a particular agent comes with a risk. Projecting the future of teenagers is an imprecise business, so there’s no guarantee the player will ever reach the NBA.

But the high end-game stakes push some shoe company representatives to risk small payouts for a chance to get in with a million-dollar star.

In the recent case, federal prosecutors allege three high school recruits were promised payments of up to $150,000 with money provided by Adidas and James Gatto, director of global sports marketing for basketball at Adidas, was among those arrested.

“The depth of the problem remains to be seen, but clearly there is indication of behavior that must be corrected for the health of basketball and the integrity of college athletics,” Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey said.

It’s not a one-sided issue. Someone has to accept the money.

Many recruits come from low-income families and the promise of a lucrative payment can be enticing. A bidding war between schools is even better.

Assistant coaches or support staff can be easy targets for bribes. They don’t have nearly the salaries as head coaches, and the added income from a shoe company could be an appealing supplement.

The assistant coaches also have the added pressure of landing recruits. They are the ones who do all the legwork with the recruits and have the most contact with them, with the head coaches often coming in as the closer.

The federal arrests have illuminated this dark world as the NCAA never could have.

“I wasn’t sure in my lifetime that we were going to see anything of this magnitude where the lid got blown off,” Krystkowiak said. “I was hopeful that at some point somebody’s going to pay the price.”

Iowa’s McCaffery says, “I’ve turned programs in” for cheating

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There aren’t a lot of unwritten rules in basketball. One of them, though, is that if a coach breaks a real rule, other coaches don’t speak up. Coaches would seemingly rather lose out on a recruit or transfer rather than turning in one of their own for suspected malfeasance.

Not for Fran McCaffery, though.

The Iowa coach was asked Monday about the FBI investigation into corruption into college hoops, and freely volunteered that he has previously turned other programs in for violations – and that he’ll do it again, if need be.

“I’ve turned programs in and I’ll continue to do that when I know that there’s something going on,” McCaffery said at the program’s media day, according to the Des Moines Register. “But a lot of times you don’t know what’s going on. So can you police yourselves? Only if you know something’s going on. But even then it’s hard for the NCAA to do something.”

Turning in another program for violations is really one of the biggest taboos in the coaching profession. That’s why you get coaches look silly in blocking schools for transfers when tampering is suspected, rather than a coach just reporting tampering.

McCaffery’s tactic, while probably frowned upon by many of his colleagues, is probably the best weapon the NCAA has in combating cheating. If coaches make it clear they won’t tolerate cheating – or that if it occurs, it won’t go unremarked upon – that will go along way in changing a culture and system that the FBI is going to potentially uncover with its wide-ranging investigation that already has resulted in 10 people’s arrest and a Hall of Fame coach’s firing.

“Any time the game is cleaned up,” McCaffery said, “it’s better for all of us.”

Report: Louisville offered $1.5 million settlement to Pitino

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When it became clear that Louisville and Rick Pitino were going to part ways, much of the discussion instantly turned to the more than $40 million left on the coach’s contract.

The school reportedly tried to avoid that whole ordeal Monday, but Pitino apparently wasn’t interested.

Louisville offered to pay $1.5 million to a charity started by Pitino in exchange for his resignation, according to WDRB-TV Louisville. Pitino did not accept and was then fired for cause by the Louisville board.

It’s little surprise to see Pitino reject such an offer with so many more millions on the table should he (almost certainly) begin legal proceedings trying to recoup the cash that Louisville says it doesn’t owe him by firing for cause.

I vehemently reject (the school’s) right to do so ‘for cause,’” Pitino said in an affidavit sent to the school. “I have given no ’cause’ for termination of my contract.”

The firing came on the heels of the latest controversy  to hit Louisville under Pitino’s watch. First came the escort scandal that rocked the program, but now the school is part of the FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball. Ten people were arrested as part of the probe, including an adidas executive who is alleged to have orchestrated getting $100,000 to the family of a recruit in order to facilitate his commitment to the Cardinals program.

Pitino may be out at Louisville, but with more than $40 million at stake, the school surely hasn’t seen the last of him.

Louisville officially fires Rick Pitino

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Louisville’s Athletic Association has officially fired head coach Rick Pitino nearly three weeks after an FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball linked the Hall of Fame head coach and his program to a $100,000 payment from Adidas to a recruit that enrolled at Louisville.

The association, made up of trustees, faculty, student and administrators, oversees Louisville athletics. They voted unanimously to fire Pitino.

Pitino has $44 million in salary remaining on his contract, which extends through the 2026 season. He was with Louisville for 16 seasons.

Pitino had been ‘effectively fired‘ by the university on September 27th, the day after the scandal first broke.

Earlier this summer, Louisville had received their sanctions from the NCAA in a different scandal that enveloped Pitino’s program. In October of 2015, a book was published by an escort named Katina Powell who alleged that a member of Pitino’s staff had paid for strippers and prostitutes for recruits and members of the Louisville team, some of whom were underage. The NCAA’s sanctions, which included vacating the 2012 Final Four and 2013 National Title in addition to Louisville’s self-imposed 2016 postseason ban, were handed down in June, two weeks after a Louisville coach had allegedly helped facilitate a $100,000 payment from Adidas to Brian Bowen’s family and six weeks before another coach would allegedly attempt to do the same for a 2019 prospect.

Kansas’ Self: Adidas case a “dark cloud on our profession’

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LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Kansas coach Bill Self had come to know James Gatto well over the years, along with just about everyone else involved with the college basketball side of the athletic apparel giant Adidas.

It comes with the territory as one of the company’s flagship schools.

But when Self first heard that Gatto had been swept up in a wide-ranging FBI investigation, centered on Louisville but uncovering corruption elsewhere in college basketball, the Jayhawks’ coach admitted being “very disappointed and disheartened” and likened it to a “dark cloud for our profession.”

Prosecutors have accused the 47-year-old Gatto of conspiring with coaches and others to funnel payments to top prospects and their families to win commitments to play at schools sponsored by Adidas. The idea was that their relationship with Adidas would continue whenever they reached the professional level.

The family of one prospect was allegedly paid $100,000 to commit, according to court documents, and the school was later revealed to be Louisville. The school has since placed coach Rick Pitino on administrative leave while the federal investigation is being resolved. Nine others, including former Oklahoma State assistant Lamont Evans, have been charged in the case.

Self said during a lengthy interview Friday that the cash payments from Adidas surprised him, but “what is not surprising is third parties’ involvement in recruiting. Everyone should know that.”

“That’s prevalent everywhere,” he said. “There’s nothing illegal about agents talking to kids and their families in ninth and 10th grade. There’s nothing illegal about shoe companies funding AAU programs. That is what’s been encouraged and done, so it shouldn’t be a surprise you could have influence from third parties.”

Kansas officials insist they have not been contacted by the FBI, and the school is not under any sort of investigation. It

Kansas recently reached a 12-year contract extension with Adidas that will ultimately provide the school with $191 million in sponsorship money and apparel. Self suggested the affiliation is being used by rivals on the recruiting trail.

“Whenever in recruiting there is something out there that has been reported, whether it’s reliable or unreliable, total myth, whatever, there’s usually competitors that make sure that information gets to people. Unfortunately, that’s how it works,” Self said. “You can say that’s negative recruiting … but a lot of times the things that are reported are so inaccurate it puts you on the defense.”

The Jayhawks already have commitments from two top-100 prospects in 6-foot-9 forward Silvio de Sousa from Florida’s IMG Academy and 6-10 center David McCormack from Virginia’s Oak Hill Academy.

They are also in the mix for several more top-50 prospects in what could be a crucial class for them.

“I’d be lying,” Self said, “if I told you we hadn’t discussed these issues with kids. And has it hurt us to date? I don’t think it has. But it’s not signing day, either.”

Attorney makes case for Louisville to retain Pitino as coach

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Rick Pitino’s attorney has told the Louisville Athletic Association that it should not fire the coach of the men’s basketball program because his client “could not have known” about activities alleged in a national federal investigation of the sport.

Steve Pence made his case Monday while the ULAA was meeting to discuss whether to fire Pitino nearly three weeks after the school acknowledged the program’s involvement in the investigation. The association board is still meeting and has not announced its decision.

Association, a separate body that oversees Louisville’s sports programs and comprised of trustees, faculty, students and administrators, on Oct. 2 authorized university interim President Greg Postel to begin the process of firing Pitino for cause after Postel placed him on unpaid administrative leave Sept. 27.

Pitino, 65, is not named in court complaints in the federal probe but Postel said in a disciplinary letter that the allegations violated his contract.

Pence has contended that Louisville rushed to judgment and made his case before the board for 45 minutes on Monday.

He said Pitino should be retained and noted, “The coach did not engage in any of this activity, he didn’t know about the activity. I think we made a very compelling case to the board, I think they listened attentively and we’ll just have to wait and see what they say.”

Pitino has coached 16 years with the program, a run that included winning the 2013 NCAA championship but was tarnished by several embarrassing off-court incidents.