Tate: A long history of scandals

Tate: A long history of scandals

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Corruption, cheats show ugly side of college basketball

For a half-century now, I've been wandering around with a nagging thought: How could this community's most enterprising movers-shakers — men I respected — conclude it was worth the gamble to create an illicit slush fund for Illini sports?

It's fair to say some community leaders in the early 1960s felt what they were doing was appropriate under the circumstances.

With assistant AD Mel Brewer keeping the books, money was raised among UI supporters for three discrete funds — football, basketball and AD — with the idea of helping needy student-athletes. While a violation of NCAA rules, the slush fund's managers and contributors justified the activity because they believed it was necessary to keep pace with similar activities at Kansas, Purdue, by all means Nebraska (big-money corruption revealed in Armen Keteyian's Big Red Confidential) and elsewhere.

From the UI's good but illegal intentions sprang a renegade reputation, which Illinois carried during the Neale Stoner-Mike White years and up through the Deon Thomas case until strait-laced Ron Guenther became athletic director in 1992.

Just the latest scandal

Today's basketball cheating uncovered by the FBI is a different animal, but it's part of the same culture.

And despite early reactions that this will spread like wildfire, don't be so sure. There is an unwritten Mafia-like code in college basketball that no one turns in anyone else. We'll see whether the threat of jail time affects that time-honored code, or if self interest prevails.

Yes, this is different. With unlimited shoe/apparel money washing across the landscape, not only are student-athletes being enticed, but assistant coaches are finding the dip-in temptations too great to resist. This is the first time we've been aware of college staffers groveling for a share.

Money, money, money. We see Michigan leaving adidas last year in favor of Nike's 11-year (plus another four-year option) deal worth $173.8 million in cash and equipment. That 15-year deal has since been surpassed by Texas ($200 million) and Ohio State ($252 million).

My point: With so many dollars flowing, isn't it obvious that there would be incentive for Nike officials to use whatever means to influence five-star athletes to attend one of their Nike schools? Why do you think Nike pours so many dollars into AAU programs?

And how did you expect adidas to react when Nike captured the nation's most prestigious universities, and Under Armour, having signed Tom Brady and Steph Curry, became the No. 2 sportswear brand in the country?

Growth of AAU

The ballooning AAU summer events are the underbelly of what is, in part, a criminal enterprise.

This is simply a modern version of cheating that has always been at the forefront of college basketball.

It hit me early, right between the eyes, in the early 1950s when Bradley's great Gene "Squeaky" Melchiorre (No. 1 pick in the 1951 NBA draft) and Kentucky's Alex Groza and Ralph Beard destroyed their careers in scandals.

The 1953-54 season found me serving at Fort Monmouth, N.J., where our military post standouts were Floyd Layne and Al Roth of CCNY point-shaving infamy. Roth, who led CCNY to the NCAA title, accepted military service in lieu of jail time. He couldn't play anywhere else. You might say I was familiar with his situation because I replaced Roth at guard on the 1954-55 Signaleers team.

A tall Philadelphian, Wilt Chamberlain, was just breaking in. Is there a man alive who thinks Chamberlain, who had 52 points and 31 rebounds in his first college game against Northwestern, attended Kansas for free? Ask his teammates, two of whom I have known, Jerry Colangelo and the late Ron Loneski.

In the 1960s, along came Jack "The Fixer" Molinas, involving 37 players on 22 schools with point shaving. There was more point shaving at Boston College in the late '70s.

History repeats itself

Shysters like Sam Gilbert, who ran wild during the John Wooden era at UCLA, and Ed Martin at Michigan made headlines. You'll find that more than half of NCAA basketball championships have been coached by men involved in scandal along the way.

Most memorable, Eddie Sutton was in charge at Kentucky when an envelope mailed to a recruit fell open, revealing $1,000 in cash. And then there was former Michigan coach Bill Frieder, banned from some Las Vegas casinos because of his card-counting memory, forced out at Arizona State due to a betting ring involving the team. And you gotta love Jerry Tarkanian, who coached 31 years while battling NCAA investigators every step of the way.

Plain old cheating by Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun barely make the list. And of course the great Dean Smith was around at North Carolina when the academic fraud was initiated.

For many, it has quite obviously paid dividends to cheat. I mean, they're millionaires, aren't they? And beloved by their constituents, aren't they? Some like Bruce Pearl and Kelvin Sampson got caught, lost their jobs and were hired for millions elsewhere. And you can be certain that dozens have cheated up to their eyeballs and haven't been caught. A truism of criminality is that more get away with it than get caught.

How widespread is it?

Any discerning person realized that, when adidas officials and connected coaches were arrested Sept. 26, they were in the business of topping the illegal efforts of their rivals.

If an athlete and his family receive a $100,000 offer, that undoubtedly means there were other offers.

So when Brian Bowen's father agreed to a $100,000 deal, any reliable investigator would go directly to the other four or five finalist schools to see what they were offering. Obviously, no recruiter would enter that particular market empty-handed.

A payoff of $100,000 for the family of a high school player seems like a lot, but consider: This might be a down payment of $25,000 or perhaps $2,000 monthly, with the payments surely ceasing if the athlete turns pro early. In most cases where a prep is worth $100,000, he'd probably leave school early.

A murky situation

What we saw on that Tuesday was the tip of a giant iceberg. But will the iceberg ever surface? Who will those four assistant coaches implicate when called to testify? Will they stick with the code or will self-preservation kick in?

Meanwhile, with the shoe companies under FBI watch and the NCAA under pressure to get tough, collegiate leaders may be closing in on a solution for head coaches who fall back on "I don't know" about assistants' wrong-doing.

It's the NCAA's "coaches control" bylaw, which places responsibility on the head coach to ensure staff compliance with the rules. If fully enforced, it would quash the concept of plausible deniability, which allows assistants to engage in excessive behavior while head coaches either don't know or pretend not to. Some like ESPN's Jay Bilas are crying out: "Pay the basketball players. They're earning the money with their sweat. Pay them."

But how do you separate basketball from the hundreds of athletes in other sports, and how do you deal with Title IX, which requires equality for the women? It's more complicated than it sounds.

Follow the money

As we near two weeks into this convoluted scandal, the second giant prong of underground payments hasn't even been mentioned: handouts by carefully selected fan groups.

This is the long-established scheme by programs to dodge enforcement of shaky amateurism.

Unlike Illinois' AD-overseen slush fund, these modern organizations may operate on their own. They know which players the head coach wants, are plush with a tight group of moneyed members, and have decades of experience in pulling off secretive cash outlays to players' parents, who face tax implications if they talk.

These support groups may have been operating prior to the current coach and will likely continue when he's gone. These will be the most difficult, and perhaps impossible, to bring under control because the givers and takers view each transaction as mutually beneficial.

Wow, what an ugly business. No wonder I'm an old sourpuss.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

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Moonpie wrote on October 08, 2017 at 3:10 pm

Oh, yeah, let's cast back to the 1960s. But to be fair, at least it's not all the way back to where Prehistoric Tate truly lives--the Red Grange days.

Too bad Ancient Tate can't find a way to blame all this cheating on fans.

jjohnson wrote on October 08, 2017 at 4:10 pm

Moonpie can only remember personal slights; I can remember much of what Loren writes, especially the "slush fund" from which Illinois did not recover until the 1980's, only to have more hit us that decade. More importantly, I give Loren credit both for bemoaning that the situation is bad and for realizing that there is no "easy" fix, which playing players is not, as can be seen from the fact that doing so would not have prevented any of the incidents revealed this past week.

Rocky7 wrote on October 08, 2017 at 4:10 pm

No sir,  I don't think you are a sour puss.  This whole thing stinks to high heaven.  However, you forgot the role of the media with its TV contracts.  That needs looking into also.

Merriam-Webster wrote on October 08, 2017 at 9:10 pm

Look into the TV contracts?  For what?  The TV networks are not paying players.  The money they pay is making coaches and administrators rich on the backs of the kids.  Look at how many Admins are on the DIA payroll. AD Whitman, Deputy AD Hood, and another group of 3 Executive Senior Associate ADs, 5 Senior Associate ADs, 11 Associate ADs, and 8 Assistant ADs, all for only 19 teams.  That's 29 Illinois DIA administrators all making over 100K a year - over 4 million a year in administrator payroll.  Ohio State has only 19 administrators and they seem to be doing a lot better and they have 35 total sports, or 16 more sports and 10 fewer high paid (over paid) administrators.  What an embarassing waste of money considering only Illini men's golf is winning Big Ten titles and no one cares about men's golf. 

map89 wrote on October 09, 2017 at 10:10 am

I am just curious, but what about the families who accept money? Are they held responsible?