Sometimes, the best defense is a good offense, and no one knows that better than former Illini and current Kansas University basketball coach Bill Self.
That’s why Self, under a withering attack by NCAA investigators in connection with alleged recruiting violations, recently decided to return fire.
It came in the form of a threat against the NCAA by Self’s lawyer.
“The purpose of this letter is to formally put the NCAA on notice of Mr. Self’s current and prospective claims against the NCAA relating to the NCAA’s infractions investigation of the KU men’s basketball program and Mr. Self. ... He is considering bringing legal action against the NCAA and NCAA officers ... for negligence, breach of contract, defamation, fraud, tortious interference with contract and tortious interference with prospective contract,” wrote Self lawyer Scott Tempsett.
Bold words, to be sure.
But are they bluster
and bloviation or a serious counterattack against the NCAA, a voluntary organization that sets the rules
that all its members must follow?
One thing is for sure —
the 57-year-old Self, one of the top coaches in the game — is in dire straits vis a vis the NCAA.
Kansas faces five Level 1
violations of NCAA rules, while Self was cited for not properly managing his program.
The improper-management rule was put in place so college coaches can no longer employ the Sergeant Schultz defense — “I know nothing” — and avoid responsibility for wrongdoing by their assistants.
The case against Kansas grew out of a lengthy
federal investigation that resulted in numerous criminal indictments in 2017 against a handful of college assistant coaches, would-be athletic agents and shoe-company representatives who induced high-profile high school players to attend certain universities with large cash payments.
At the time, NCAA
officials vowed to follow
up alleged violations by a number of schools with
their own probes — Kansas, Arizona, USC, Oklahoma State and Auburn, to name just a few.
A couple weeks ago, the NCAA hit Oklahoma State with a variety of sanctions, including a postseason tournament ban.
Now, officials at the other schools are starting to sweat out possible sanctions against them.
Self, obviously, is worried that he’ll be suspended from coaching just as former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl was when he was caught in the NCAA’s net.
(After serving his suspension, Pearl was hired by Auburn, where he is again in NCAA trouble.)
Self’s lawsuit reflects that concern. But Urbana lawyer Steve Beckett, who’s been involved in multiple scraps with the NCAA, called the former UI coach’s lawsuit a “non-starter” because Self’s “relationship with the NCAA is completely voluntary.”
He predicted that, if Self files a lawsuit, the NCAA will immediately file a motion to dismiss that cites Self’s pledge to submit to NCAA oversight.
“The courts are a tough place to go to litigate sports fights,” he said.
The NCAA charges against KU allege that it worked with Adidas representatives to identify and attract high-profile recruits.
Under the arrangement, Adidas would steer great players to KU, a corporate client. In return, the company would have the inside track on signing players to post-university shoe endorsement contracts if they became stars.
The NCAA alleges that, in KU’s case, Adidas representative T.J. Gasnola acted as a KU booster when he gave large sums of money to the families of Jayhawks recruiting targets so they would commit to KU.
KU counters that Gasnola was an Adidas employee, not a KU employee, and that it was not aware of, was not responsible for and did not control Gasnola’s actions.
The NCAA had identified three KU players who were improperly recruited by KU/Adidas — Billy Preston, Silvio DeSousa and Cheick Diallo.
In the Self letter, his lawyer writes that his client is no different than any other college coaches in working with shoe company representatives to identify and recruit top talent.
The lawyer quotes Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey as saying that “every one of us works the shoe company angle,” noting that shoe companies that sponsor travel teams routinely identify talent and recommend players to coaches.
“They’re helping, absolutely,” Brey said of the companies.
But Brey also acknowledged that “if there’s money changing hands, then, yeah, they’re a booster.”
KU already has fired Athletic Drector Shane Zenger as a consequence of the probe. But the school would hate to lose Self, whose teams since 2003 have won 15 Big 12 Conference championships, been to three Final Fours and won one national title.