Are the college hoops dominos starting to fall?
That’s the speculation following the NCAA’s recent decision to hit Oklahoma State’s men’s basketball program with a series of penalties, including a one-year ban from postseason play.
While Oklahoma State fans are yelping about the unfairness of it all, fans of other big-time programs in NCAA hot water — including Kansas, South Carolina and Auburn — are trying to figure what OSU’s penalties portend for them if they are found guilty.
Although the University of Illinois has had its brushes in the past with NCAA investigators, it’s not involved in this scandal of scandals, the one revealed in a 120-page criminal indictment generated in fall 2017 by FBI agents and federal prosecutors in the corruption-busting Southern District of New York.
The UI, however, had some brushes with the current NCAA probe, principally through UI head coach Brad Underwood’s ties to those caught in the FBI net.
At the same time, Underwood’s former school, Stephen F. Austin, where he coached before moving on to Oklahoma State for one year and then the UI, recently was buried under an avalanche of NCAA penalties after it was found guilty of not maintaining institutional control of its sports programs. Penalties included wiping out 57 Underwood wins during his tenure there.
The NCAA found 82
ineligible athletes competed for Stephen F. Austin over the past decade in nine sports, including men’s basketball.
The case that has generated the greatest local interest involves Kansas, where hugely successful former UI coach Bill Self reigns as part of college basketball royalty.
Kansas faces charges of having a lack of institutional control over its men’s basketball program while Self faces charges of failing to oversee an ethical program.
The issues stem from substantial Adidas payments to families of at least three athletes Self was recruiting to ensure their commitments to the Jayhawks.
The shoe companies make substantial payments that violate NCAA rules to high-profile high school athletes so they have an advantage in trying to sign them to shoe contracts when and if they become professional athletes.
The three players who allegedly received improper payments from Adidas representative T.J. Gassnola were Billy Preston, Silvio De Sousa and Cheick Diallo.
Kansas’ defense is that it’s not responsible for Gassnola’s actions because he was not a Kansas employee, but a shoe company representative.
Testimony from Kansas employees, however, demonstrated that Gassnola was a regular presence around Self’s program and an associate of ousted former Kansas athletic director Shane Zenger, a former AD at Illinois State.
Testifying to the NCAA, Kansas rules compliance official David Reed compared Gassnola to an organized crime figure.
“He’s a parasite taking advantage of kids and riding their coattails to be a jock sniffer to power coaches and power players in the industry ...” Reed told the NCAA.
At the same time, Reed said neither he nor other Kansas officials ever brought their concerns about Gassnola to Self’s attention.
After being among those indicted by federal prosecutors, Gassnola agreed to plead guilty to wire fraud and become a prosecution witness. He was sentenced to one-year supervised release, including two months of home confinement and electronic monitoring.
The back-and-forth between Kansas and the NCAA has become contentious.
“There can be no doubt the men’s basketball allegations are egregious, severe and are of the kind that significantly undermine and threaten the NCAA collegiate model. The institution, in taking its defiant posture in this case, is indifferent to how its alleged violations may have adversely impacted other NCAA institutions who acted in compliance with NCAA legislation,” the NCAA said in response to Kansas’ claim of innocence.
In response, Kansas issued a statement rejecting the NCAA’s position.
“The NCAA enforcement staff’s reply does not in any way change the University of Kansas’ position that the allegations brought against our men’s basketball program are simply baseless and littered with false representations,” it said.
Instead of being heard by the NCAA’s infractions committee, it appears that the Kansas case may be heard by a new Independent Accountability Resolutions Process that has no ties to the NCAA and no appeals process. Its rulings are final.
Although Kansas’ claims of innocence may seem tone-deaf, the NCAA has bought defenses in the past that seemed fanciful. Most prominent among them was the University of North Carolina’s claim in 2017 that a special program, one ostensibly designed to keep its athletes eligible, was none of the NCAA’s business because some non-athletes took the bogus classes as well.
North Carolina said the sham classes were not a sports issue involving the NCAA, but an academic issue solely involving the university. The controversial program was in place for years, going back to the days of the late longtime head coach Dean Smith.
Oklahoma State’s penalties stem from the misconduct of former assistant coach Lamont Evans, whom Underwood sought to persuade to come with him from Oklahoma State to the UI.
Evans was identified as having taken money from would-be sports agents who wanted Evans to steer players to them. Evans reportedly accepted money while at Oklahoma State under Underwood and at South Carolina, where he was an assistant along with Underwood under head coach Frank Martin.
Evans was penalized with a 10-year show cause order, meaning any school that seeks to hire him would have to explain itself to the NCAA.
The Stephen F. Austin allegations are unrelated to the federal government’s criminal probe. In the case of the ineligible basketball players, Underwood’s teams from 2014-15 and 2015-16 were required to vacate 57 victories. Underwood’s 2013-14 team that went 32-3 was not required to forfeit any wins.
Ironically, the federal investigation that revealed the seamy side of college basketball fell flat in the courts, where judges used to hearing legal cases involving major crimes were unimpressed with testimony involving shoe company officials paying large sums of money to the mostly poor families of high-profile athletes.
Although multiple convictions were obtained, the penalties imposed on guilty defendants were minor and the once high-profile probe apparently has been abandoned.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 217-351-5369.