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NCAA giving coaches 42 million reasons to cheat

Pete Thamel
·6-min read

The details of Arizona’s NCAA notice of allegations reported on Sunday were greeted with a shoulder shrug around college basketball, a sport that has become numb to one of the most sensationalized scandals in the history of college athletics. “I didn’t even click on the story,” said one veteran head coach, summing up the sentiment.

This is where we are in the meandering, impotent and completely ineffective NCAA enforcement process: We are entering the fourth college basketball season to be played since that day in September 2017 when the feds held a boisterous news conference to announce their investigation into basketball’s underbelly.

The NCAA has been so slow to act on the trove of evidence, testimony and wiretaps that they actually invented a new process to handle cases like the ones Arizona, Kansas, Louisville and others are facing. So when people ask what’s going to happen, there’s really no good answer, as the independent panel expected to handle their cases has never formally handled a case.

“There’s a complete disconnect from the publicity of the announcement to the investigation and result,” said a prominent athletic director. “I think I’m like the rest of the college world, just completely frustrated that it leads nowhere.”

Some coaches are worried the new Independent Accountability Resolution Process (IARP) has been invented as an elaborate way to whitewash the scandal via bureaucracy, essentially subcommittee-ing the scandal to the point where it’s forgotten. That’s extreme cynicism, but it’s easy to see how they’ve got there three years later.

Consider just how much Miller, Kansas’ Bill Self, Auburn’s Bruce Pearl, LSU’s Will Wade and Cal State-Northridge’s Mark Gottfried have prospered coaching through this. Over the three years since the scandal broke, those five coaches have collectively made more than $42 million.

Arizona coach Sean Miller reacts to a foul call in the first half during an NCAA college basketball game against Southern California on Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Arizona coach Sean Miller reacts to a foul call in the first half during an NCAA college basketball game against Southern California on Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Leading a cheating program in college basketball doesn’t just allow you to prosper, you can actually fill swimming pools with your money and cannonball into it. Sure, they’ve endured a few cold looks on the recruiting trail, and Miller has made comic art of avoiding questions about the investigation in the media. But in reality, he should be laughing at the coaches who didn’t have an assistant arrested by the feds, as this whole ordeal has taught any coaches who operated by the book that they were painfully naïve for doing so.

How long have we been waiting? Well, Joe Burrow was an Ohio State backup when the FBI held its news conference. At this point, the senses are dulled. Rick Pitino has already been fired from Louisville, done a rehab hitch coaching pro ball in Greece and returned to Iona. They’ve already made a documentary deifying one of the scandal’s centerpieces, low-level runner Christian Dawkins. Miller’s former assistant, Book Richardson, has pled guilty and been in and out of federal prison. We’ve gone through the cycle of shame, punishment and alleged redemption, while the NCAA has mustered a ruling on one case — a stiff judgment of Oklahoma State via the committee on infractions — of the expected 12. Two schools, LSU and Alabama, still haven’t got their notices.

Here’s the Arizona news, via Seth Davis of The Athletic: Arizona faces five Level 1 violations, the same amount as Kansas. Arizona’s NOA reportedly include head coach control, failure to monitor by the university and lack of institutional control. There are nine total at the school.

It should amount to serious penalties — potentially a multi-year postseason ban — but predicting NCAA cases will be anything but slow is foolish. (SI.com’s Pat Forde gives a detailed recap of the Arizona allegations and wiretap conversations here, reminding us all of the ridiculousness of this, including a reference to bartering semen.)

Arizona has clearly shown that some pesky cheating allegations won’t get in the way of them keeping a very good basketball coach, even if he’s never reached a Final Four. We’ve long passed the point in this where the schools are daring the NCAA to force their hands with their coaches. We’re at the point where things have taken so long that no one believes anything punitive will happen.

Every scam needs a rube, and Arizona president Bobby Robbins and athletic director Dave Heeke have gladly played the role. They’ve accepted the Wildcat party line that the dog has eaten Arizona basketball’s homework. Can you imagine the pep talks?

“Man, Sean, it must be tough operating with all these rogue assistant coaches.”

“How unlucky all this specific conversation about you paying players keeps coming up on wiretaps. What are the chances?”

Someone should try and sell Heeke and Robbins some oceanside property in Mesa or forward them some emails from a benevolent Nigerian prince. But hey, Kansas AD Jeff Long and LSU AD Scott Woodward would also likely invest. After all, the dog ate their coach’s homework, too. What are the chances?

The absence of institutional accountability surprised some people, but they clearly overestimated how accountable these schools really want to be with star coaches.

At this point, Miller has outsmarted everyone. He’s cashed in nearly $10 million, a princely sum for the occasional dead-fish handshake with Tad Boyle. This will be Miller’s fourth Pac-12 basketball media day where he dodges questions about the scandal, a compilation of which would make must-see Pac-12 Network programming.

Meanwhile, the sentiment in the industry has gone from outrage to apathy to skepticism that there will be any significant NCAA consequences via the IARP. (The NCAA was delayed in the start of the investigation so they didn’t interfere with the feds. But since November 2018, they’ve been snoozing on the clock.)

We’ll find out soon if the new IARP accepts the Arizona case, where it will be among the test cases for the new process, which is notable for not have an appeals process after the decision.

“It’s impossible to predict what [the outcomes] could be,” said Stu Brown, a lawyer who is a veteran of NCAA cases. “No one has been through it. Nobody knows.”

The only safe guess is that the outcomes will emerge slowly. And the coaches running cheating programs won’t be able to hear your criticism — the cannonballs into their pools of money are drowning out the noise.

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