Mark Pope loves his old coach.
If not for Rick Pitino, he never would have transferred to Kentucky, won an NCAA championship and become a coach himself.
“I’m where I am now because of him,” said Pope, the men’s basketball coach at Utah Valley University.
But even with Pitino’s dismissal from Louisville this week, Pope finds himself hoping that the connected FBI investigation ultimately might benefit college basketball.
“I’d love the whole recruiting process to be cleaned up,” he said. “I think that’s good for everybody.”
The full impact of an FBI investigation that last week led to charges against four college assistant coaches and an Adidas representative accused of taking kickbacks in exchange for funneling recruits toward certain managers and financial advisers still is unknown. The indictments might be just the beginning as prosecutors seek to shine light on what they’ve called “the dark underbelly of college basketball.”
At colleges throughout Utah, coaches are glad to see federal involvement, hoping it might help solve problems that long have plagued their sport.
“I wasn’t sure in my lifetime that we were going to see anything of this magnitude,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said before adding, “I was hopeful that at some point somebody was going to have to pay the price.”
So far, the investigation has led to charges against assistant coaches at Arizona (Emmanual Richardson), Oklahoma State (LaMont Evans), Auburn (Chuck Person), and the University of Southern California (Tony Bland). The indictments also allege a scheme by an Adidas executive, Jim Gatto, to pay about $100,000 to the family of an unnamed prospect for his commitment to a university that, while not specified in the complaint, matches a description of the University of Louisville, which last year entered into a $160 million deal with Adidas.
The probe already has led to the firing of Pitino, and is only likely to grow in scope.
“I think it’s probably just the tip of the iceberg,” Krystkowiak said.
As news of college basketball’s latest recruiting scandals broke, Krystkowiak asked his assistants if any of them needed to come clean.
“I kind of did it with a chuckle in my voice,” he recalled.
The Utah coach said his program hasn’t begun an internal review of its recruiting, nor does he feel the need to do so. There are no such reviews planned at any of the other programs in the state.
Though, Pope and his staff met with UVU compliance officials over the past week to better understand not only the NCAA’s recruiting rules but legal issues at the heart of the federal investigation.
BYU coach Dave Rose said he’d had “a couple of conversations” with athletics director Tom Holmoe in the wake of the investigation but had found no improprieties.
“We’ve discussed our recruits and individually how we’ve gone about offering scholarships,” Rose said, “and tuition, books, fees, and room and board seem to the be the norm.”
That federal investigators had become involved in college basketball may have surprised some. Rarely, if ever, have they done so. The findings themselves, however, weren’t surprising.
“It’s disappointing, it’s troubling, but it’s not terribly shocking,” Weber State coach Randy Rahe said.
Coaches who have been on the recruiting trail long enough always seem to find someone looking to profit from a recruit.
“We’ve run into coaches who say, ‘If this is going to go any farther, I’m going to need to get something out of it,’” Utah State’s Tim Duryea said.
Krystkowiak has been particularly vocal about his disdain for improprieties in recruiting practices.
“I was told this summer by a coach that if you’re not cheating, you’re cheating yourself,” he said.
During Utah’s recruitment of Kyle Kuzma, now with the Los Angeles Lakers, Krystkowiak said one of his assistants received a call from someone close to the prospect’s Philadelphia prep academy, asking for $50,000 to release his transcripts. In the end, Kyrstowiak said, Kuzma, a future first-round NBA draft pick, and his guardian paid for an unofficial visit to Utah before deciding to commit to the school.
Recently, Krystkowiak said he’s missed out on a recruit and believes it was due to “improprieties that took place.” The Utah coach said he takes pride in keeping his program’s recruiting practices clean.
“Unfortunately with that, sometimes we come in second place,” he said. “But we can always look in the mirror and say we’re doing things the right way.”
Krystkowiak is interested to see the fallout from the investigation and believed programs like his might end up benefitting.
“Who knows what the fallout of something like this is,” he said. “Maybe kids start to seek programs they know are clean. If I’m a college player, I don’t want to go somewhere that might be on probation for three years and not play in the NCAA tournament.”
Pope, meanwhile, is watching anxiously to see how far reaching the probe will be.
“Half of me thinks this is going to die down and be another blip,” he said, “and the other half of me thinks this could really evoke massive changes and massive repercussions.”
There are myriad factors that seem to contribute to the current state of college basketball recruiting, including the increasing influence of apparel companies and Amateur Athletic Union programs, but few easy fixes. Utah signed a $65-million extension with Under Armor last year and Utah State has a $2.4-million deal with Nike.
“You just hope it scares people straight,” Rahe said.
Duryea would like to see a rule change that requires athletes to spend two years in college before becoming eligible for the NBA draft. They currently only must spend one year in school.
“That means agents are trying to get their hands on kids as high school kids, rather than juniors or seniors in college,” he said.
Still, the Utah State coach believes college basketball’s recruiting problems may be too pervasive to clean it up entirely.
“The system is probably a pretty good system if we all follow it,” Rose said. “The problem seems to be that we’ve got a few situations where it’s not being followed and people are trying to take shortcuts. So now people are talking about redoing this whole system.”
Rose was among coaches who proposed changes to the NCAA that would have funneled recruiting through high school sports seasons instead of the summer evaluation period where shoe companies and AAU programs typically run their camps.
“That was voted down. So this is the model that we’ve been given,” Rose said. “Instead of trying to reinvent everything, let’s try to adhere to the rules.”