DENVER — Hookers and grade fixing are so yesterday.
The FBI is going after the singular entity the shadiest men in college basketball hold dearest: shoe money.
The FBI — yes, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, not the NCAA — delivered a doomsday warning on Tuesday to the sport’s slimiest slimeballs: Time’s up, fellas. Fingers crossed this long-overdue leap into the darkest corners of college hoops is the deep cleaning the sport's needed for years.
“Coaches at some of the nation’s top programs soliciting and accepting cash bribes; managers and financial advisers circling blue-chip prospects like coyotes; employees of one of the world’s largest sportswear companies secretly funneling cash to the families of high school recruits,” said Joon H. Kim, acting U.S. attorney, during a press conference that has a pair of Pac-12 programs shaking in their high tops and an entire coaching community tapping refresh on its Twitter accounts.
Tuesday wasn’t a good day for college basketball.
It was a great day for college basketball.
When I sent texts to a half-dozen coaches on Tuesday — from the high-major Big 12 to the mid-major MAC — their responses showed a fraternity that’s fed up with the recruiting game's slanted playing field.
“Everything changes now.”
“Can’t wait to see where it goes.”
And up in Boulder, where coach Tad Boyle has built the golden era of Buffs basketball in a manner that would make any alum proud?
"If this cleans up some of the dirty stuff that goes on in our business, then the whole sport of college basketball just got better," Boyle told me Tuesday.
"I've never been the kind of guy who relishes in other peoples' misfortunes. That's just not who I am. But I know in this case, when I look myself in the mirror and put my kids down at night and my assistants can do the same, we can sleep well at night. I don't know the specifics (of the investigation). And I feel bad for some of the people it sounds like are involved. But quite frankly, that's their problem."
According to the FBI, the dirty trail starts here: assistant coaches from Arizona, Southern Cal, Auburn and Oklahoma State were arrested — say that again: arrested — for accepting bribes in exchange for steering basketball prospects to certain agents and advisers. (If you’re wondering, the going rate for a good player was $13,000 to $100,000, according to the FBI.) The FBI has indicted 10 men in all, including an Adidas executive, and exposed the worst-kept secret in college hoops: shoe companies often have a major influence on where blue-chip recruits go to college.
But the real kicker is where it could go next. The FBI said its investigation is ongoing, complete with a hotline where folks can share what they know. Just call 212-384-2135. Simple as that. It’s basically phone therapy for coaches to do what coaches love to do more than almost everything, hang out in the bleachers at AAU events and swap stories on which rivals are cheating and how they’re going about it. Now there’s an app for that.
Credit Boyle for never shying from the subject of dirty recruiting. That’s no small thing, either, as coaches too often are complicit with that side of the game. Too many keep quiet because they’re afraid to burn a bridge that leads to their next job, or out of fear of offending their coaching colleagues. It’s bullying, really. All it took was a bully with a badge, the FBI, to unearth “the dark underbelly of college basketball,” as Kim called it.
"Will every coach who cheats be uncovered in this deal? My answer is probably not," said Boyle, who said "absolutely not" when I asked if CU has been approached in any manner relating to the FBI investigation. "But if this can prevent somebody in the future who is doing something that's not right or against the rules, then it's a good thing. Then clean your act up. If that's the result, I'm all for it. For me, I think it's a great thing for college basketball in this context: if it prevents what's going on from happening again in the future."
Where should this go next? Lots of places, but one specifically: the coaches and programs who hired the dirty assistants should face severe penalties as well. Assistant coaches are not hired on a whim; head coaches know. Enough with the vacated wins and sorry self-sanctions that let renegade programs like Syracuse and Louisville off the hook with little more than a bruised ego. There must be real, debilitating consequences for coaches who break the rules their rivals follow.
There’s a misconception that all programs are dirty, that every Final Four ticket should come with hand sanitizer. It's just not true. The best result from the FBI’s deep dive would be to drain the swamp of the leeches while clearing the good names of the guys who play by the rules. No one is surprised some programs are cool with skating the rules. Louisville’s prostitutes, North Carolina’s alleged academic fraud and Syracuse’s myriad cheating all exposed the shadowy side of amateur athletics in recent years. But those cases involve(d) the NCAA, which is like a substitute teacher suggesting, please, kids, kindly return to your seats, if you don't mind?
This time, though? This time involves the FBI. This time it's the superintendent of schools kicking folks out of the district.
Can’t wait to see where it goes.