Pay close attention to college basketball’s coaching carousel the next few years.
The list of coaches hired and fired could offer some early clues whether or not the widespread bribery and corruption uncovered by the FBI will spark meaningful change throughout the sport.
If university administrators black list coaches who have been caught cheating and display unusual patience with coaches who adhere to the rules but struggle to win consistently, it will send the message that win-at-all-costs tactics aren’t necessary to ensure job security. If university administrators jettison coaches who don’t land enough premier prospects and offer second and third chances to coaches who have broken NCAA rules, it will reinforce the notion that it’s safer to play dirty and win than it is to stay clean and risk losing.
“When you see coaches who have been fired for breaking NCAA rules and then rehired elsewhere, that sends a message loud and clear to coaches that if you win and you get caught cheating, there’s another chance down the road,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said last month.
“There are multiple case of guys who have lost their jobs because they’ve done things the right way and refused to cross that line. There are assistant coaches doing things the right way who can’t get an interview for a head coaching job. That goes to our athletic directors, presidents and search firms who are making hires. They need to change their course of action if they want the FBI investigation to have a positive impact in the long run.”
The first test of how college athletics will react hasn’t been promising. While scandal-weary Louisville finally fired Rick Pitino last month despite objections from his longtime athletic director, other schools ensnared in the federal probe have so far chosen to cling to the unlikely notion that one or more assistant coaches went rogue and the head coach knew nothing of the impropriety.
Arizona’s president and athletic director both issued statements last month backing Sean Miller despite the arrest of his longtime assistant Book Richardson. Federal investigators accused Richardson of accepting a total of $20,000 in bribes from aspiring agent Christian Dawkins, most of which he allegedly gave to a top point guard who committed to Arizona in early August.
An Adidas executive is quoted in another section of the complaint saying that another potential Arizona recruit had been offered $150,000 to commit to the Wildcats. In the complaint, Dawkins also references not being able to get involved with a current Arizona player because he was already being paid by someone else.
Arizona is standing behind Miller for the same reason USC is going to bat for Andy Enfield and Auburn is defending Bruce Pearl under similar circumstances: They’re each valuable to their respective universities because they win. Miller has led the Wildcats to the Sweet 16 six times in eight seasons, Enfield has transformed the Trojans from Pac-12 lightweight to preseason top 10 team and Pearl has recruited well enough to sell out Auburn Arena for four straight years and offer hope he could someday duplicate the success he once had at Tennessee.
The concern for those coaches and colleagues at other schools is the possibility that new information could emerge implicating them in the scandal. Not only could the FBI discover incriminating evidence on its own, investigators could also offer the men they already arrested a deal enabling them to avoid jail time in return for ratting out coaches higher in the food chain.
No coach who has ever received help from Adidas to get a player should feel safe considering two of the shoe-apparel giant’s executives were among those arrested in the federal probe. Same with coaches who operate outside the rules at prominent Nike schools given that Nike records have also reportedly been subpoenaed. And nobody knows who Dawkins might accuse if he starts talking, but rest assured that a con artist with connections to all sorts of programs likely has some interesting stories to share.
Any head coach would be hard-pressed to keep his job if it’s proven he has knowledge of a bribery scheme, but Pearl in particular would be in trouble. Whereas Miller and Enfield at least have no history of impropriety, Pearl lost his job at Tennessee in 2011 after he hosted recruits at his home in violation of NCAA rules and then encouraged his staff to lie about it to NCAA investigators.
Just like it will be instructive how coaches connected to the scandal fare, it will also be telling whether traditional hot-seat candidates receive more leash than they previously might have. At a time when 10 men connected to the sport are facing time in federal prison, could a history of NCAA compliance make a losing coach more valuable to his school than his record might indicate?
Among those surely hoping that’s the case is Clemson’s Brad Brownell, whose program hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 2011 and is projected to finish 13th in the ACC this season. Brownell’s 56-66 ACC record is respectable given the strength of the top of the conference, but the Tigers want even better results after investing $60 million into renovating Littlejohn Coliseum.
To keep his job beyond next spring, Brownell probably needs to either exceed expectations on the court this season or prove he can keep South Carolina’s best prospects from leaving the state. Clemson is still in the hunt for five-star 2018 phenom Zion Williamson and it’s also pursuing promising 2019 in-state prospects Christian Brown, Juwan Gary and Deuce Dean.
Nebraska’s Tim Miles also faces pressure to show that he can reverse his struggling program’s fortunes this season. The Huskers made a late surge to earn an NCAA bid in Miles’ second season, but they failed to build on that momentum, going just 17-37 in Big Ten play the past three years and finishing no higher than 11th in the conference standings.
Even though Nebraska has been to the NCAA tournament just seven times in program history and traditionally suffers from a lack of in-state talent, the Huskers’ increased commitment to basketball has provided Miles with resources his predecessors lacked. Nebraska has a sparkling new 15,100-seat arena, a state-of-the-art practice facility and a bigger basketball budget. Now the Huskers must decide if the gregarious, big-hearted Miles is the right coach to take advantage.
Among the other power-conference coaches who may not be able to afford a down season are Kansas State’s Bruce Weber, Boston College’s Jim Christian and Pittsburgh’s Kevin Stallings.
Weber is 21-33 in Big 12 play the past three years and must rebuild the Wildcats program without graduated standout Wesley Iwundu this season. Christian has a 6-48 ACC record so far at Boston College, though the program’s young core offers hope of incremental progress this season. Stallings produced Pittsburgh’s worst conference record in decades in his debut season and then last spring lost most of the talent on that roster to transfers.
In a normal season, what would determine their fate would be how many games they each win, how many marquee recruits they land and how satisfied administrators and deep-pocketed donors are with their job performance.
This year, there are other factors to consider, which makes the upcoming coaching carousel more significant and less predictable than ever before.
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