Big Ten commissioner, coaches see history repeating itself in latest men's basketball scandal

The memory has stuck with Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany for more than a half-century.

Then a 12-year-old kid growing up in South Orange, N.J., Delany recalled being awakened one morning by some tumult outside his family’s house that was located across the street from Seton Hall.

The memory?

“Seeing two individuals being taken out of their dormitory in handcuffs by the FBI for their engagement — alleged engagement in gambling,” Delaney said Thursday during the Big Ten’s media day.

Two Seton Hall men’s basketball players, Hank Gunter and Art Hicks, were among 37 players at 22 colleges arrested in 1961 for their part in the point-shaving scandal orchestrated by New York gambler and former NBA player Jack Molinas.

So when the news hit recently that four Division I assistant coaches had been arrested and Hall of Fame Louisville coach Rick Pitino was suspended — and ultimately fired — in an ongoing pay-for-play scandal that involved a former Nike executive and was being investigated by the FBI, it didn’t surprise Delany.

“I'm not shocked about this,” said Delany, a former basketball player at North Carolina. “This is the 10th, ninth or 10th intersection between college basketball and the FBI going back to 1950. … So, we should all be concerned. We don't know what we don't know. Our coaches will coach, and they will do the best they can to get students to class and get them on the right path.”

Less than a month away from the start of the 2017-18 season, most Big Ten coaches are too busy getting their teams ready for a four-month grind to get wrapped up in who might be the latest team to come under suspicion or the next of their brethren to see their careers come crashing down as happened to Pitino.

“Not knowing everything that's gone on — I mean what you read is, no insult to you guys, it isn't always 100 percent true,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo told the media assembled Thursday at Madison Square Garden, site of this year’s Big Ten tournament. “And what you see, what you hear as it comes out could be worse.”

Izzo, himself a Hall of Famer like Pitino, recalled what he was once told by his mentor, former Michigan State coach and Hall of Famer Jud Heathcote.

“I think like every walk of life right now — Jud Heathcote, rest his soul, used to always tell me about the 10 percent rule,” Izzo said. “There's going to be 10 percent problems in every profession, whether it be coaching, whether it be in business, whether it be writers. I guess you could go to policemen to priests nowadays — to everybody, there's a 10 percent. So I wouldn't paint the brush over college basketball or football or athletics.”

Like many, Izzo said he believes the rise of Amateur Athletic Union teams and street agents, as well as the proliferation of social media, has played its part in the current scandal. Reducing the number of people who build relationships with the nation’s top high school players could be a start.

“I think there's just getting to be too many people involved with these kids in general where their circle used to be very tight,” Izzo said. “In the last 15 years, the circle has grown. In the Twitter era, the circle has exploded. I'm not sure that's good for them or good for us or good for basketball.”

Former Ohio State star Jim Jackson, now an analyst for Fox Sports, said this type of pay-for-play scenario was going on when he was one of the nation’s top-ranked recruits heading to Columbus to play for Gary Williams in 1989. (He never suited up for Williams, who left for Maryland in June that year.)

“It’s always been something in regards to collegiate athletics, players on that level getting paid,” Jackson said Thursday, “whether it was back in the day through the high school coach or a family member, now translated over to more powerful people, which are AAU programs, and how a shoe company positions itself within those parameters so when they eventually turn pro they’re wearing their products.”

Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, who is entering his seventh season with the Terps and his 20th overall as a Division I head coach, said the scandal hasn’t affected the way he runs his program.

“We’re doing everything the same,” Turgeon said. “I was a little shocked the FBI was involved. It’s a black eye [on the sport]. It’s tough. I do think the majority of us do it the right way. But we’re not doing anything different on our end. We don’t talk to the players because there’s nothing for us to talk to the players about. They read and see everything.

“I do think it’s time for us to make changes. They have started this commission — Condoleezza Rice and a lot of former coaches are on the commission — it’ll be interesting to see what they come up with, but it’s a great time for us to make those changes that help us all out."

On Oct. 11, NCAA president Mark Emmert announced the formation of the Commission on College Basketball, headed by Rice, the former U.S. Secretary of State. It will include former former Georgetown coach John Thompson III and former Stanford and California coach Mike Montgomery, as well as former college and NBA stars Grant Hill and David Robinson.

Asked if he has any changes that might be effective, Turgeon said, “I do, but I don’t want to talk about them. Everything in my mind that popped up, I’ve talked to Jim Haney about. He runs the NABC [National Association of Basketball Coaches]. I called him a couple of times. I called him the day it broke and talked about a few things. And they formed his commission, which I think is going to be really good for us.”

Said Maryland sophomore point guard Anthony Cowan, who was briefly recruited by both Louisville and Arizona, where assistant coach Book Richardson was one of those arrested, “It’s crazy to me. Not only to see the stuff go on with Rick Pitino, but to see the actual coaches that were [arrested].That’s life-changing right there. I never thought it would get to that state.”

Others are not as surprised.

When asked last week whether he had ever turned another coach in who he knew had been in violation of NCAA rules, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery conceded he had. McCaffery said Thursday that the names of those allegedly involved did not surprise him in the least.

“The fact that people got caught for what they’ve always been doing, to me, is a good thing,” McCaffery said. “Everyone says, ‘It’s awful.’ It’s always been like this. … There’s always been people cheating. There are different entities. Now those different entities have gotten caught recently.”

Asked if this scandal could change the way coaches run their programs, McCaffery said, “In the past, people [who were caught cheating] lost their jobs. Now if they’re looking at jail time, they’ll change.”

Michigan coach John Beilein, who has built a clean reputation throughout his nearly 40-year college coaching career, believes the number of coaches who go to the lengths that Louisville allegedly did by offering a prospect $100,000 to commit is small.

“What do we’ve got, 1,400 full-time Division I [head and assistant] coaches, and what do we have, five or six right now?” Beilein said.

Told that reports have the number going much higher — one unnamed coach predicted that some 40 coaches could be out of work by the end of the season — Beilein said, “Let’s wait before we make that judgment.”

“The fact that we’ve got the FBI involved is terrific, that it gives so much more credence to why we have rules,” Beilein said. “We’ve got to follow the rules and hopefully people who are sitting on that edge, ‘Should I follow the rule or should I bend the rule or follow the spirit of the rule,’ they’re going to follow the spirit of the rule because it’s not worth [breaking] it. If we all just did it, we’d be much better off.”

don.markus@baltsun.com

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