How do you differentiate yourself from the competition?
In today’s dog-eat-dog world of collegiate recruiting, that is the question that causes college coaches nightmares. Lucrative college sports programs like men’s football and basketball hire coaches with the expectation that they will win and that they will win quickly. Often times, a coach will be on the “hot seat” if his program isn’t making significant improvement within a three-year window. This happens as college coaches are held accountable by school athletic directors, who are being pressured by boosters, alumni, and college presidents to produce a winning program. The more the program wins, the more money and recognition the schools gets which keeps everyone happy. If the program loses and people get upset, then the coach is always the first person to go.
It wasn’t always this way. In fact, the high-stakes, high-profile recruitment of college athletes is a recent phenomenon which has blossomed over the past two decades. There has always been competition for the best high school athletes, but for a brief period some of the best athletes the world has ever seen actually chose to stay close to home rather than attend higher profile schools. For example, take the three best NBA players of the 1980’s: Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson. Jordan, a native of Wilmington, North Carolina, chose to stay in state and play for the University of North Carolina despite having offers from South Carolina, Syracuse, and Virginia. Bird, a native of small town French Lick, Indiana actually enrolled at Indiana University but found the campus too overwhelming and transferred to Indiana State University. Johnson, a native of Lansing, Michigan was recruited by schools like Indiana and UCLA but ultimately decided to attend Michigan State University.
In the early 1990’s the intensity of college recruitment began to pick up. A lot of it was due to the new-found world of possibilities that the world wide web opened up. Where it was once nearly impossible to get athletes to consider schools far from home, the internet provided a way for both athletes and coaches to connect to worlds they may have been previously unaware of. For the coaches, they now had videos and scouting reports on athletes not just domestically but internationally as well. For athletes, they could now take virtual tours of campuses and learn about the culture and geography of places that they may have never known had existed. Where once upon a time it was unfathomable that an inner city sports superstar from Queens would attend college at Stanford, this now was not only possible but now this athlete would be seen as a prime candidate for college coaches to target in their quest for a successful program.
However, with this idea of increased competition came the concern that coaches might potentially bend the rules to land prized recruits. The 1994 film Blue Chips deals with this very issue. In the film, actor Nick Nolte plays a championship basketball coach Pete Bell, whose team has fallen on hard times. Facing increasing pressure from school officials to return to his winning ways, Bell employs a booster who helps land him three star recruits through gifts, cash, and employment for both recruits and their families. Eventually Bell’s team returns to national prominence but Bell refuses to continue the charade. He opts to admit to his violations and resign rather than go through with the whole ordeal weighing on his conscious for the entire season.
On Friday, we learned that Louisville men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino might potentially be a real life Pete Bell.
Late in the day a book was released by Katina Powell with Dick Cady titled Breaking Cardinal Rules: Basketball and the Escort Queen. The book alleges that Louisville director of basketball operations Andre McGee hired Powell to provide strippers and prostitutes to potential basketball recruits during their on-campus visits to the school. Powell claims that between 2010 and 2014 she provided entertainment for 22 parties held at the dorm which housed the men’s basketball team and that she personally received more than $10,000 for supplying women for the parties. During a news conference to address the allegations on Friday, Pitino said, “To say I’m disheartened, disappointed would be the biggest understatement I’ve made as a coach.” On the flip side, Powell offered her side of the story by explaining, “I decided to write the book to tell my story and to let people know what goes on inside of college basketball … and how they get their new recruits…It’s important for people to know … how young kids are persuaded to do certain things by sex, drugs and alcohol.”
We will learn more in the coming days and weeks as the story unfolds. Louisville is conducting its own internal investigation and after that the NCAA won’t be far behind. Perhaps most disconcerting for fans of the Louisville men’s program is not only the hit to the reputation of the program and Rick Pitino’s legacy, but the fact that there is a possibility that Louisville might have to vacate its 2013 national championship. The University of Southern California was stripped of its 2004 national championship after it was revealed that star running back Reggie Bush had accepted improper gifts from an agent. Imagine what the NCAA might do to Louisville who might very well have had multiple players commit to its program through clear NCAA violations. If the NCAA finds that this is the case, they might very well feel compelled to make an example out of Louisville and strip them of their national championship.
And unlike Blue Chips, the potential consequences for the alleged violation is a very real thing.