By Eric Prisbell, USA TODAY
The NCAA on Tuesday banned Central Florida from postseason play for one season in men's basketball and football for major recruiting violations, announcing the sanctions two days before the association's board hears a proposal to give its infractions committee more authority to impose harsh penalties on rules violators.
The proposals, which would include postseason bans for as many as four seasons, multimillion-dollar fines and the so-called death penalty, come in the aftermath of the Penn State case, in which the NCAA bypassed its usual investigative process and moved quickly to punish the school for its failure to take action more than a decade ago that might have stopped an assistant football coach from preying on children.
Outlined in a 72-page NCAA document that was published Tuesday by the Chronicle of Higher Education, the proposals will be presented Thursday to the NCAA's Division I Board of Directors, though the board is not expected to vote until October.
MORE: NCAA hits Central Florida with major sanctions
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More specifically, the Central Florida case represents the NCAA's latest attempt to tackle what college coaches label the most serious problem facing men's basketball and football: third-party individuals - representatives of sports agents chief among them -who wield outsized influence in the recruitment of top prospects and at times secretly shop them to the highest bidder.
The NCAA Committee on Infractions ruled that Central Florida officials, including former athletics director Keith Tribble, had knowledge of the involvement of Ken Caldwell, a Chicago man with ties to a sports agency, and his associate Brandon Bender, to recruit players. The NCAA said both men used cash inducements in an effort to steer nearly a dozen football and men's basketball prospects to Central Florida. The school is appealing the postseason ban for its football team.
Over the last five to 10 years, the increased presence of agents and other third parties has clouded the basketball recruiting landscape, creating an environment in which individuals leverage college coaches via sophisticated money-funneling schemes - frequently in the form of donations to summer-league AAU teams - in return for increased access to prospects. College coaches who resist the pressure often lose out on the best prospects.
Some colleges have hired AAU summer-league coaches as assistants in an effort to create a pipeline of talent. And representatives of agents or colleges help bankroll some AAU programs in the hope that the AAU coach will help steer top prospects to them.
NCAA officials told USA TODAY Sports that it will now compel some summer-league programs it investigates to disclose the names of those who contribute money to their programs. The elusive donor lists, long concealed by dozens of prominent summer-league programs, would potentially reveal names associated with sports agents, college coaches and athletic boosters who help bankroll some summer-league programs in violation of NCAA rules.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams, who applauded the NCAA's efforts, recently told USA TODAY Sports: "The agent involvement [in recruiting] is much, much more than it has ever been. In the last five years, it has just gone off the charts. There is no question that some of these parts outside the actual game itself have really made the coaching profession not nearly as much fun as it used to be."
Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said there is "no question" that agents' ties to AAU summer-league teams have become more common, adding that he "absolutely" has lost players because he refused to cheat.
"A lot of people have lost players," Izzo said. "And I am not saying that cheating is 80 percent of the game. It's probably 20 percent. But it's probably 70 percent of the top 20 percent [of player recruitments]. College basketball is a business. This [recruiting] is a business now because it leads to ours."
AAU coaches a major influence
The influence of third-party individuals comes in various forms and rarely is as blatant as exchanges of bags of cash. Officials at a Nike-sponsored basketball camp for top prospects this July tightened standards for issuing media credentials after a North Carolina man named Joe Davis gained entry to other events in recent years with a media pass and allegedly solicited college coaches for money in return for access to players. Davis denies any wrongdoing.
The NCAA has struggled to curtail the influence of third-party individuals, who face little oversight from any national governing body even though they wield more power than most high school coaches in the recruitment of top prospects.
Earlier this month, the NCAA banned four summer-league teams from competing in NCAA certified events because of ties to sports agent Andy Miller. LuAnn Humphrey, the NCAA's director of enforcement for the basketball focus group, told USA TODAY Sports that the association is investigating several other programs that it believes have relationships with agents.
"If they banned four teams, they have only 104 to go," said former college coach Tom Penders, who detailed AAU-related issues in his book Dead Coach Walking.
"The money deals go down during July. People who are watching have no idea what is going on, like where the peanut is in the shell game. They might be watching it, but they ain't seeing it."
Most summer-league programs operate aboveboard and on shoestring budgets, packing teenagers into vans and cramped hotels as they crisscross the country for tournaments. And many sports agents follow the letter of the law and wait until prospects turn professional before they offer inducements.
Others move in the shadows of the sport. In six seasons as head coach at Houston, Penders estimated, an AAU coach or his agent asked Penders for money in return for the commitment of a prospect at least 25 times. On one occasion, an AAU coach and his agent visited Penders' office with two offers: Pay tens of thousands of dollars in return for a player's commitment, or place an AAU coach on his staff to establish a pipeline.
"I threw him out of my office," Penders said.
Penders said the player, whom the coach declined to identify, spent one season at a Big 12 school before being drafted in the second round of the NBA draft. Penders said the AAU coach collected "six figures" from the Big 12 school that chose to engage in the scheme.
Regarding funneling money through AAU coaches in return for players, ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, a former head coach at three NCAA schools, said in a telephone interview during the season that "whenever there is a great [recruit], a summer-league coach and an NBA agent involved, this has been the formula over the last decade for recruiting some of these high level players.
"Great player plus summer-league coach plus agent is potentially a dangerous mix for a school because --- 98 percent of the time it is all handled behind closed doors --- when it gets out into the public it gives the average fan a perspective of how recruiting really works at that level."
The NCAA's infractions committee noted that the Central Florida case centered on "an ever-increasing problem in college athletics today, namely the involvement of outside third parties with prospects and student-athletes."
The problem for the NCAA, according to ESPN national recruiting analyst Dave Telep, is that the schemes are "too easy to get done and too difficult to prove. The people within the world of college and AAU basketball have a pretty good idea that that is out there. They also have no idea how to combat it."
With the absence of a "paper trail," Telep said, proving illicit relationships is difficult. More than two-thirds of elite AAU programs are established as non-profits. Some receive a few hundred thousand dollars in donations - in addition to shoe company contracts - according to a review of their tax records.
Policing is difficult because the tax forms often do not disclose specific names of donors. Humphrey, the NCAA official, characterized the non-profit foundation issue as "very high on our radar" and "difficult to track." But she said AAU teams must cooperate fully during NCAA investigations if they wish to compete at NCAA-certified events, which give prospects the chance to perform in front of hundreds of college coaches.
"We are also very well aware of connections that some of those summer programs --- via the agent, via the runner --- may have with our own institutions," Humphrey said. "So we are also connecting the dots in terms of what [college] coaching staff might have some questionable relationships with some of these individuals."
Obtaining donor lists is at the heart of the NCAA's attempt at curbing third-party recruiting influences. While difficult if not impossible to get, the list of contributors also would provide a rare window into the modern recruiting world.
Penders said getting the lists of donors to AAU teams is a "good idea, but if the government can't get them, how's the NCAA going to get them? And how many donations are made with checks? How many are made with cash?"
Former shoe company czar Sonny Vaccaro, one of the most influential figures in college basketball the past 30 years, estimated in a telephone interview that as many as 15 colleges arranged for donations of more $20,000 to specific AAU programs in recent years, a violation of NCAA rules.
While most AAU coaches use their own money for their programs, Izzo said, some AAU coaches act on behalf of the agent who helps bankroll their team. Telep said one telltale sign of agent involvement with the elite prospects is the number and frequency of unofficial visits the player makes before committing to a school.
Said Fraschilla: "If you were to ask me the overwhelming theme of high-level recruiting, I would say plausible deniability. Money is funneled in a way a coach can always say, 'I had no idea that was going on.'
"Assistant coach says, 'Coach, don't worry, I will handle it.' The head coach does not have to worry about it in some cases. In other cases, the head coach is right smack in the middle of it. They want to do the deal themselves because they don't want an assistant screwing it up. It's amazing."
'People want to make money'
More than a dozen years ago, Williams, then head coach at Kansas, grew frustrated at the peripheral individuals involved in the recruitment of DeShawn Stevenson. He said the problem has worsened considerably. And, in general, the refusal to cheat or engage some third-party individuals is one of many reasons, Williams said, why he may back away from recruiting a prospect these days.
"Every coach looks at situations and tries to decide, 'Will I have a legitimate chance if I do it the right way?,'" Williams said. "Some of those situations you look at and say, 'This is not my kind of ballgame. I better go somewhere else.'"
During his final years of coaching, Gary Williams grew frustrated with third-party involvement. Then coach at Maryland, Williams failed to land Rudy Gay, whose former summer-league team received $25,000 legally from UConn to play an exhibition game. And Williams was criticized for not hiring Dalonte Hill, the former AAU coach of Michael Beasley, as a $400,000 assistant coach.
"If there's a reason why he is not coaching - thoughts are that he got married, he was getting older --- I would guarantee you that No. 1 on the list, you know more than I do but I've talked to him enough, is that he is just sick of the crap, which is sad," Izzo said. "What's hard is that sometimes the elites of the elites don't have to deal with it. It's the middle rung, the Marylands, the Michigan States, the Texases, that are in that middle. That is a problem."
Said Fraschilla: "It is very hard for a major college head coach today when it comes to recruiting. My father always said, 'If you wrestle with pigs, you are going to get dirty.' Unfortunately, I think of a guy like Gary Williams and he was not willing to play the game and it hurt him in the end because it dried up a pipeline of what could have been good players.
"Most high level coaches who are recruiting the high level players understand that you are not going to get players to go to your school if you are going to give them a scholarship and tell them, 'By the way, you can get some Pell Grant money, too.' It's just not happening."
West Virginia Coach Bob Huggins has said that, while at Kansas State, he was hesitant to continue to recruit O.J. Mayo because the situation had become a "circus," involving, among other peripheral individuals, a Los Angeles-based event organizer named Rodney Guillory, who had established ties to a Las Vegas-based sports agency. Mayo signed with USC, which in 2010 acknowledged he received improper benefits and self-imposed sanctions that included a postseason ban and vacating its victories for the 2007-08 season.
In general, Huggins said there is little the NCAA can do to combat the problem, adding, "It's America. People want to make money. If there's a way to make money, people will find a way to make money. That's the way it is."
No coach in the modern era has had more success recruiting elite prospects than John Calipari, who has also fought the perception that his longstanding relationship with influential power broker William Wesley helped him land top-rated recruiting classes at Memphis and Kentucky. Wesley often sits in the stands behind Kentucky's bench and at times was given access to the Memphis locker room when Calipari coached the Tigers.
When asked if the presence of third-party recruiting influences has become more common, Calipari said: "If I were where I used to coach, it probably would be more of an issue for me, you know what I'm saying? There's always been more than just the high school coach or the kid you're talking to in recruiting to figure out who is who. I'm at Kentucky now. When I was at Memphis and Massachusetts, it was a lot harder than it is now. Fifteen NBA draft picks the last three years, it's gotten easier."
Easier for some. More frustrating for others.
"It's just sad," Izzo said. "I don't see any way of stopping it, unless everything is curtailed and AAU basketball goes under USA Basketball. It just seems like they can't take on that animal. So everyone makes money off basketball."