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Breaking the rules: College hoops

Little separates adhering to rules from violating them

Posted: Wednesday July 25, 2007 12:29PM; Updated: Wednesday July 25, 2007 6:03PM
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Kelvin Sampson was punished for making impermissible phone calls at Oklahoma -- but how different, really, were his actions from those who send thousands of text messages?
Kelvin Sampson was punished for making impermissible phone calls at Oklahoma -- but how different, really, were his actions from those who send thousands of text messages?
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In the foreward to former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian's 2005 memoir, Runnin' Rebel, he wrote, "In major college basketball, nine out of 10 teams break the rules. The other one is in last place."

At least nine out of 10 instances of rule-breaking, it follows, occur in the murky world of recruiting, where revered college coaches take on the humbling enterprise of begging -- often by any means necessary -- 17 and 18 year olds to sign with their school. It is a widely accepted belief, not just from the towel-chomping mouth of Tark, that nearly everyone cheats, and we only hear of the ones who have the misfortune of getting caught, those being the Jim Harricks and Jim O'Briens of the college hoops world.

The unpunished masses are more discreet with their dealings, as well as more adept at devising other, above-board recruiting strategies that seem to fall in the same ballpark as NCAA violations, yet are considered legal. The NCAA's Division I Manual is 427 pages long, painfully complicated, and yet still, in many ways, inadequate at controlling the recruiting scene. "Believe me," said one current D-I assistant who requested anonymity, "Coaches will talk publicly about the rules being excessive and hard to understand, but all the good ones are fully aware of how to exploit every loophole in the book."

The line between an NCAA violation and something that's deemed acceptable conduct can often be absurdly thin. A game show -- Cheating or Not Cheating? -- could be created with examples from college basketball alone. These five are just the tip of the iceberg:

CHEATING: Making excessive phone calls to recruits.

This was Kelvin Sampson's misstep at Oklahoma, for which he was punished in May of 2006, just after taking the head job at Indiana. Sampson's wasn't the most salacious of scandals, but he and his staff did make 577 of what the NCAA called "impermissible telephone contacts" with recruits -- some of whom included the headliners of his highly ranked (and now dispersed) '06 recruiting class. The NCAA's phone-call window, at the time, began on June 21 following a prospect's junior year of high school, and generally restricted coaches to one call per week after that. Sampson completely ignored this rule -- and was hit with a one-year, off-campus recruiting ban at Indiana as a result.

NOT CHEATING (yet): Sending excessive text messages to recruits.

The NCAA's board of directors will be reviewing legislation on Aug. 9 to either ban text-messaging between coaches and recruits altogether, or restrict it in some form. But presently, and since the beginning of the texting craze amongst cell-phone carrying kids, it has been a completely unrestricted medium. A coach, if he so desired, could text a recruit -- of any age -- at any hour of any day of the year. Take the case of incoming Kentucky freshman Patrick Patterson, a five-star power forward from Huntington, W.V., who waited until the final moment of the spring recruiting season to sign his letter of intent. His mother, Tywanna, said the fierce recruiting battle between UK, Florida, Duke, Wake Forest and Virginia had resulted in a $507 March phone bill ... thanks to the 7,000 texts Patrick had received.

CHEATING: Lining up outside employment for a family member of a recruit.

When LSU was put on three years' probation in 1998 for improper actions surrounding its recruitment of Lester Earl, one of the things the NCAA alleged was that Tigers coaches had assisted Earl's mother in obtaining a job at a local casino, and Earl's sister in obtaining a job as a certified nursing aide. Bylaw 13.2.2 of the NCAA Division I manual states a number of prohibited benefits for recruits, including, "an employment arrangement for a prospective student-athlete's relatives." These violations, among others, helped bring about the end of coach Dale Brown's career in Baton Rouge.

NOT CHEATING: Hiring a family member of a recruit for a job within the basketball program.

Two of the most highly sought-after prep guards of the past decade coincidentally ended up playing college ball with their fathers on the bench -- as recently hired directors of basketball operations. Dajuan Wagner was a mega-recruit out of Camden, N.J., who had scored 100 points in a high-school game. In '00, the season before Wagner arrived in Memphis, his father, ex-Louisville star and 13-year pro Milt, was brought into the program in a basketball ops role. Of the move, Tigers coach John Calipari would tell USA Today, "It disappoints me for Milt and his career that everybody says I only hired Milt to get Dajuan. Milt will be an assistant with me for a long time because I really like him. I've known him for a lot of years, and he's going to be good." Wagner stayed in the same low-level position for six years with the Tigers, then left in the '06 offseason to become an actual assistant coach at UTEP.

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