How some schools are getting an edge for recruits
Posted: Wednesday January 9, 2008 2:13PM; Updated: Wednesday January 9, 2008 6:54PM
Shameless plug alert: If you get a chance this week, check out the 'Bag's feature story in Sports Illustrated on Kansas State's Michael Beasley, the ultrasmooth 6-foot-9 forward who's the favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the next NBA Draft.
I enjoyed speaking for two hours with Beasley, whose life story is fascinating in many ways, but one particularly intriguing aspect is how the Washington D.C.-area native ended up at Kansas State, considering Beasley told me that when he first considered becoming a Wildcat: "I couldn't find Kansas on a map."
It's not that complicated, really. Beasley is the clearest high-profile example in years of a so-called package deal, in which a team hires a new staff member who takes advantage of a pre-existing relationship to help land a top recruit. It all comes back to Beasley's close ties since age 13 with Dalonte Hill, who was one of Beasley's coaches on the powerful D.C. Assault AAU team. In September 2003, three weeks after Charlotte hired Hill away from D.C. Assault as an assistant, Beasley gave a verbal commitment to the 49ers. Then in June 2006, two months after then-Kansas State coach Bob Huggins poached Hill for his own staff, Beasley announced he was going to Manhattan, even though he had never seen the campus.
"My first question for Dalonte was, 'What is Kansas State?'" says Beasley. "I couldn't find Kansas on a map. I didn't know it was a big-time school. But then my trust kicked in. Loyalty means everything to me." When Hill was promoted to associate head coach at Kansas State in the wake of Huggins's departure for West Virginia last spring, Beasley kept his commitment to join the Wildcats.
Beasley's case is hardly the only instance of a package deal in college basketball these days. At least 10 current teams around the nation have gone the extra mile by hiring close associates of hotly contested recruits, including elite freshmen like Indiana's Eric Gordon, Arizona State's James Harden and Texas A&M's DeAndre Jordan. (See chart below.)
Do package deals violate NCAA rules? Not unless employment is expressly conditional on a player's enrollment. (And what kind of coach would be stupid enough to spell it out like that?) But whether package deals are ethical depends on whom you ask.
"I would never consider doing it," North Carolina coach Roy Williams told me, adding he has passed up the opportunity to do a package deal on two occasions when recruiting a player. "Both times I told the person, 'I will recruit the kid or I'll interview you as a coach, but we're not going to do both.' I thought it would almost end up being like a clique on my team and staff. And in saying that, I think sometimes it's not a problem. For me it's not the best situation, but I think you need to look at each one specifically."
Other coaches argue that in the cutthroat world of recruiting, you'd be a sucker not to use every legal means possible, since one of your rivals always will. "If there were no rules violated, then what's the problem?" says Memphis coach John Calipari, who famously hired Milt Wagner as his director of operations in 2001, the same year that Wagner's son Dajuan, one of the nation's top recruits, joined the Tigers.
Sonny Vaccaro, the powerful former grassroots hoops czar for several shoe companies, prefers to place package deals in a wider context. "This is no different than any aspect of the structure of corporate America," Vaccaro says. "If you can add a commodity -- the ballplayer, in this instance -- and you need to bring somebody with him, is it any different from Wall Street taking all the kids who graduated from Duke or Notre Dame? I see nothing wrong with it, and it's been going on forever."
He's certainly right about that. Former LSU coach Dale Brown mastered the package deal beginning in the 1970s, hiring the high school coaches of Howard "Hi C" Carter, Rudy Macklin, Nikita Wilson and Stanley Roberts. A package deals has also played a central role in at least one national title: Kansas won the 1988 championship behind Danny Manning, who chose to join the Jayhawks over North Carolina after Larry Brown added Manning's father, Ed, to his staff. (Ever-grateful Kansas fans thought it was a brilliant move, while Tar Heels supporters pointed out that the elder Manning's previous job was as a truck driver.)
Twenty years later, just a few miles down the road in Manhattan, Dalonte Hill says he has no plans to depart K-State the moment Beasley leaves. Perhaps, perhaps not. But it's worth noting that package hires sometimes remain in a program longer than most pundits expect. Of the resolved package-deal examples compiled by SI.com over the past 10 years, about half of the hires were gone within one year of the players' departures. (A prime example was Tim Thomas' high school coach, Jim Salmon, who resigned as a Villanova assistant to start the Tim Thomas Playaz AAU team almost immediately after Thomas left school.)
But the other half was still with the same program at least five seasons after the package player was gone. That group happens to include Memphis's Milt Wagner, who stayed with the Tigers for five seasons after his son left school before accepting an assistant coaching position this season at UTEP (under former Memphis assistant Tony Barbee). "People can look at Milt Wagner and say he was at Memphis for six years and got a college degree," says Calipari with more than a hint of I-told-you-so in his voice. "And now he's working for Tony, so he's still within our family."
Indeed, when it comes to package deals it may be wise not to make too many assumptions. In 2003, then-Tennessee coach Buzz Peterson hired as his assistant Chuck Benson, the son of Charlie Benson, the longtime coach of the Tennessee Travelers AAU team. The Bensons had sold Peterson on the idea that Chuck could land Corey Brewer, a Travelers alum and the Tennessee high school player of the year, for the Volunteers. But little did Peterson know that the hiring of Benson had "the opposite" effect, says Brewer's mother, Glenda Rogan, helping send Brewer to Florida instead.
The rest is college basketball history: by 2005 Peterson (and Benson) had been fired in Knoxville, and Brewer was on his way to playing a starring role in back-to-back national titles for the Gators.