Behind the NCAA's new fight against package deals
During a time of year when college basketball usually doesn't generate much interesting news, Baylor coach Scott Drew caused a few ripples last month when he hired a man named Dwon Clifton to be his director of player development (whatever that is). The reason this hire was noteworthy is that Clifton had been coaching a summer team called D-One that features John Wall, a 6-foot-4 point guard from Raleigh, N.C., whom many people (including myself) consider to be the best high school senior in America.
No doubt Drew can credibly claim Clifton is qualified for the job. He played at Clemson and UNC-Greensboro before competing professionally for one season in Portugal. Drew can also credibly claim he didn't get an explicit guarantee from Clifton that Wall will sign with Baylor.
Yet, I can also credibly claim two things: First, Clifton would not have been hired had he not had been Wall's summer coach. And second, as surely as the sun will rise in the east tomorrow morning, John Wall will be a Baylor Bear.
Contrary to what I've seen written elsewhere, the act of hiring a coach for the purpose of signing a player is explicitly against NCAA rules. But the practice has become so commonplace, it's understandable why people would assume it was kosher. Consider, just to take one example, the hero of last season's NCAA championship game, Mario Chalmers. His father, Ronnie, was an assistant who was hired by Kansas coach Bill Self right before Mario's freshman season. Indeed, it's ironic that the hero of Kansas' 1988 national championship team, Danny Manning, also led the Jayhawks to the title with his father, Ed, sitting on the KU bench as a member of the coaching staff.
As I've written before, this practice has been so prevalent for so long that on some level it's understandable why a coach like Baylor's Scott Drew, who is trying to build a winning program at a school that has never had one, would subject himself to charges of unethical conduct. Because if he didn't hire Clifton in an effort to sign Wall, surely someone else would have. That's why you haven't heard too many coaches complaining about Clifton's hiring, privately or publicly. To paraphrase Hyman Roth in The Godfather: Part II, this is the business they've chosen.
Even so, coaches across America should be forewarned: Some people who oversee college basketball do not like how they've been conducting business. And they're fixing to change it.
The change has begun in the NCAA's enforcement office. This spring, the NCAA created a three-person group that will be devoted to monitoring and enforcing compliance in men's basketball. This is an unprecedented move that reflects a growing concern inside the NCAA that the sport is not being conducted ethically. A prime area of concern for the group is the practice of hiring coaches to get players in blatant violation of NCAA rules.
"We recognize there's a definite issue here, and it's been growing and developing for years," says LuAnn Humphrey, the NCAA's associate director of enforcement and a member of the newly formed group. "It's very difficult at times to prove that these [hires] are being done for the specific intent to secure the recruitment of a prospect, but that doesn't mean the enforcement staff is going to turn a blind eye. We don't want to publicize how we're going to go about it, but I will say to you we're going to be a lot more aggressive in our inquiries."
Humphrey adds that coaches "are getting a little too comfortable" with the fact that intent is hard to prove, but that is the reality her staff is facing. That's why no school has faced major sanctions for violating the rule since New Mexico State was hammered in 1996.
The other way the NCAA can crack down is by passing tougher legislation. That was one of the ideas suggested by the initial working group that was assembled to address the problems facing youth basketball. You may remember the big press conference the group put on at the Final Four last year headlined by NBA commissioner David Stern and NCAA president Myles Brand. The main purpose of that event was to announce a new initiative aimed at reining in abuses in summer basketball, but buried among the set of recommendations was some pretty stark language about how a new rule addressing connect-the-dots hires might read.