Twenty years after Raw Recruits, system is even more of a cesspool
Best-selling book by Alexander Wolff and Armen Keteyian exposed recruiting
At the center of it was Sonny Vaccaro, who started summer shoe company circuit
Now Vaccaro, 70, is out of game and fighting against system he helped create
Twenty years after the publication of our book Raw Recruits, voices from its pages still echo in our heads.
There's Arizona assistant coach Kevin O'Neill declaring his schoolgirl crush on New Jersey teenager and future NBA guard Matt Maloney: "I'd crawl across burning sand to hear him piss in a can on the radio."
There's UNLV recruiter Mark Warkentien, on seeing Kentucky counterpart Dwane Casey walk into a gym: "It's a clear day and everything's OK, then all of a sudden a MIG fighter flies overhead."
There's Ed O'Bannon, the UCLA Bruin-to-be, watching his summer travel-team coach kowtow to recruiters by shaking hand after hand -- "a few too many for my taste," O'Bannon says, with disarming understatement.
And there's Runnin' Rebels coach Jerry Tarkanian -- no understatement here -- calling Southern California travel-team operator Pat Barrett "the biggest whore I ever met."
But no quote has haunted and defined the past two decades quite like one sentence from Sonny Vaccaro, the man who made Nike the sport's dominant corporate player by plying college coaches and grassroots programs with cash, gear and shoes. The result -- a parallel universe in which uncredentialed and on-the-make middlemen controlled aspiring NBA stars -- created a generation of entitled young ballplayers and exposed the NCAA as feckless fuddy-duddies.
"It's a cesspool," Vaccaro told us outside a gym in Las Vegas one day in 1989, "and we start the process."
Our publisher splashed those words on the book's back cover. Within 18 months Nike CEO Phil Knight had cut Vaccaro loose, touching off a professional odyssey that took him to Adidas and then Reebok, with which he chose to part ways in 2007, leaving seven figures' worth of money on the table. "If I was ever going to get credibility," he says today, "I couldn't be taking shoe-company money."
Now 70 and living in Carmel, Calif., Vaccaro is the kind of gadfly only a reformed insider can be. In speeches on college campuses he calls out the NCAA for what he sees as its hypocrisy. Incensed at the NBA's minimum draft age of 19 (or high school plus one year), he has encouraged players like Brandon Jennings and Jeremy Tyler (Tyler skipped his senior year of high school) to skip college entirely to play for pay in Europe. And he served as matchmaker between top trial lawyers and O'Bannon, now the lead plaintiff in a class-action suit against the NCAA that seeks to recover for college athletes a piece of the licensing action that generates an estimated $4 billion a year off their names and likenesses.
As Vaccaro crusades against the system he helped create, he wants to clarify that long-ago statement. "What wasn't in there is that everyone was part of it," he says. "Everyone -- college coaches, the media, shoe companies, boosters, the schools. 'We start the process.' But that got lost with the word 'cesspool.' After that, no one wanted to go near me. I was Nostradamus, but I got ostracized and demonized.
"The fight I'm fighting is equality for all the kids. But not one college coach has called to say 'I back you.' Not one. I just talked with one or two high-ranking coaches and they don't even understand what I'm doing. They're just caught up in the lifeline of their own employment, winning games."
Vaccaro once funneled $100,000 a year of Nike's money to Barrett, who has sent more than 100 players to Division I programs and still lords over the West Coast summer scene. Only now, in addition to shoe money, Barrett's travel team can count a $250,000 "donation" from a New York-based sports agency, according to an investigation by Yahoo! Sports last spring. Meanwhile, after St. John's fired coach Norm Roberts two weeks ago, several of Barrett's New York City counterparts freely admitted that they didn't steer top local talent his way because Roberts wouldn't break the rules and take care of them.
"Many thought it would all change when I was no longer involved," Vaccaro says. "But hundreds of millions of dollars later, nothing has."
The NBA has partnered with the NCAA, the biggest beneficiary of the draft-eligible age limit, to launch iHoops, an initiative that among other things was supposed to drain the youth basketball cesspool by bringing order and oversight to the summer scene. Instead iHoops has pursued deal-making, including a potential multi-million dollar arrangement to televise a national schoolboy tournament. The outgoing head of iHoops, Kevin Weiberg, admits to frustration as he leaves for a job in the Pac-10 office: "[There's] more involvement now in funding of clubs, teams, coaches, by agents and runners for agents. It's a very challenging issue for iHoops to get its arms around. ... Part of the problem is we had no regulatory authority in the space."
For "no regulatory authority in the space," read: cesspool.
Twenty years ago we suspected that we were writing about intractable problems, because 15 years earlier Ken Denlinger and Leonard Shapiro had written a similar book, Athletes For Sale. Sure enough, a decade after our book, one of the reporters behind that Yahoo! Sports report, Dan Wetzel, joined Don Yaeger to co-author Sole Influence, which documented more footsie among coaches, middlemen and shoe companies.
In his 1982 confessional Caught In the Net, Tates Locke had detailed how he cheated to win at Clemson. After he got another chance to coach, at Indiana State, seven years later, we dedicated Raw Recruits to Locke -- "Who came clean and came back."
Perhaps, on an opening page of the next expose of a system lousy with things to expose, other reporters will choose to honor a truth-teller who was once part of the process. Maybe someday someone will dedicate a book to Sonny Vaccaro.
Alexander Wolff is a Sports Illustrated senior writer. Armen Keteyian was a writer-reporter on the SI staff for seven years during the 1980s.