The scorching Texas sun is barely done climbing above the sprawling plains and already Eddie Oran has two feet planted on the blacktop. A straight-commission car salesman at Covert Chevrolet in the town of Bastrop, a dot on the map 35 miles east of Austin, Oran works under a Texas-sized American flag, trying to move cars off the mammoth lot. "It can get so hot out here," he says, "that the tar starts to bubble and stick to the bottom of your shoes."
In his last job Oran also spent long and languorous days on the blacktop, putting to use his disarming charm and powers of persuasion. Then, he was an assistant basketball coach at Texas, responsible for recruiting high school standouts and selling them on spending four years in Austin. He was such an accomplished salesman, in fact, that in 1992, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED listed him as one of the nation's 15 best recruiters. After 15 years at Texas and seven at Ole Miss before that, Oran wasn't a star; but he was well-liked and well-respected in the business. He worked dutifully, earned around $100,000 a year and held out hope that the right head coaching position might open up for him some day.
Today, Oran makes around $50,000 annually, and he works six days a week to earn it. Too strapped for cash to buy a home closer to his job, he commutes nearly an hour each way. His office walls are unadorned save for a few pictures of his 10-year-old son. There are no basketball photos, no Longhorns trinkets, no indication that Oran was ever involved in college hoops, much less that he is only one season removed from coaching in a prominent program. But make no mistake about it: Oran pines for a return to the pine. He got his start in coaching at age 22, when he drove from Harriman, Tenn., to Bloomington, Ind., in 1973 to work at Bobby Knight's camp for $150 a week. He figured he'd be in the profession for life. "I wonder all the time how come I'm not still on the bench," he says. "I could cry just thinking about it."
Oran is among the legion of former college assistant coaches who have been caught in one of the peculiar traps of the profession. In today's fiercely Darwinian world of college basketball, the forces of money and avarice and the industrial-strength pressure to win have transformed many assistant coaches into fall guys. The job description now goes far beyond diagramming plays on the chalkboard and knowing whether the opposing team is in the penalty. It also entails pouncing on grenades to spare the fate of the program and, when necessary, offering up your career to save another's.
Assistants are expected to take bullets aimed at the head coach—"It's called sacrificing for the program," says former Louisville assistant Scooter McCray—and often feel no choice but to do so. In the old-boy network of coaching, loyalty is what greases the skids for job opportunities. But at the same time, running interference for superiors by lying to NCAA investigators is a sure way to commit career suicide. "Saying that assistants are caught between a rock and a hard place doesn't begin to describe it," says Mike Brown, a longtime assistant at Seton Hall and West Virginia who, having wearied of big-time basketball's pressure cooker, is now an assistant at Fordham. "It's a war out there, and assistants are supposed to be the good soldiers."
For the winners the rewards have never been more alluring. Head coaches are routinely paid hefty six-figure salaries, which can easily burgeon to more than $1 million a year with shoe contracts, camps, radio and television deals and other bonuses. But for assistant coaches, the path to the promised land is littered with mines. The same scenario has played out time and again: In the wake of a scandal an esteemed head coach like Purdue's Gene Keady is unimpeached while an assistant—in Keady's case, Frank Kendrick—loses his post. Same goes for Auburn's Cliff Ellis, who goes blissfully on despite having had to jettison two assistants, Len Gordy at Clemson and Robbie Laing at Auburn, during NCAA investigations of his programs. Louisville's Denny Crum is thriving while former underlings McCray and Larry Gay got canned. And Cincinnati's Bob Huggins is doing fine while ex-assistant John Loyer suffers. "They talk about the coaching fraternity," says Mark Coffman, who lost his job at Weber State during an NCAA investigation while head coach Ron Abegglen stayed on. "Well, it's gotten to the point where there's a fraternity of fall guys, there are so many of us. Every story's different, but in the end, every one's the same. We took the fall so the guy above us didn't have to."
Consider Oran. A career assistant, he was already ensconced at Texas when Tom Penders became head coach in 1988. Oran and Penders weren't exceptionally close, but they shared a solid working relationship for the better part of a decade, and the going was good in Austin. The Longhorns consistently put together 20-win seasons and made the NCAA tournament seven times in the '90s. The success, however, came to a grinding halt in 1997-98, when the team staggered to a 14-17 record and was racked by internal dissension. A faction of players met secretly with athletic director DeLoss Dodds to complain about the coaching staff, and some of them openly discussed transferring. "It was a shambles," recalls Oran. "You just knew it was going to get ugly."
It did. On March 13, 1998, days after the team's season ended, freshman guard Luke Axtell, a native of Austin, declared his intention to transfer. In what Axtell's family believes was petty retaliation, Penders suspended Axtell from the team four days later and told the press it was for academic reasons—never mind that the season was already over and that Axtell's grades did not warrant suspension.
According to Dodds, Penders told him that in order to justify the suspension to the public, he planned to send a copy of Axtell's academic reports to local media outlets, a blatant violation of Axtell's privacy rights. "I didn't try and dissuade Tom," says Dodds. "I flat out told him not to do it." Penders vigorously denies that such a conversation with Dodds took place.
On March 18, while Penders was vacationing on St. Martin in the Caribbean, Axtell's academic progress reports were faxed to two Austin radio stations and read over the air. That led the Axtells to file a $50,000 lawsuit against Capstar Texas Limited Partnership, the parent company of radio station KVET, which aired the report. That, in turn, opened a window on the plight of assistant coaches.