A Partial History of Illini Hoops Recruiting

Illinisports held discussions with several people who have been on the inside of UI basketball for many years and presents his findings. Today is the final part of this series.

All the while Harv Schmidt was trying to survive a concerted boycott, and while Lou Henson was struggling to defeat Bobby Knight's Indiana teams and other powerhouses with second list players while living closely within NCAA recruiting rules to prevent further major NCAA sanctions, other programs were testing the limits of those rules. The post season and TV money was getting increasingly enticing; national exposure led to power, prestige and financial security for those who won the most.

So recruiters were driving wedges through the loopholes within the rules. They figured, quite correctly, that if they could keep their activities secret and keep everyone pacified and silent during any NCAA investigation, they could do anything they wanted to recruit top players.

There has never been a law that is so all-inclusive that no confusion or compromise can possibly exist. Some creative individual eager for personal advancement will find a loophole or exception for every law ever created. Indeed, perhaps the only law of Nature that has no exception is the law that states, "Every other law has an exception."

Thus, especially as college basketball became more and more lucrative and competitive, the NCAA found itself hampered in its effort to control its members. Whenever an illegality was discovered, new rules were created specifically to address the new competitive imbalance and restrict the potential for cheating.

There is no need for any rules if everyone lives an honest life. The massive and highly confusing tome that is the NCAA rule book is a monument to an attempt to control the exceptions creative cheaters have discovered over the years. But this is like the joke about the Dutch boy who tried to stop a leak in a dike by putting his finger in the hole. Eventually, he ran out of fingers.

We talked earlier about how Tony Yates practically lived with Audie Matthews while recruiting him. His behavior was common at the time, although it was new to Illinois. Aggressive recruiters had learned that impressionable high school youths were appreciative of attention, and the more contacts they could make, the better chance they had of signing the players they wanted.

Thus, the NCAA had no choice but to limit a coach's number and type of contacts with recruits to prevent the extremes that could serve as a recruiting advantage. Limits were placed both on personal contacts and phone contacts. Of course, there presently is no limit on email and text messaging, and rival recruiters are contacting top recruits constantly through methods unavailable just a few years ago. Undoubtedly, the NCAA will soon try to limit the computer and cell phone options so those who don't like using them or can't afford them will not be at a competitive disadvantage.

One big problem the NCAA addressed back in the 1970's was part-time jobs. In an effort to consider fairness for all parts of the country, the NCAA eventually had to bar athletes from holding down jobs while school is in session. On the surface, offering jobs makes sense because all athletes need spending money during college. And blending scholarship aid with job money allowed schools to hold the line on spending for athletic scholarships.

Unfortunately, a job at Illinois didn't pay as well as jobs in some other locales. For example, the Hollywood movie industry pays massive salaries to unionized employees. There is an unsubstantiated rumor that Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul Jabbar) never accepted a scholarship at UCLA. Rather, by joining a film cutter's union, he could make $100.00 per hour or fraction of an hour. If true, theoretically Alcindor could have paid his college expenses and still had plenty left over for incidentals by working periodically through the year. The state of Michigan auto industry was another example of how unionized labor could offer athletes significant salaries for part-time work. And few opportunities were more lucrative than provided by the racehorse industry in Kentucky.

It is always possible a business man loyal to his school might pay his athlete employee even if he didn't work the hours claimed. There is little the NCAA can do to stop this except in situations like Illinois' Slush Fund when proof of cheating was available. The NCAA punishes severely anyone paying for services not rendered, but they rarely know about it. By limiting the times an athlete could work, the NCAA sought to slow the opportunities for cheating.

Of course, this also restricted the opportunites for financially needy athletes to obtain spending money necessary for their living expenses. As is usually the case, the innocent ones with integrity are punished for the crimes of the few. But without any real power to govern their membership, the NCAA just reacts to provable complaints and hopes everyone else is being honest.

Recruiting practices of some schools, if successful, are copied and often improved upon by other schools. For many years, there has been a gradual increase in the amount of money spent wining and dining prospective recruits on their official visits. This favored rich over poor, of course, but everyone felt at a disadvantage if they didn't offer more expensive meals, luxury housing, transportation for parents or family representatives to and from campus, and other perks to influence a player's decision. Ultimately, the University of Oregon and its Nike benefactor began spending so much money on private airplanes and other luxuries that the NCAA had to step in and limit what could be done for recruits during their visits.

\ Originally, athletes received illegal benefits directly into their pockets. But rival recruiters soon realized that more indirect offerings would be harder to catch and prove. So parents of athletes were offered jobs, vehicles, equipment, and even housing. Coaches of the athletes were often offered perks to help entice their players to a particular school. Third parties such as "financial advisors" and "street agents" were provided inducements that were, in part, then supposed to be given to the athletes.

College athletes are declared ineligible when they hire a sports agent to represent them. However, lawyers, financial experts, and others who function as agents but not labeled as agents are free to invest in players without reprisal. Claiming "pre-existing relationships", these glorified agents are befriending young athletes with superstar potential, offering them shoes, meals, money, vehicles, etc. to gain their trust and then controlling where they attend school and when they declare for the NBA draft. The NCAA appears powerless to investigate let along punish such wealthy benefactors, perhaps out of fear of possible litigation.

Most of these illegalities have gone on with a few renegade schools for many years. But each year, more schools are tempted to cheat as job security of coaches becomes more tenuous and financial perks for their schools become more immense for those who win. Every once in awhile someone is caught, like the time a package addressed to Chris Mills' father and sent by the University of Kentucky out of Eddie Sutton's office was accidently opened in transit. The $1000.00 cash was apparently in return for Mills' enrollment at Kentucky. But this is likely just the tip of the iceberg.

Perhaps the benchmark for illegality occurred recently with the University of Michigan. Discovered accidently because of a grand jury investigation of a "street agent" with Michigan ties, some members of the "Fab Five" Michigan basketball team of the early 1990's were given between $100,000 and $500,000 or more to play basketball. Observers were shocked by these revelations, and perhaps the amounts are atypical for college basketball. But there is no doubt some athletes and their handlers, desirous of making the best deals possible, might now see this escalation in the value of top players as a frame of reference when negotiating with corrupt schools. It appears to be a seller's market.

When Roy Williams left Kansas for North Carolina, it was discovered that he had provided for graduating seniors at Kansas to receive small sums of money upon completion of their careers. Supposedly, Kansas thought this should be legal since the athletes no longer had any eligibility. The NCAA likely will give Kansas only a slap-on-the-wrist punishment, in part for the small size of the gifts and possibly in part for Kansas' cushy association with the NCAA dating to Walter Byers' earliest days.

However, there is a rule that says even graduated athletes cannot receive extra benefits unavailable to nonathletes. What Kansas was doing, in essence, was providing "deferred income" similar to arrangements common in professional sport contracts. It will never be known if Kansas promised these payments when recruiting their players. But it would be an easy temptation if a school thought it could get away with it. Even if Kansas was simply unaware of possible illegality, you can bet some other school will look at this situation and adapt it to their recruiting needs.

Kansas coach Bill Self was accused of more than 20 "minor violations" while coaching at Illinois, all self-reported by the Illini. One of these was the accusation that Self encouraged a wealthy supporter of the program to provide a large donation to a local AAU program. It just so happened this AAU coach is connected closely with Peoria athletes including superstar Shaun Livingston, who later signed to play at Duke before being a high draft choice in the NBA. And he also has a high school sophomore son who was invited to Kansas' "Midnight Madness" by Self. Perhaps Self truly cared for that particular AAU program and only wished to help. But a goal of gaining a recruiting advantage cannot be disproved.

Jim Calhoun at UConn is notorious for pushing the envelope in recruiting. He was a primary reason why the NCAA stopped allowing independent travelling basketball teams from the AAU, Athletes In Action, and several others from playing preseason exhibitions against college teams.

Calhoun contracted with teams coached by the same AAU coaches who operated high school teams with superstars on their rosters to play preseason exhibitions with his varsity charges. This arrangement was a financial windfall for the AAU coaches, and not surprisingly UConn successfully recruited a couple of their best players including Rudy Gay.

It wasn't a direct payment to an athlete, but it was paying for a recruit nonetheless. Of course, the NCAA hadn't considered this spinning of their rules and was unable to punish UConn for their activities. So the NCAA put another finger in the dike and now only permits exhibitions between Division 1A schools and those in lower divisions to prevent the appearance of corruption.

It is practically impossible to describe all the possible recruiting illegalities in college athletics and how this problem has evolved exponentially over time. But by the year 2005, the entire face of college basketball had changed remarkably since the 1940's.

We now have wealthy shoe companies who have gained immense power and turn even grade school athletes with potential into professionals by providing "gifts" of shoes, clothing and other perks. We have a National Basketball Association that offers journeymen pros millions of dollars to ride their benches and megamillions to superstars. And we have coaches who are receiving million dollar contracts, some of it provided by the sponsorship of shoe companies, to win at all costs.

We now have summer AAU ball that is completely out of the NCAA's control. The NCAA cannot regulate the behavior of summer AAU coaches because they are affiliated with no schools. Shoe companies can legally offer these coaches money and travel expenses to big exposure tournaments around the country in exchange for using their equipment. Some say this financial windfall for AAU coaches, some of whom have little understanding of basketball but who wish to ride the prosperous coattails of superstars who play for them, can be used as an inducement to direct players toward colleges sponsored with millions of dollars by the same shoe companies. This would make perfect business sense to a shoe company, but only the shoe companies and individual coaches can decide how to proceed. The NCAA has no choice but to permit it even though the potential for corruption is vast.

Thus, the evolution of college basketball from a peach basket utilized by Dr. James Naismith to a multimilliion dollar industry glorified in song and story by "March Madness" has also seen the evolution of complex and occasionally corrupt recruiting practices that are practically impossible to regulate.

Illinois Athletic Director Ron Guenther has insisted on honesty among his coaches due to the previous runins with the NCAA. The most recent "major" penalty imposed on the football team for being unable to prevent an individual Illinois fan and contributor from offering illegal benefits to an athlete from his own high school has made the Illini even more vulnerable.

Even though Illinois was given the minimum penalty possible, it was placed on 1 year probation and a five year 'watch list'. Any further illegality during that time can subject Illinois to massive punishments. All it would take is for some enterprising deceiver like Bruce Pearl to come along and accuse the Illini of illegality, true or false, and the NCAA may believe them automatically. Given the immense competition that now exists within the Big Ten and nationally, anything is possible.

Thus, Illinois must continue to maintain honesty and integrity and hope it can compete with those who are less trustworthy. So far, given the excellent coaching of Bruce Weber, the Illini have held their own. But in the highly complex world of 21st century college basketball, Illinois will need to find athletes who are not corruptable and then recruit them to campus without extra inducements. There are a few great ones like this out there, but everyone is looking for them.

With four Big 10 championships and one glorious Final Four appearance in the last five years, perhaps the Illini have finally overcome all the hardships and restrictions they have endured trying to compete on even terms with other elite programs. Perhaps it truly is possible to win big with honesty and integrity in a world where intense competition forces some schools to take recruiting shortcuts. Perhaps the 21st Century belongs to the Illini. Perhaps.

Recruiting is a vital process within college athletics, and it is at least as competitive as the games themselves. It is hoped the entire system that is loved by so many will not destroy itself with the weight of its own corruption. That way, athletes and fans alike can continue to enjoy the exciting game of college basketball long into the future.

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