|Frank Smith was an assistant at Dayton and Clemson before joining the NCAA. (Provided)|
Kevin Mitnick was once our country's most famous computer criminal. He hacked into systems of major corporations like Motorola and IBM, and allegedly also cracked the Pentagon and FBI. He was a fugitive for more than two years but eventually apprehended in 1995, at which point he confessed to four counts of wire fraud, two counts of computer fraud and one count of illegally intercepting a wire communication. He spent a little more than five years in prison. He was released in 2000.
And then he created Mitnick Security Consulting.
Mitnick basically started a business by convincing business leaders that it takes a hacker to stop a hacker. He went from one side of the issue to the other and succeeded because he understood how hackers hacked and knew how to catch or, even better, prevent them. Corporations now routinely hire Mitnick to expose people just like him. It's an approach that makes sense and has been, over the years, applied to lots of different lines of work.
Which brings me to Frank Smith and Ken Huber.
|More on NCAA investigators|
No, they are not hackers turned security consultants. But they are college basketball coaches turned NCAA investigators and two people who are, at least loosely, following the same career path as Mitnick. They both spent years as college assistants -- Smith at places like Dayton and Clemson; Huber at places like Gardner-Webb and Wright State -- before jumping to the so-called other side. They're the only two men on what used to be known as the NCAA's Basketball Focus Group. They're now essentially charged with using their previous career experiences to catch cheating college basketball programs and, in some cases, folks Smith and Huber used to call colleagues and still call friends.
And that got me wondering.
Was it a difficult career choice?
Has the move cost them friendships?
Is catching cheaters as hard as recruiting against cheaters?
I spent some time talking with Smith and Huber about these things this week. Their answers to those three questions (in order) were basically not at all, not really and, man, you don't even know.
"[This job] is a difficult task and an uphill battle," Huber said. "When I was a coach, I don't think I realized how difficult of a job it is. ... I don't want to say all coaches cheat or try to break the rules, but I do think most coaches try to go as far as they can into the gray area without crossing over a line. They are trying to find ways, and I think the common fan would be surprised at some of the ways coaches are trying to get around rules."
Some of those coaches happen to be friends.
Huber and Smith acknowledged as much without naming names.
And while they're both expected to recuse themselves from an investigation if it involves someone who or something that could constitute a perceived or real conflict of interest, they each said they're able to separate their current profession from their former lives and simply do their job without judging targets on a personal level. In fact, they said that's pretty much a requirement.
"In this profession there are going to be people who you come across and build relationships with who have not always done the right things," Smith said. "I kind of liken that to I love my brother to death, but he hasn't always done the right thing. But I still love my brother. You have to deal with that. But my job is to do what's best for college basketball, and I think I'd be doing the job a disservice if I didn't approach the job that way. And if you're not doing anything wrong, there's nothing to worry about anyway."
But coaches still worry.
At least a high percentage of them do.
They're constantly working angles, searching for loopholes and trying to create a competitive advantage by either bending or straight-up breaking the rules. Why? Because most of them believe their competitors are doing it and that they must also, to some degree, just to keep up. That's a common rationalization. Even the so-called clean guys at the high-major level are sometimes put in a position where they must, at the very least, turn their heads, cover their ears and cling to plausible deniability. But they still worry. What happened to Bruce Pearl makes them worry. What's happening to Billy Gillispie makes them worry. What could happen to almost anybody at any time makes them worry, and it is partly the job of Smith and Huber to make the rule-breakers worry more than they might've in years past.
Does it take a coach to catch a coach?
That's somewhat debatable on some level, I guess.
But it's an approach the NCAA has decided to at least try.
"Not everybody is going to do everything the right way all the time," Smith said. "If that was the case, they wouldn't need us."