Big-name coaches open up about college basketball's problems and how to fix them
Roy Williams, Tom Izzo, Mark Few and Coach K offer their thoughts on college hoops' reputation problem
Nearly a month into a solid season replete with phenomenal play from freshmen Marvin Bagley III and Trae Young, 13 undefeated teams and the good publicity of enjoyable and attention-grabbing November tournaments, college basketball remains wounded by its most notorious offseason ever.
When the government and the FBI spend untold amounts of money and dedicate multiple years on a sting operation that leads to the arrests of 10 men within or connected to college basketball, a stain settles. What became public in September is the kind of story that is so far-reaching and unprecedented that it already has entered the history of college basketball,.
Ultimately, the people actually running the sport -- the head coaches -- also had to intervene. To little fanfare, that process has begun. The NABC announced on Nov. 16 an ad hoc committee that will seek to "address the pressing issues currently facing the sport" with the primary function of being an advisory entity "to develop a series of recommendations to present to the recently-formed NCAA Commission on College Basketball."
The committee is 15 coaches deep and includes some of college basketball's most accomplished names: Kentucky's John Calipari, Michigan State's Tom Izzo, Villanova's Jay Wright, Gonzaga's Mark Few, Notre Dame's Mike Brey, West Virginia's Bob Huggins and more. But these men are not dealing with a style-of-play issue or course-correcting graduation trends. They're going to try to curb the most egregious configurations of cheating. Anyone with a casual knowledge of major college athletics knows that's a practical impossibility. Short of that, what can the committee, rationally, be able to do?
CBS Sports spoke with Izzo, Few and North Carolina's coach Roy Williams at the PK80 Invitational last month to get clearer vision from some of the top names in the sport. Hall of Fame Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was also questioned on the topic.
"I don't think the game's a cesspool. I'll let you spend all afternoon with any 14 of my kids and you won't think this is a cesspool, I promise you."Roy Williams
"Are we going to be honest with ourselves? Are we going to BS each other?" Izzo said of the NABC committee. "Because the neat part about it is, if there's 20 people in the room, most of us know what's going on with everybody. Most of us. Are we going to open up, or are we going to be afraid to be honest? Do we care about the game, or do we care about ourselves? Can we come up with some things that are not the best for one team, one program, one shoe company? We always talk about what's doing what's best for the kids. If the kid's getting a benefit, it's best for him now, but is it best for him in the long run? What are you teaching him? What is he learning? I hope we're honest with each other and truly go in trying to do what's best for the game of basketball."
Few, who has lifted Gonzaga to sustained national relevance for nearly two decades, shared similar sentiments. He puts the onus on himself and other high-profile coaches to speak out about the cheaters in order to push them out of the sport. Promoting college basketball is essential too, but Few and others understand it's a bad look to not acknowledge, privately and publicly, what can be done to improve the sport's ethics and reputation. There's never been a better time than now.
"I do think there's a lot of great coaches in this profession who are good people and their voice probably needs to be heard," Few said. "I think it's one of those instances where you have to step aside whether it's league meetings or national meetings and, 'Well this is what's best for Gonzaga, we should do this' and just say, 'OK, I'm invested in this thing with my life, basically, we need to do this. And it might have a little bit of a negative effect on Gonzaga if we do this, but it's still the best thing for the game, period.' You guys (the media) need to do the same. It's all tied in."
The shock waves from the FBI fallout sparked a lot of dialogue among coaches. Not many spoke out against the environment around them, even among those who believe their programs are clean through and through. This is partly why some public perception of the sport is that it's run by crooked men taking advantage of players and breaking laws in the process. Every coach I spoke to was sure to point out that college basketball has its issues but that the blow-back has been overblown.
"We're going to do a lot for the 10 percent," Izzo said. "And there's 10 percent of problems in every walk of life. Yours, religion, doctors, lawyers. There's some problems with everybody. For some reason it gets magnified in college basketball. I think that is unfair."
The public nature of college basketball is reason for such reaction. The sport is followed by millions of fans and alumni. As coaching salaries continue to increase, players continue to be vastly limited in their own money-making opportunities. Those contrasting optics entangle a situation that's pushed coaches to defend the greater amateurism model, which only makes more noticeable the hesitation to speak out and be specific on the rule-skirting and -breaking that's brought the sport to this moment.
Roy Williams is still coming to terms with what happened in September.
"You've got 351 schools," the 30-year head-coaching veteran said. "Everyone's got three assistants. That's 1,300, 1,400 coaches. We had four assistants (arrested). And if they can get some more they'll get some more. There may be some more, I'm not saying there's not, but that's a pretty small percentage. I've had some people, including writers, criticize me because I said I was shocked. I was shocked. Shocked at the FBI involvement, shocked at the extent of the investigation. I think we have a small percentage of people that intentionally break rules.
"It's what we are in our world. You take any industry and there are some people doing things they know are not right but they're still trying to do it to gain an advantage. That's the human race. I don't think we need to throw the whole thing in the ocean and start all over again."
Williams was self-aware in the conversation, making reference to his seven instances when the NCAA has investigated him, most recentlyin an academic scandal spanning 20 years.
"I really do hate what we see here, that it colors every other coach," he said. "In my situation, with NCAA investigations and everything, I've been investigated seven times. Seven committees came out and said, 'Roy didn't know what was going on, didn't have anything to do with it.' Yet there were people out there in the public, especially if there were fans of other teams, they thought I was involved. Don't you think you think you'd feel pretty good if you were investigated seven times and nobody found anything?
Are we going to be honest with ourselves? Are we going to BS each other?Tom Izzo
"I went through this for four years. For four years, every time I'd see somebody I was thinking, He thinks I'm dirty. … That's the hardest thing. It's something that, my entire life, my integrity has been the most important thing. And for four years I've had to go through with it. That's the world we live in."
Williams, perhaps because of his attachment to the academic scandal, is not on the NABC committee.
"I don't think the game's a cesspool, and yet you'll read a lot of articles that say the game's a cesspool," he said. "I'll let you spend all afternoon with any 14 of my kids, and you won't think this is a cesspool, I promise you."
Few and Izzo specifically are calling on their contemporaries to become more vocal about the game they love, the profession that's made them millionaires. A culture of whispering over wrong-doers is in part what got college basketball to this point.
"I do care about the game, care about what happens to it," Izzo said. "I don't think it's bad, but I do think there's got to be adjustments made. For the most part you have an idea with each (school that cheats). You could probably pick and choose the programs, so could I. So you have an idea. I can't worry about what the outside people are thinking on everything. For some reason the sport gets scrutinized like everybody's an expert. How do they know? I took my compliance girl on a recruiting trip two years ago. She was blown away. Nobody goes on those. How does anyone know?
"The people making the rules on these committees, they're never making any trips. They don't know what's going on. I think the coaches gotta do more. I do. We've got to spend a little more time with each other. Recruiting's so screwed up now that everything's competition. I liked it better when you went to a recruiting thing and all the coaches went out and you talked and it was so civil. Now we don't have time to talk because we have to go to so many different places."
Izzo drives home a point that Few was sure to make multiple times. The primary concern with Emmert's commission is that it's populated by people that, for the most part, haven't been involved with college basketball for a long time, if ever. The NABC committee hopes to help delineate what rules changes will and won't work.
"Sometimes, people outside our profession have these wonderful ideas that aren't very practical in our world," Few said, later adding, "I think everything's on the table right now. You've got a lot of people that aren't in a world, and a lot of good people, so I'm sure they're throwing out a lot of good things that need to be vetted."
Something the coaches would like to have strongly considered: a massive reduction on the rule book. Williams suggested cutting it by a whopping 90 percent. In simplifying the rules as much as possible, they say, you can have more black and white when it comes to rule breaking. Williams, Few and Izzo all agree that, in their ideal situation, a convicted rule breaker would suffer from much tougher punishment than the Committee on Infractions even doles out now.
"Right now I think you have too many people rationalizing that, 'Everybody's doing and if I don't, they're going to and what's the worst they can do to me? Slap a show-cause or something?'" Few said. "No, it needs to be: Ban the whole staff for five years, ban the school from going to the postseason. We can't have this 'I didn't know what was going on' or whatever."
Williams is in favor of permanent banishment from Division I.
"You make a mistake, you know it's a mistake, you do it intentionally? You're done," he said.
It needs to be: ban the whole staff for five years, ban the school from going to the postseason.Mark Few
Used to be that some coaches would report suspected -- or sometimes even independently confirmed -- cheating to the NCAA. In talking to a number of coaches in recent months, that tactic seems less viable in 2017 than it was a decade or two ago.
"They talk about self-policing, talk about it a lot," Izzo said. "If the NCAA and even the FBI has to go for two years, there's some things that are professionally done now. Am I going to accuse you of cheating? There's been a lot of times when I've picked up the phone and called a coach over something I didn't like, and there's been a couple times when a coach has called me, mad at my assistant. I think that's cool. I think that's really good. But I don't think we know, either. The hearsay is screwed up. A certain coach gets a guy, well it's 'because he cheated.' That's baloney. Some of these guys are working their tail off."
The FBI's probe seems to have dispirited coaches all the more with the NCAA's juridical setup. If the NCAA and college basketball are actually serious about cleaning itself up, coaches need to give up leverage in the event they knowingly and severely break the rules to gain an advantage on their competition.
"I think there has to be somewhere where you can go to voice your concerns," Few said. "Obviously I think maybe we all, we should probably all subject ourselves. Give [the NCAA] subpoena power so there's a stronger investigative piece. Because right now the NCAA has no juice. Maybe it's just, hey, as an NCAA coach, I sign up [to be subpoenaed if applicable]."
He's also putting onus on the media. Rumors of rulebreakers and secondhand scuttlebutt fly constantly among those involved in college basketball and that includes the press.
"Part of the real world, when high-level bad guys are doing stuff, there's an investigative piece," Few said. "The journalism side of it is the one that ends up, and they don't hide behind the whole, 'Well, I could never write that. It'd be libel.' And that's kind of how our society monitors itself. Whether it's with groping, whether it's with uranium sold to other countries, whether it's with collusion. That's not politicians telling on each other. I think it's kind of tied in. I don't know if it's just a coach running in and saying, 'Jimmy did that' is just the answer."
The NABC's committee comes at a crucial time for the sport. Some of the biggest names are almost certainly within three to seven years of retirement. Will all their fame, power and influence, will they seek to enact change that brings the sport to a better, cleaner, more transparent reality than what it's become in the 21st century?
"I heard Mike Krzyzewski talk about getting a czar to run college basketball," Izzo said. "Maybe there's some truth to that. I don't know who's running it. It seems like everybody's got their hands in on these players, even on campuses."
Krzyzewski's been a vocal proponent for years of college basketball installing a commissioner. However, when asked about the FBI probe and how it's affected college basketball, he showed a different state of mind than his colleagues.
"To be quite frank with you I think we've passed that phase," the Duke coach said at a news conference at PK80. "The start of this season has been fantastic for college basketball. The Champions Classic, the interest level, you guys are writing more positive pieces about the game. Keep that up a little bit. I think there's a great interest in the game because of all these tournaments, whether it be Maui or the Barclays.tournament. We're trying to start all new things that will keep up interest.
"That's why this tournament (PK80) ... it came at an appropriate time. You had two tournaments at one place with all these teams and we had four top 10 teams playing tonight. I think we're in good shape with college basketball. I like where we're at. I hope that commission does a good job in seeing how we can change this even better."
In light of winning the Nike-run unprecedented preseason tournament, Duke's coach was reflective on the event and the switch back to conversation that's almost entirely about basketball. He is right in that regard, but it also speaks to the tendencies that concern other high-profile coaches. There is room for promotion and opprobrium. Izzo pointed to the "middle men" that have muddied the waters of college basketball recruiting.
"Guys show me texts from agents and people, and it just keeps going and going and going," Izzo said. "I don't care who you are, I think those distractions hurt the game. I'm going to be interested to be in this."
All coaches interviewed said they have as much pride in their career and field as the day they began. Their power and presence has increased, though, and with that comes more opportunity and responsibility than they've ever really had. In committee meetings and at press conferences, college coaches have a moment in the shape of a season to evoke change and speak to what plagues the sport. Will they seize it, or will they fall back on the habits that brought college basketball to this point in the first place?
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