College basketball corruption trial: Ex-USC assistant coach Tony Bland avoids prison, gets two years probation
Bland is the first of three assistant coaches who pled guilty to be sentenced this week
NEW YORK -- The first college coach sentenced in the FBI's high-profile case against corruption and bribery in college basketball will not be going to prison.
Former Southern California assistant coach Tony Bland was sentenced Wednesday morning to two years probation and 100 hours of community service after previously pleading guilty to accepting thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for steering players to LOYD Inc., a budding sports management company guided by co-conspirator Christian Dawkins.
At the time, Dawkins, Bland and many others eventually arrested had no idea LOYD Inc. was being funded by the government in an effort to build an unprecedented FBI case.
As he stood to say his peace, Bland had to pause multiple times, due to crying, while giving a short statement to U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos. Bland apologized to the prosecuting attorneys, his family, his community and the players and recruits he misled. In the end, Ramos saw Bland as a relatively respectable upstanding citizen whose time would not be best served behind bars.
"I'm excited it's over, I appreciate Judge Ramos for the outcome and giving me another chance, a second chance," Bland told CBS Sports outside the courthouse. "I'm just looking forward to rebuilding from my mistakes, and from this moment on, spending the rest of my life trying to prove and help and reverse the stigma that came from this."
Prosecutors were seeking 6-12 months in prison for Bland. Upon getting in the elevator after sentencing, Bland admitted the moments prior were the most nervous he'd ever been. In recent months, he's been working with at-risk children in greater Los Angeles.
"I've been doing a lot of work with nonprofit community centers, giving my time back, helping to develop young men and women," Bland said. "Helping to develop them inside the classroom, outside the classroom. I come from [a tough] background and I know exactly what it looks like."
That tough background, and Bland having navigated his life around any crime because of it, wound up being one key reason why Ramos decided not to put him behind bars.
While speaking on Bland's sentencing, Ramos noted two dozen letters written in support of Bland and a long line of testimonials as to his personal character. Ramos also said he chose probation over prison time due to Bland overcoming a poor childhood -- his father in jail because of gangs, his mother a drug addict, his grandmother a paranoid schizophrenic; Bland spent some of his childhood living in a crackhouse -- and the fact he had no prior record and that this was not a violent crime.
Ramos was sure to note that he sees "young men of color every day in this courtroom, unable to overcome those backgrounds. ... I am convinced to a moral certainty that I will not see Mr. Bland again, at least not in this courtroom."
"This is a fall from grace that is almost Shakespearean," Bland's attorney, Jeffrey Lichtman, said.
Bland was one of 10 men initially charged -- four of them college assistants, all of whom pleaded guilty this year -- in the FBI's probe against fraud and bribery in college basketball in September 2017. Bland's guilty plea of conspiracy to commit bribery came 16 months later, in January.
Bland -- who admitted to accepting $4,100, not the $13,000 the government portrayed during April's court case -- never went to trial, unlike Dawkins and former Adidas advisor Merl Code, both of whom were found guilty of bribery in April but were acquitted on multiple other charges. Both men are in the process of appealing their convictions in that case and the fraud case from October 2018.
The assistant coaches have been mostly absent from this story since their arrests, subsequent firings from their schools and ultimate guilty pleas. They never appeared during the trials and haven't spoken publicly, though wiretapped conversations and video evidence of them brought up in the October and April trials went a long way to helping the government land its wins by way of multiple convictions against Dawkins, Code and former Adidas director Jim Gatto.
As for Bland, surreptitious video from The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas hotel, captured in late July 2017, showed him meeting with Jeff D'Angelo, an undercover FBI agent; Marty Blazer, an undercover government informant; and Dawkins. Bland was one of nearly 10 coaches who agreed to meet the men in the midst of the always-hectic Vegas recruiting swing.
In addition to incriminating wiretapped phones calls between Bland and Dawkins, April's trial also had the government show the jury video of Bland in a Los Angeles restaurant on Aug. 31, 2017, meeting with a separate FBI undercover agent -- who went by the alias of Jill Bailey -- in addition to Dawkins and financial advisor Munish Sood, who was initially charged, but flipped, and testified for the government that the meeting was to discuss future arrangements with USC players and prospects.
In that video, Bland is seen discussing nefarious recruitments and, when the topic of navigating USC's players to Dawkins' budding management company, LOYD Inc., says, "Do that stuff. Yeah, yeah."
"We have a couple opportunities where you've got us a gold mine over here, so we've had this opportunity but it's not been this clean," Bland says on the video. "And from a guy (Dawkins) that I'm really -- that I trust."
On Wednesday, the government revealed that on that very same day, Bland had a scheduled/routine meeting with USC's compliance department.
"The players Mr. Bland coached and were recruiting were hurt in that their NCAA careers were put in jeopardy," prosecutor Eli Mark said.
Mark said that Bland's lawbreaking and bribery was "serious, thoughtful, deliberate." He asked for appropriate sentencing as a deterrent, or a warning shot, to all of college basketball and made references to the notion that cheating in recruiting was so widespread, a strict sentencing would send a needed message.
But Lichtman told Ramos that the severe likelihood that Bland, and the other assistants charged in this case, would never coach again was deterrent enough. These assistants are radioactive in the eyes of NCAA schools.
"He is a pariah in the only area he's ever known, which is basketball," Lichtman said. "He's 38 years old. He's finished."
Despite the public taint on his reputation, Bland told CBS Sports that he's had consistent support from many in the coaching community ever since his arrest in 2017.
"I had texts from Coach (Steve] Fisher this morning, telling me that loved me, he and his family," he said. "Coach (Jim) Boeheim has been supportive, Coach (Mike) Hopkins. Coach Dutch (Brian Dutcher), the current coach at San Diego State. Every coach that knows me on a personal level, they've been 100-percent supportive and reassuring they're here for me and have my back throughout everything."
Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Times published a victim impact statement written by USC's Michael Blanton, the school's vice president for professional and ethics. Blanton was also a government witness in building its case against Dawkins and Code.
"The actions of Mr. Bland and his co-conspirators have significantly damaged the reputation of USC as an institution, the USC athletic department and its men's basketball program," Blanton wrote. "Further, their actions have prompted an NCAA investigation that may result in penalties."
Lichtman spent nearly five minutes on Wednesday explaining to Ramos how USC as an institution has a sordid history of NCAA rules violations, and that Bland wasn't some singular stain on the legacy of the school.
"It's not exactly a paragon of virtue in the NCAA's landscape," Lichtman said of USC, as he made reference to other transgression the school has gone through, including the current college admissions bribery scandal that continues to make national headlines.
Lichtman also pointed out that Bland was replaced on USC's staff by Eric Mobley, who is the father of two five-star prospects in 2019 and 2020. It's a legal move, but a transparent one and something that's happened for decades in college basketball.
"They were roundly criticized," Lichtman said of USC's hiring of Mobley. "It was slimy."
No one knows a timeline on the NCAA's investigation with USC or with any of the other two-dozen-plus schools that were roped into this saga over the past year and a half.
What does Bland think at ever having that shot again, even if a long time from now?
"I'm going to always be a coach at heart," Bland said. "I'm a coach from when I walk out of this courtroom. I'm going to see something happening in the street and think of basketball. So, I don't know. I'll keep it open. But right now I'm so happy that this is behind me and ready to get back to my family and start the next chapter of my life."
Sentencing in this case is not over: Former Arizona assistant Book Richardson is scheduled to meet with Judge Ramos on Thursday. Former Auburn assistant Chuck Person was scheduled to go to trial this month, the third and final one in this wide-ranging investigation, but recently pleaded guilty as well; his sentencing will happen in the summer.
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