As things wrap up in New York at the Federal conspiracy trials of three men accused of defrauding universities by delivering them coveted basketball recruits, no one has taken a bigger hit than N.C. State, the only school to be directly and explicitly implicated in testimony.
Adidas runner T.J. Gassnola’s testimony that an Adidas executive delivered N.C. State assistant coach Orlando Early $40,000 to give Dennis Smith Jr. remains the clearest-cut example of a coaching staff buying a player (with Adidas’ money) to be heard in court, even if Kansas’ reputation has taken a beating from a mountain of circumstantial evidence (the same would be true of Louisville if this weren’t already Louisville’s reputation).
When the FBI charges were first announced we were promised a wide-ranging and far-reaching investigation into the shady side of the sport, one that has yet to materialize. The scope of the trial, and the investigation as we know it, remains narrow, and its legal justification for fraud charges remains flimsy: the schools were defrauded when they unknowingly accepted recruits whose NCAA eligibility had been compromised – even though they then went on to profit mightily from those recruits.
Still, the naked greed and cynicism that has been on display hasn’t been good for college basketball, despite what Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski may say about its irrelevance. (“It is a world I’m not familiar with,” Williams said. “A blip on the radar,” Krzyzewski said.)
Whether through delicate semantics or willful ignorance, they may indeed believe their lives and programs are insulated from what has been discussed at trial, but surely their bubbles are not so hermetically sealed that they cannot see Nike’s payments to Marvin Bagley Jr. to support his AAU team featuring Marvin Bagley III for what they are or Nassir Little’s name coming up in the FBI investigation, even if the trial has subsequently made it appear likely that Little was unaware he was being marketed as a commodity.
Even if they are given the benefit of the entire doubt that their programs are completely and entirely sanitized for your protection, even the most lunkheaded weekend tourist in the college basketball world will hear the stories of players being bought and sold, of AAU coaches with their hands out, of fountains of shoe money, of everything Gassnola talked about on the stand -- and Krzyzewski spoke so eloquently about when news of the FBI investigation broke. If all of this was just a blip on the radar, why the need for the Rice Commission and its mixed bag of reforms?
There’s no reason to doubt the veracity of Gassnola, who may be a sleaze who cut a deal to testify against his co-conspirators but faces many years in a Federal penitentiary if it turns out he perjured himself. And even though Early and Mark Gottfried are long gone from N.C. State, it’s still damaging testimony for the university – and for athletic director Debbie Yow, whose mistake was trusting Gottfried, to paraphrase Butch Davis under similar circumstances.
(Somehow, even as the FBI whacked N.C. State with a subpoena, Gottfried was hired at Cal State-Northridge by a university president who may be the single most credulous academic executive in the country. It wouldn’t be a shock at this point to find out Northridge’s entire endowment has been invested with a Nigerian prince just waiting to get his millions out of the country.)
There’s a similarity there, with Davis, between what happened at N.C. State in basketball and what happened at North Carolina in football. The Tar Heels were so desperate to be relevant in football that they pretended not to see Davis bring in the notorious John Blake and then paid the price when Blake and Marvin Austin brought the program down. After N.C. State’s search to replace Sidney Lowe spiraled nowhere, Yow was desperate enough to take a chance on Gottfried. The early returns were good. The long-term impact may be devastating.
Knowingly or unknowingly, Yow let the Three Stripes crew run wild at N.C. State – no one argued harder to stay with Adidas when N.C. State was shopping its apparel deal around than the basketball staff – a clown show dumb enough to hand over a wad of cash to a coach even though Smith Sr. coached his son’s AAU team (like, say, Bagley Jr.), while also somehow managing to involve Eric Leak, the Forrest Gump of N.C. State noncompliance. All of that for Smith’s single frustrating season at the university, one that inadvertently hastened Gottfried’s departure.
Whether the NCAA decides to act on the testimony or not, the bill is coming due.
At a time when the legacy Yow has built at N.C. State has never been stronger, with a football program on the verge of national relevance and a full slate of nonrevenue and Olympic sports that are consistently competitive in the ACC and beyond – a 180 degree turn from her arrival, accomplished through hard work and diligence despite her persistent critics within the fanbase – a basketball trial where N.C. State is the legal “victim”has the potential to bring it all crashing down.