“We have your playbook. Our investigation is ongoing and we are conducting additional interviews as we speak. … If you are involved in this, call us. It will be better for you to call us than for us to call you.” – William Sweeney, New York FBI assistant director in charge, announcing arrests and a continuing probe into corruption in college basketball recruiting
Years ago, I was having lunch with a longtime SEC assistant basketball coach – not at Georgia – who listed which programs in the conference cheated and how they did it.
So, I asked him, why don’t you clean guys blow the whistle?
He just shrugged back. That’s not what’s done. But he sure wished other people would: The media, the NCAA …
Or the FBI, as it turns out.
The bombshell news broke Tuesday morning that the feds had been conducting a three-year probe into recruiting corruption, with four assistant coaches arrested, including one at Auburn, and one who recently had been at South Carolina. By the time you read this, Louisville coach Rick Pitino could have “former” in front of his title, thanks to allegations that were uncovered. Bruce Pearl, with already one strike against him from his days at Tennessee, might be in trouble now at Auburn. And as Sweeney indicated, other schools and coaches could be in danger. Or already are.
Georgia coach Mark Fox, apparently, knows he won’t be one of them.
“I’m not surprised,” Fox said when asked hours later about the story. “It confirms what we probably already felt like was happening our game.”
Practice begins this week around the country, so teams were holding media days Tuesday and Wednesday when all this news broke. Auburn and Arizona, among others, canceled those media days in the wake of the arrests of one assistant coach at each school. Georgia, with its coach perfectly content to address the news, happily kept its schedule intact.
“We’re going to do this job in an honorable way,” Fox said. “We’re not going to put the university at risk.”
Fox always has been accused of not recruiting well enough at Georgia, and there has been merit to some of the criticism. But the answer to those critics always has been a nebulous, wink-wink, wish-we-could-tell-you-more: Fox doesn’t cheat, Fox doesn’t play the AAU game, etc. It was always hard as a media member because we have to deal in facts, rather than innuendo.
Now we have some more facts.
This column could run forever if we included all the salacious stories and rumors we’ve heard from various basketball coaches, reporters and staff members. But hearing something and proving it are really hard unless the perpetrators are really stupid or there is an aggrieved party. (Prime example: the case of former Ole Miss football player Laremy Tunsil.)
Fox, by sticking his neck out the way he did Tuesday, knows he would be opening himself up to blowback if he or his program actually had something to hide. Apparently Fox doesn’t think he has anything to worry about. And ESPN analyst Jeff Goodman, when I interviewed him earlier this year, said Fox was among the SEC coaches who wasn’t cheating and that should be considered a factor in evaluating his record.
The assumption by many is that everybody does it, but many in the business will tell you that’s simply not true.
Fox wasn’t the only coach who thought Tuesday might actually be a good day for college basketball. Many other reporters passed along hearing from anonymous coaches who were happy this was all coming out and hoped more would.
There’s also a reason that UGA has stuck with Fox all these years. The Jim Harrick era and the sanctions that ended it are still a fresh memory. Georgia wants to win in basketball, but not at the price of its soul.
Georgia’s struggles on the recruiting trail have eased. It’s not at the Kentucky-Florida level, but it’s at the best level it’s been since Fox arrived. Freshman Rayshaun Hammonds, rated in most people’s national top 50 this year, is the highest-rated recruit since Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Sophomore Tyree Crump and Jordan Harris were 4-star recruits, as were juniors Derek Ogbeide and Turtle Jackson.
Senior Yante Maten was a 3-star recruit in 2014, but Georgia beat out Indiana and Michigan State for him, so the signs were there he would be very good.
Who knows where this story will eventually lead. Maybe it’s a distant memory by the time the season arrives, and if Georgia loses too many games this year, fans will go back to complaining about the way Fox does and doesn’t procure his players.
But these events at least show this: Georgia basketball, Mark Fox and his staff have a standard. For now, that’s been vindicated.