Purdue’s run through the NCAA tournament is one reason why college basketball is must-see TV every March.
But by coincidence this tournament also showed the worst side of college basketball in prime time during the Sweet 16.
Auburn. Kentucky. Houston. North Carolina. The field comprising the 2019 Midwest Regional has left a stench on the game in recent years, whether it was fake classes or coaches who have a habit of not following recruiting rules.
The fact that Auburn’s Bruce Pearl, Kentucky’s John Calipari and Houston’s Kelvin Sampson are working, and thriving today, is shameful. Meanwhile, coaches who have good reputations like Tim Miles at Nebraska, Phil Martelli at Saint Joseph’s (Pa.) and Fran Dunphy at Temple are looking for work because they didn’t win enough.
While there’s no evidence that Roy Williams knew about the fake classes that kept North Carolina athletes eligible, the mere fact that the Tar Heels got off scot-free two years ago because – to paraphrase the New York Times – the NCAA determined no rules were broken – may be why the FBI and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York are now attempting to police college basketball.
As thick as the NCAA rule book is – if I stood on it I could look Purdue’s 7-foot-3 center Matt Haarms in the eye – it’s difficult to believe that there’s not one page prohibiting phony classes to keep athletes eligible.
Wonder why Purdue has had just two Elite Eight appearances in the 21st century despite its long-standing tradition of college basketball success (a Big Ten-best 24 conference championships, NBA No. 1 draft picks and Hall of Fame coaches Piggy Lambert and Gene Keady)?
Look no further than an unwillingness to step into the grey area of college basketball. Take the recruitment of Romeo Langford for example. Purdue is a Nike school, and Langford – for better or worse – tied his shoe fortunes to adidas.
Had another cheating coach, Rick Pitino, not lost his job, Langford was probably bound for Louisville and not Indiana. This is not to imply Archie Miller and his staff at Indiana did anything improper. In fact, Miller landed Langford in part because the rabid Hoosier fan base made it difficult for Langford to go anywhere else.
So what’s the solution? Start with eliminating selective enforcement by the NCAA. The North Carolina situation brings to mind an old joke by Hall of Fame coach Jerry Tarkanian, who once said the NCAA was so mad at Kentucky that it would give Cleveland State another year of probation.
Make it difficult for coaches with major violations on their records to get another job within a five-year period. If UCLA, for example, wants to hire Rick Pitino it would be ineligible for the NCAA tournament for the length of the coach’s probationary period.
A third idea, which would need the NBA’s cooperation, would be to eliminate one and done players. If the next Romeo Langford wants to go from high school to the NBA, why should he be prevented from pursuing his dream? In turn, this would reduce the number of players worth the risk of NCAA probation.
No single rule will level the playing field for the Purdues of college basketball but how popular would March Madness become if more than three or four teams had a realistic chance to win a national championship?
Kenny Thompson is an award-winning journalist who writes a weekly sports column for The Paper of Montgomery County.