Monday, August 29, 2011

So who was Dan Wolken referring to?

On Friday afternoon, the guys over at The Big Lead posted a terrific interview with Dan Wolken, currently a national columnist at The Daily who previously was the Memphis beat writer for the Commercial-Appeal.

If you are a college hoops fan, you have to check it out to see the blitzkrieg he unleashes on Bruce Pearl. But that isn't the only interesting part of the interview. Wolken also drops this bomb:

There's on particular program right now – an elite program that most fans wouldn’t ever guess – that everyone in basketball knows is straight-up paying guys. Will they get caught? I don't know, but the more this stuff gets exposed, the more we can shatter these ridiculous media-fueled notions about who's dirty and who isn't.
My first reaction to read this was similar to what Andy Hutchins had to say -- if "everyone in basketball" knows this, how come no one has gone Charles Robinson on them?

I asked that exact same question last year when the rumors about Anthony Davis getting paid $200,000 started floating around. I got responses from a number of writers, including Wolken. The bottom-line? Trying to get enough accurate information to be able to publish it is a difficult task. The people that are paying high school recruits are good at what they do. They don't leave a paper trail and they don't snitch on each other. Generally speaking, you need someone -- like Louis Johnson, the guy that was forced out of the loop by OJ Mayo -- to come forward, proffer the information and be willing to go on record.

Perhaps the bigger issue, however, is simply time. All of these guys have job responsibilities that go beyond investigative reporting. Wolken is a national columnists that writes about a multitude of sports and travels around the country going to events. Gary Parrish not only has his column at, he runs a radio show in Memphis. The same can be sad for Jeff Goodman and Mike DeCourcy and everyone else. Their job description doesn't allow them to spend 11 months working on one investigation, which is how long it took Robinson to finish the story on Miami and Nevin Shapiro.

I don't want it to sound like I'm kissing up to this group of writers, because it frustrates me more than anything to constantly hear about what goes on at this level of basketball without actually seeing the news get broken. But there is a reason for it.

Back to Wolken's interview, the more interesting question that most folks will want answered is "who?" Who is the squeaky clean program that is paying players?

Well, based on the way he phrased the statement -- "an elite program" -- I think we can assume that he is talking about a program that is not only a high-major team, but one that is consistently one of the best teams in the country and a constant force on the recruiting trail. Wolken also says that it is a team "most fans wouldn't ever guess", which should tell you about the reputation the program has.

We can eliminate a few elite programs off the bat because, frankly, no one believes they are clean. Kentucky and Memphis can be tossed out as they are both currently riddled with the questions that come with John Calipari. UConn can get thrown out the window as well, as they were just caught using agent to recruit a player. No one believes that coaches like Scott Drew and Bob Huggins are on the up-and-up, either.

There are a couple of other schools I think you can eliminate as well. In the sentence prior to Wolken's money quote, he references both Duke and North Carolina, which I think means we can assume that he wasn't talking about either of those programs. He also mentions Bill Self and Kansas in the following paragraph, so let's toss the Jayhawks out for now.

So who is Wolken talking about?

Ohio State was the first program that jumped out in my head, but given their track record -- Jim Tressel and Jim O'Brien -- they don't quite have a squeaky clean image. The same can be said for Syracuse, who has had seven arrests on team members the past decade that involved an assault against a woman. Arizona has been cleaning up on the recruiting trail, but they are also currently down a scholarship and still on probation stemming from the Lute Olson years.

Could it be a team like Villanova or Texas, who win more recruiting battles than big games? Or what about a program like a Pitt or a Wisconsin, who are run by system coaches? What if, god forbid, it was Butler, with the envelope full of cash in the bathroom at an AAU tournament?

The bottom-line is this: everyone is getting paid. I truly believe that. Take, for example, Kris Dunn's decision to go to Providence. The instant I saw that, the first thought that popped in my head was "I wonder how much they paid him." Because that's the only way that the nation's No. 1 point guard was going to pick Providence over his home-state UConn Huskies, right?

Well, no.

Remember, everyone is paying these recruits. Every program has a bag man to deliver the cash and a booster working to keep that bag full. If, hypothetically, Dunn got offered $10,000 by Ed Cooley in exchange for a commitment, you don't think Dunn could have gone to Jim Calhoun and said I want to go to UConn, but you need to sweeten the deal? You don't think Calhoun or the Huskies would have been able to scratch together a couple of thousand to up their offer?

Dunn didn't pick Providence over UConn because he was (hypothetically) getting paid. He would have gotten paid either way. He picked Providence because he wanted to go to Providence. He picked the Friars because he is close to former UConn assistant coach Andre LaFluer, who is now on Cooley's staff.

That is just an example, but its an example of something that happens everywhere in the country. Wolken could have been referring to, well, anyone. Literally.

If you aren't paying players to come to your school, you're getting beat on the recruiting trail and you're losing games during the season.


Anonymous said...

My guess:

Notre Dame
Michigan State

Reaches: Gonzaga, Xavier, Butler

That narrows it down a bit, doesn't it?

Anonymous said...


Also, I don't buy the "we don't have time" to investigate stuff. It's more like the "we don't want to poop all over the sport that provides us the means to our livelihood." The story's sitting right there in front of anyone's face who cares to tackle it, right where it has been for the last thirty or fourty years or whatever, and the simple fact is that no one has the balls to challenge the true nature of the college basketball establishment. Everybody gets paid--the players, the coaches, the sportwriters--and everybody stays friends, because no one wants to piss in a pot that's this sweet.

The whole thing stinks top to bottom, and sportswriters are at least as complicit in the underbelly of major college basketball as anyone else.

D.E. Connors said...


greyCat said...

Investigative reporting coming out of media centers like CBS, Fox and ESPN? A sign of our time that it is not likely, principally for two reason...
1. Individual reporters want access to programs/coaches. Breaking a story about paying recruits (or any bad news about the program) will bring retaliation, in most cases through denying access to the reporter. This goes on everywhere unfortunately. I stopped watching the Sunday morning newsies because the hosts (and panels) do nothing but toss soft ball questions at their guests. Throw a hardball and the guest won't come back for more interviews. If you break an uncomplementary story about program X, don't expect to get your calls returned by the folks who work there.
2. For ESPN, CBS, NBC or Fox to lead the charge on a hard hitting investigative piece would require them to work against their own economic interests. These media outlets carry the games, scandals following a program cannot possibly help ratings.

Ever notice that ESPN rarely breaks a scandal story, but rather waits until an NCAA investigation is underway before they provide in depth coverage/details about the problem? The point here is that an reporters' (or a news organization's) decision to devote resources to breaking a scandal story is tempered by the desire to preserve/develop longer term good relations with the institution.