Rick Pitino accomplished at least one thing before being unceremoniously dumped by the University of Louisville.
He set the going market rate for five-star prospects in college basketball.
Turns out it’s a cool $100,000, doled out through your favorite shoe company in four convenient payments. A bargain, really, considering an entire starting five would come in at a cool $500,000 — ironically the same figure that Pitino would get as a bonus if his team won a national championship.
Pitino, of course, knows nothing about that. He’s shocked that someone in the program was paying for top recruits, just like he was shocked a rogue assistant turned a dorm at Louisville into a brothel — missing only the red lights and satin sheets — for players and visiting recruits.
Plausible deniability can be a beautiful thing. It worked for three decades for Pitino, who won national championships at two schools and was set to contend for another before some pesky FBI agents uncovered a scheme to launder money from Adidas to the family of a star player who suddenly decided Louisville was the place he wanted to be.
Down at the University of Miami, the focus was on future prospects. FBI wiretaps revealed people associated with the school were trying to line up a 2018 high school graduate to wear the Adidas brand while playing for the Hurricanes.
The only problem was another school with a contract with a rival apparel company was reportedly offering $150,000 for the same player.
What’s a coach to do?
These are the worst of times for a sport that sometimes brings out the worst in people. Practice begins Friday for a college basketball season that promises to be like no other as millionaire coaches and their (officially) unpaid players hit gyms across the country.
The FBI is deep into a probe of bribery and payoffs that investigators say will likely go much deeper. Already, 10 people — Pitino is not one of them — have been charged with various crimes after being caught on wiretaps scheming of ways cash can be used to get top prospects to commit to the best schools and the worst agents.
The pickings should be relatively easy for investigators armed with subpoenas and great powers of persuasion. This is a sport that insiders have long known as a sordid cesspool inhabited by greedy adults looking to get rich off the talents of teenagers who are skilled at getting the ball in the basket.
The system is broken, and until now no one has seemed willing to step up to fix it.
Not the coaches who make millions, or the athletic administrators who facilitate them. Not the shoe companies, or the “amateur” teams that exist as feeder squads for properly attired athletes.
And certainly not the NCAA, which seems content to take in a billion dollars a year in television revenue while paying lip service to any real reform in the sport.
But there are ways to immediately begin to clean up college basketball, and they shouldn’t be that hard to implement. Among them:
—Void all contracts between apparel companies and universities. Louisville is getting $16 million a year to have its athletes wear Adidas shoes and uniforms, money that binds the school and the company into an unholy relationship. With the huge television contracts passed out in recent years, surely the university can buy its own stuff.
—Forbid coaches and recruiters from attending any tournaments or games involving teams sponsored by the shoe companies. The teams and tournaments run by the companies are breeding grounds for corruption as agents, coaches and shoe salesmen jockey for the favor of teen-agers not sophisticated enough to realize they’re being bought and sold. Without recruiters in the stands, there will be no super teams traveling the country with players who should be in real schools.
—Cap coaches’ salaries at $1 million. The amount of money paid coaches — Pitino is making $5 million a year plus bonuses that could raise that significantly — is obscene, especially schools, under new rules, can pay players only a pittance.
—Eliminate one-and-done. This is an NBA rule and needs changing there first, but there are things the NCAA can also do. Players who want to go straight to the NBA from high school should be welcomed if they’re good enough and the others should have to commit to at least two years, preferably three, if they go to college.
No, it won’t cure everything, or eliminate all the sleaze from the sport. There will still be people willing to cheat, even if it’s tougher to do.
But it’s a start at a time college basketball is in desperate need of change.