Nearly 30 months since an FBI corruption case rocked college basketball, some of the nation’s top programs are still operating under a cloud of suspicion even as their coaches stand to earn more money than ever:
► Bill Self, the head coach of No. 1 Kansas, is earning $4 million this year and is due a separate $6 million lump payment in March 2022. Last September, the NCAA filed allegations against Kansas that said Self was among those who “willfully engaged in NCAA violations” and “blatantly” disregarded NCAA rules.
► Arizona coach Sean Miller is earning $2.8 million in basic annual pay with another raise and bonus payments on the way. Last year, federal prosecutors played a wiretapped phone call in court that suggested he was breaking NCAA rules by paying Arizona star Deandre Ayton $10,000 per month.
► Auburn coach Bruce Pearl is making $3.8 million this year, about $1.2 million more than last year. Auburn gave him a new contract last year just months before stating in a court filing that it expects to receive formal allegations from the NCAA about trouble in Pearl’s program.
It’s all part of the trade. Despite widespread cheating allegations that led to multiple criminal convictions, business continues as usual for them in a pay market that continues to roll in dough, with 29 coaches making more than $3 million this year, led by Kentucky’s John Calipari at $8.2 million, according to the annual survey of coaches’ compensation compiled by USA TODAY Sports. Last year, there were 21, and the year before, there were 14.
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But there’s a catch in some cases, according to their employment contracts. After federal law-enforcement officials announced their bribery and fraud case in September 2017, the schools caught up in it faced a critical question: Should they stick with their coach under fire, and at what cost?
Each had their own risk calculation, as shown by what they did or didn’t do with their coaches’ contracts.
Only one school caught in the mess so far – Louisville – fired its head coach, a move that came with its own prospect of spiraling costs. Others used different strategies to contain the fallout, including disbelieving the allegations (Kansas), blaming the misconduct on a rogue assistant coach (Auburn) or using what leverage they could muster for “CYA,” as one legal observer described it, meaning “Covering Your (backside).”
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“Every time a school signs a contract, they’re making a calculation, and the calculation in some of these types of situations suggest that they can tolerate or would rather risk potential NCAA fallout than losing a top coach,” said Tim Nevius, a sports attorney and former NCAA investigator who since has become an NCAA critic and advocate of NCAA athletes.
Harsh penalties still could come down from the NCAA in several pending cases. Here is how five schools dealt with the case in relation to their coaches’ employment agreements. It doesn’t include private schools, whose contracts are not publicly available, or every school involved to various degrees.
Kansas: Bill Self
Even if Kansas were to fire coach Bill Self for major NCAA rules violations before April 2022, he would be owed a $5.4 million “contingent signing bonus.” (Photo: Michael C. Johnson, USA TODAY Sports)
Kansas and Self blasted back at the NCAA last week, denying the allegations and saying Self had no knowledge of any NCAA rules violations. In his 77-page defense, Self said the allegations against him were based on a “misguided, unprecedented, and meritless interpretation and application of NCAA booster and recruiting legislation.”
The university arguably has bigger reasons than others to fight the NCAA and might have the most to lose, if only because of its stature as a basketball blueblood with three Final Four appearances under Self since 2008.
Self also has leverage against the school that was negotiated into his contract after he led the Jayhawks to the national title game in 2012. Even if the university were to fire him for major NCAA rules violations before April 2022, he would be owed a $5.4 million “contingent signing bonus,” according to the terms of his contract.
This stipulation contrasts starkly with other coaches’ contracts, which typically stipulate that a coach is entitled to no further payment after getting fired “for cause,” which would include being found responsible for cheating. Unlike other schools under the NCAA cloud, KU has not amended Self’s contract to mitigate its risk in the event of NCAA penalties.
“This is a most unique provision, and he is one (of) the few coaches that has leverage to secure such a provision,” said sports attorney Bob Lattinville, who assists USA TODAY Sports with its annual coaching pay review and is a member of the firm Spencer Fane LLP. “The practical effect of this provision is that Kansas has indemnified Coach Self in the event recruiting rules are violated.”
The NCAA filed allegations against Kansas in September, almost a year after former Adidas consultant T.J. Gassnola testified in federal court that he provided payments to the families of top recruits, including KU recruits Billy Preston and Silvio De Sousa. Adidas is KU’s athletics apparel sponsor, and the NCAA considers the company’s representatives to be boosters of the school. Gassnola testified he concealed his activities from the universities, but the NCAA says Self failed to identify the red flags and “knew or should have known” about the recruiting violations.
Given KU’s strenuous support of Self in this case, Lattinville said it appears unlikely Kansas would fire him for cause even if the NCAA hammers Kansas with harsh penalties. He said Self’s $5.4 million bonus provision supports the notion that KU would stick with him.
Kansas, meanwhile, is headed for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. “I haven’t let that bog me down as a distraction,” Self said of the case recently.
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Auburn: Bruce Pearl
Auburn's Bruce Pearl signed a new five-year deal after leading the Tigers to their first Final Four last season. (Photo: John Reed,USA TODAY Sports)
Similarly, Pearl had leverage at Auburn last year after leading his team to the school’s first Final Four. Auburn “amended” his contract but not like other schools that added special punitive stipulations for coaches of teams linked to the FBI case.
The university instead gave him a lucrative new five-year deal, whose pay this year ranks 13th among head coaches, not far behind Self, who ranks 10th in the USA TODAY Sports survey.
The announcement of his new deal came about three months before Auburn said in a federal court filing that it expects to receive formal allegations from the NCAA related to violations involving Chuck Person, Pearl’s former assistant coach. Person was one of four former assistant coaches who pleaded guilty to bribery charges in the case after he was accused of accepting $91,500 to help steer players to a certain financial adviser.
The school’s position is that Person acted alone, with no evidence of misconduct by Pearl. Its confidence in Pearl comes despite the fact Pearl got fired from his previous job at Tennessee in 2011 after lying to NCAA investigators, triggering a “show-cause” penalty against him, which made it taboo to hire him until August 2014. It also comes against the backdrop of the NCAA’s stepped-up efforts to crack down on corruption under bylaw 22.214.171.124. That NCAA rule states that the head coach is “presumed to be responsible for the actions of all institutional staff members” who report to him, directly or indirectly.
“When Bylaw 126.96.36.199 was amended a few years ago, it was supposed to eliminate the defense that a head coach was unaware of an assistant coach’s actions and thus should not be held accountable for them,” said Joshua Lens, a clinical assistant professor at Arkansas who has written about NCAA head coaches’ responsibility legislation for the DePaul Journal of Sports Law.
To rebut this presumption, a coach must show he promoted rules compliance and monitored the activities of his staff.
“Auburn believes the NCAA investigation to date has only confirmed that any staff misconduct was isolated to Person – and that his misconduct was committed in a way so as to avoid Auburn’s detection,” the university said in the court filing last July.
Asked for an update on the NCAA case, the university recently said it has taken “strong corrective action and cooperated fully with the NCAA.” It declined further comment “because of the ongoing investigation.”
Person last year was sentenced to two years of probation and 200 hours of community service. Auburn this year is ranked No. 17.
“Auburn has proven it is all-in on Coach Pearl, hiring him with months left on his show-cause penalty,” said Lens, who previously worked in NCAA rules compliance at Baylor. “It’s paid off on the court.”
Cal State Northridge: Mark Gottfried
Former North Carolina State coach Mark Gottfried didn’t have the same recent success as Pearl when he got his new job at California State Northridge in March 2018. His timing also couldn’t have been much worse for him in contract negotiations.
“If schools can get a better deal and perhaps protect themselves, then they’ll probably take advantage of that,” Nevius said. “In other circumstances, they don’t have that leverage, and they don’t want to lose a top coach.”
CSUN took advantage of it with Gottfried, who was fired by N.C. State during a losing season in 2017. CSUN introduced Gottfried as its coach not long before the release of a federal indictment on April 10, 2018, including allegations of an illicit recruiting scheme during Gottfried’s tenure at N.C. State.
To protect itself from being swept into the scandal indirectly, CSUN negotiated a stipulation in Gottfried’s contract that was signed by Gottfried on April 20, 2018. It says it can fire him on the spot if his hiring blows up in the university’s face because of an NCAA scandal at another school. In the same contract, Gottfried also confirmed to the university that he had “no involvement in, or knowledge of any impermissible payments” to recruits at his previous employers.
“If the NCAA or court of law finds that employee was involved in or did have actual knowledge of any of the impermissible activities described above, the university may terminate employee for cause at Its discretion, and all University financial obligations shall cease Immediately,” Gottfried’s contract states.
In July 2019, the NCAA sent a notice of allegations to N.C. State that says Gottfried is “presumed responsible” for the violations, including a $40,000 inducement intended for the family of former Wolfpack guard Dennis Smith Jr. The money allegedly was arranged through Gassnola, who last year was sentenced to one year of probation after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
Gottfried is making $450,000 in annual base pay at CSUN this season, and his team is 15-17 heading into Thursday's Big West tournament.
“CSUN took all appropriate steps to vet Coach Gottfried's record in the hiring process,” the university said in response to an inquiry from USA TODAY Sports.
N.C. State has disputed the evidence in the NCAA case.
LSU: Will Wade
LSU coach Will Wade was suspended and lost more than $400,000 before the Tigers reinstated him. (Photo: Nelson Chenault, USA TODAY Sports)
At LSU, coach Will Wade also appeared to be on thin ice last year even though he had led the Tigers into the national top 10. The university had him by the nape of his neck in March 2019 after Yahoo Sports published a story detailing what Wade said on an FBI wiretap to a man who had been convicted of funneling money to families of recruits.
In the recorded call, Wade discussed making an "offer" and a "deal" for Javonte Smart, a top recruit who later signed with LSU.
Wade initially declined to cooperate with LSU’s investigation into this matter, giving the school contractual grounds to suspend him and keep more than $400,000 of scheduled pay and bonuses. Wade, then 36, was only in his second year at LSU at the time and didn’t have the negotiating muscle to save his job except to agree to a contract amendment that stipulates that LSU can fire him “for cause” under several circumstances, including if the NCAA issues a notice of major allegations involving him. That amendment was signed April 14, 2019, the same day he was reinstated to the job.
This gave LSU better control of the situation. If Wade is fired for cause, his contract says all forms of compensation will end on the termination date. By contrast, termination without legal cause, such as for losing too many games, otherwise would require the university to pay Wade a buyout.
Arizona: Sean Miller
Sean Miller is preparing to take Arizona to its seventh NCAA tournament in the past eight years. (Photo: Jacob Snow, USA TODAY Sports)
At Arizona, Miller had been considered one of the best coaches never to have appeared in a Final Four until recent events took him down a peg, especially in 2017-18. Shortly before that season, one of his assistant coaches, Emanuel Richardson, was arrested in the case. Then in February 2018, ESPN reported that FBI wiretaps had intercepted conversations in which Miller had discussed paying $100,000 to help ensure the signing of Ayton, who went on to become the No. 1 draft pick in the NBA in 2018.
Miller, who denied the allegations, sat out his team’s next game but then came back with his employer’s backing and got bounced from the first round of the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years.
Less than a month later, in April 2018, Arizona’s board of regents wanted to tweak his contract to buy the university some insurance in the scandal. Miller agreed to “put his money where his mouth was,” university president Robert Robbins said then.
The amendment calls for Miller to forfeit $1 million of his vested retention bonus if he is criminally charged for any crime related to his employment, or if he is found to have committed a serious NCAA violation.
“The contractual provision in Miller’s contract was the quid pro quo for the University giving him the benefit of the doubt,” said Lattinville, who has represented coaches and pro athletes. It’s also not exactly a prohibitive fine for Miller and has more value as a public-relations move to help the university appear proactive in case the NCAA matter gets uglier at Arizona, Lattinville said.
Richardson pleaded guilty last year to accepting about $20,000 in cash bribes from athlete advisers in exchange for steering Arizona players to those advisers. He was sentenced to three months in prison.
In a court filing last May, the university said it faced potentially significant NCAA penalties from the case but also said it believed that none of the $20,000 in funds paid to Richardson was ever paid to any Arizona player or recruit. Formal NCAA allegations against Arizona haven’t been made.
Meanwhile, Miller and the Wildcats appear headed to their seventh NCAA tournament berth in eight years.
And the big business of college basketball beats on, tweaked only to small degrees so far in the legal language of some contracts.
“CYA all the way around,” Lattinville said.
That includes the athletics directors who took over some of these programs after this case came out, such as at LSU, N.C. State and KU.
After getting hired in July 2018, KU athletics director Jeff Long signed a contract that gives himself some protection. It says that his term will be extended by “an equal amount” to the length of any penalties imposed from a federal or NCAA investigation for matters that happened before he arrived.
Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: [email protected]
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