Feinstein: Cheating Pays; Always Has, Always Will

John Feinstein tackles cheating in college athletics and identifies one big-time coach who is (likely) innocent. Hint: It isn't Rick Pitino

John Feinstein
April 30, 2019 - 4:57 pm
Rick Pitino

USA Today Images


My morning ritual rarely changes from day-to-day when I’m home: Feed the cats, start the coffee, walk down the driveway for the newspaper, sit at the kitchen table and read the paper and drink my coffee until my wife and daughter come downstairs.
Like most rituals, it’s comforting. I’ve been drinking coffee since I was 14, when I started drinking it on my way to early morning swim practice. I’ve been reading newspapers to start my day since I was in first grade when I got tired of waiting for my parents to wake up and tell me how the Mets did. Or the Jets, Knicks or Rangers—this was pre-Islanders.
My parents always told people that I learned to read The New York Times because of the Mets. They weren’t far wrong.
Nowadays, I know how the Mets did before I sit down to read. Both the Washington Post and The Times come to my house each morning and I start with sports, work my way to Op-Ed and then the Post’s style section. As I pull the sports sections out first, I’m reminded of a lunch I had years ago soon after I had moved back to sports from the Post’s metro section.
I was with David Maraniss, the Pulitzer Prize-winning political reporter, who has also written several brilliant books on sports—most notably, “When Pride Still Mattered,” the transcendent biography of Vince Lombardi—and Patrick Tyler, a superb investigative reporter, who would later move to the Times.
Tyler was apologizing to me for not having kept up with my work since I’d moved to sports. “I’m really sorry,” he said. “Once I get through the front page, metro and op-ed, I just don’t have the time to read sports.”
He looked at Maraniss. “Do you have that problem, David?”
“No,” Maraniss said. “I read sports first.”
Smart guys like Maraniss read sports first not only because they’re passionate about the various games people play, but because there is some escape there. That’s never been truer than these days when burying myself in the Islanders’ sudden inability to score is a welcome relief from the headlines on the front page, or, for that matter, op-ed, which usually confirms my worst fears about what’s going on in the world.
Lately, though, the sports pages have felt almost radioactive during my morning ritual. There’s no escape when, day-after-day, there are headlines and stories about just how sleazy college athletics at the big-time level truly is nowadays.
I’m not naïve about this. I’m certainly not Inspector Renaud in Casablanca being “shocked” to learn there’s gambling (or cheating) going on. In the 40 years that I’ve covered college athletics—dating to when I was in college—I’ve always understood that football and basketball players are privileged characters at best, paid Hessians at worst.
The saddest part of that sentence is that I’m willing to bet most football and basketball players currently being introduced by the ever-hypocritical NCAA as “student-athletes” would have no idea what the reference to Hessians means.
Every morning nowadays, there are reports from the federal trial in New York involving wiretaps and videos showing assistant coaches accepting money to be used to pay players or talking on tape about payoffs.

On trial are two basketball lowlifes: a guy named Christian Dawkins, an agent wannabe; and Merl Code, once a respected player at Clemson, now a shoe company salesman—first at Nike, later at Adidas.
No one beyond their family and friends really cares very much what happens to Dawkins and Code. But if anyone believes that they and a handful of assistant coaches are somehow the root of the problem, then I have some oceanfront land in Oklahoma I’d like to sell you.
Further, if anyone believes the payoffs stop with the assistant coaches dumb enough to be captured on video or wiretap, I’d like to sell you the adjoining package in Oklahoma.
Let me take this one step beyond all that: Are their head coaches, important ones, complicit in all this? Absolutely. There are two options when assistant coaches cheat in judging their bosses: either they knew or they should have known.
For all the screaming about Rick Pitino’s “innocence”—I can’t even write that word with a straight face—by his apologists, here are two simple facts: IF, as he claimed repeatedly, the whole “madam” scandal was caused by an assistant coach and he, to quote Sergeant Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes, knew nothing—NOTHING—then he’s still responsible. HE hired the assistant coach in question and he let him run amok for four years. That’s if you believe Pitino’s version.
The same is true in the case of Brian Bowen, the recruit who was allegedly offered $100,000 to play at Louisville. Again, Pitino is Sergeant Schultz on this one, too, but here’s what another coach said about that: “You’re recruiting a kid and it doesn’t look like you’re getting him (which was the case with Bowen and Louisville). Then, one day one of your assistants walks in and says, ‘Hey, coach, great news, Brian Bowen wants to come.’ Do you not say, ‘Really, HOW COME?’”
But I come here today not to bury star coaches, even those named in the trial; even others implicated through the years; even those who have been convicted by the NCAA police of violations—and are still in the basketball Hall of Fame.
No, I’m here to bury the people most responsible for the whole mess: the self-righteous college presidents. There may not be a group of human beings more overrated by society.
THEY are the ones who have allowed college athletics to spin completely out of control and THEY are the only ones who can put a stop to it.
Here’s the thing: they aren’t going to do it. Big-time college athletics is their golden goose. Football and men’s basketball bring in BILLIONS of dollars in TV revenue; ticket sales; licensing and booster contributions. Somehow, they have scammed the government into making their athletic departments tax-free entities because they give money to charity every year.
You know what that charity is? THEMSELVES. The schools take their revenues and put the money into building Taj Mahal-like facilities and into paying coaches millions of dollars.
Then, when cheating bubbles to the surface, they wring their hands, shake their heads and blame it all on Merl Code, Christian Dawkins and rogue assistant coaches.
When the FBI allegations first surfaced 18 months ago, NCAA President Mark Emmert—a former college president chosen for the job by his colleagues/cronies—appointed a commission to figure out ways to keep the cheaters under control.
He appointed Condoleezza Rice as chairwoman because of her vast knowledge of the underbelly of college athletics. Among those on the committee were Grant Hill and David Robinson, two of the most admired basketball players of the last 30 years. I know them both. They are wonderful men, who have made fellow alums at Duke and Navy proud to say they graduated from those schools.
But, as I said to Hill recently, what the hell does he know about big-time cheating in college athletics? His father, Calvin Hill, graduated from Yale, played 13 seasons in the NFL and was a borderline Hall-of-Famer. His mother, Janet, has been a big-time Washington D.C. lawyer for years.
Grant Hill grew up with money, went to Duke and then made millions himself playing in the NBA and is now in the basketball Hall of Fame.
Robinson? Almost no one recruited him coming out of high school. He went to Navy as much to be an engineer as a basketball player and became a great player in college and an NBA Hall-of-Famer.
Again, what in the world does he know about the sleaze in college athletics?
You know who should have chaired that commission? Sonny Vaccaro. It was Vaccaro who invented the idea of paying coaches—and then schools—to wear Nike gear and it was Vaccaro who steered big-time players to Nike schools in the 1980s. If anyone knows how to manipulate the system, it’s Vaccaro.
He should have been joined by coaches who have been hit with NCAA sanctions—especially those who have gamed the system for years and gotten away with it. First appointee should have been Pitino.
And then players from the past who had their hands greased and their wallets filled. Again, plenty of people to fill out that list.
An investigative reporter or two could have helped. After all, 99 percent of the time when the NCAA goes after cheaters, it’s on the heels of stories uncovered by the media. That’s why so many college sports fans think the media’s evil: tellers-of-truth rarely have roses sent to them. Just thorns.
THAT commission might have come up with some thoughts that went beyond Rice’s, “make cheaters pay” summation. The rules are already in place to make cheaters pay—but no one in power wants to enforce them.
There’s always an excuse: well, the school cooperated with us. Sure, and bank robbers who have guns pointed at them put their hands up. Or, “Well, we don’t want to penalize current players for past cheating.” Let’s assume for a moment the current players haven’t been involved with cheating—likely a stretch—but if so, they can transfer. Many do anyway and most big-money players will be gone in a year anyway.
The bottom line is this: CHEATING PAYS. It always has and, until the NCAA is totally dismantled and rebuilt by entirely different people with an entirely different idea of what college athletics ought to be, it will continue to pay.
One of the few big-time coaches I would stake my life on not being a cheater is Michigan State’s Tom Izzo. He talks often about how much the current climate disturbs him.
He knows it’s nothing new—by any stretch. When his boss, Jud Heathcote retired in 1995, leaving the job to Izzo, he took his time turning his office over to the new coach.
“Finally, one day in mid-summer, he walked in, cleaned everything out and said, ‘It’s all yours,’” Izzo recalled one night this past winter. “And, I’ll never forget, as he walked to the door, he turned to us and said, ‘When the time comes where cheating has become a good thing in coaching, it’s time for me to go.’
“And then he went.”
That was then. This is now. Sadly, Heathcote’s words have never sounded so eloquent.
John Feinstein’s most recent work of fiction is, ‘The Prodigy,’ a novel about a 17-year-old trying to win the Masters while his father, agents and equipment reps try to turn him into a human ATM machine even before he has a chance to go to college. His latest non-fiction book, “Quarterback—Inside The Most Important Position in The National Football League,” spent two months on the New York Times bestseller list. John’s website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com