The Zags and college hoops' nervous days
02-27-18

What an ominous, edgy, crazy time for college basketball. And one pregnant with implication for dozens of programs.

That includes Gonzaga. In fact, maybe especially Gonzaga. More on that notion later.

Who’s eligible? Who isn’t? Will Sean Miller coach another game, or will they just detain him in a public square in Tucson, put him in the stocks and let the suntanned locals jeer and throw rotten tomatoes at him?

Speculation is cheap, and in some cases, disposable. One national analyst stated flatly Saturday that Deandre Ayton wouldn’t play for Arizona Saturday night, and of course, he did. But when he did, and Miller didn’t coach, it made for a head-scratcher.

ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg says the FBI will continue to dribble out the information for maximum effect. Somebody else noted that a judge is calling parties to the bench to quell the early leaks. Which will it be?

It seems fair to say there will be more revelations, at least eventually, because those to date have reflected the misadventures surrounding only one rogue agent, Andy Miller, and an underling, Christian Dawkins.

Among the intriguing aspects is how many programs have quickly decided that players named in the Yahoo!Sports story will remain on the floor. Did they really have enough time to explore the question fully? Or could they possibly be concluding that the agent/player issue is so pervasive that the NCAA can't penalize scores of programs?

What to do, big picture? I fall in with those who would be fine with reform in allowing player-agent financial relationships. Twenty-five years ago, when Washington was busted by the NCAA/Pac-10, what got them to sniffing around was the revelation that quarterback Billy Joe Hobert had received a $50,000 loan based on future earnings. Ultimately, what’s so nefarious about that, other than the NCAA long ago decreed you can’t do it?

Granted, the change would take some getting used to. One analyst posited it might mean the local car dealer pays your top player five grand to use him to promote, while the 12th man gets nothing. Fine. But what does the fifth or sixth man -- a lesser player, but still essential -- get? If it’s nothing, what does that do to the workings of the team?

Or, if a shoe company reaches a couple-of-million-dollars agreement with an NBA-bound college player, and the player develops a sore knee, who decides when he’s coming back, the shoe company or the coach?

Whatever. Those obstacles are mere collateral damage for righting a system that’s, well, not right.

Meanwhile, if somebody could tell me a way universities could pay athletes, I might be more amenable. But that’s a dilemma not so easily solved.

College athletics is often described as a business, which, in its size, it is. The NCAA tournament reaps billions.

But whatever your favorite school, the men’s soccer program and women’s field hockey don’t make money. If this were a business, they wouldn’t exist because they’re subsidized by money-making programs. Point is, most colleges aren’t making money, and some are severely in debt (true, in part because some spend cash like a kid who just got his allowance).

The NBA could solve some of the current problems by doing away with its insane 19-and-under rule, the one that props up the one-and-done phenomenon of college basketball. Follow the baseball model and allow kids to go to the NBA out of high school, or restrict them from the draft for two or three years.

But that's only one element. Implementing a baseball-style model might serve only to keep the NCAA’s plastic president, Mark Emmert, preaching a horse-and-buggy amateurism model.

But about Gonzaga: As a gilded run that began in 1999 continues, it seems to me that a pillar underpinning one of the game’s best stories is that it’s a program that “does it right.” Or so we think, until told otherwise. If there were serious impropriety, it would certainly put a dent in that notion.

If I were a Zag fan, I’d feel good about this: That Mark Few is a preacher’s kid -- Norm Few did that for 54 years -- and if you’re going to stay at Gonzaga and turn down multiple offers of salaries paying double, you might just be the kind of guy inclined to believe you can make it happen by the book.

And I can tell you this: Words I’ve heard from Zag coaches in private and public conversations would reflect that they believe the program is clean.

There’s no doubt that’s the mandate from athletic director Mike Roth, who is fastidious about the rule book, and a compliance office headed by Shannon Strahl. More than once, I’ve vetted questions through them, and they don’t operate on the margins.

Of course, if you were tempted to stray from the mandate, you wouldn’t be running your hypotheticals through the compliance office. It would be foolish for me, or anybody, to blithely declare that any program can pass the white-glove treatment.

And so we wait, while a fascinating, unseemly and unprecedented drama plays out in college basketball.


Back