Against the grain, Mark Few sticks his neck out

Among the outcomes of the autumn trial resulting from the FBI investigation into college hoops was this: Silence, from the guardians of the game. Three shoe-company operatives were found guilty, several programs were bruised badly in the testimony – and in the wake of it, coaches seemed to take the fifth.

Too much on their plates, maybe. Got a shootaround to conduct. There’s Christmas shopping. A “buy” game to win, 104-63, before the conference season starts.

Oh, there was the clumsy response by Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, who in October called the events “a blip on the radar screen of college basketball.” Somehow, days later he thought better of that assessment, and hastened to append that even a blip could be a serious thing. Whatever that meant.

So it was a bit startling when last week, Gonzaga coach Mark Few called on NCAA president Mark Emmert to break a leg, in so many words, and get moving on taking action against programs that were named in the trial. Left to its usual timeframe, the NCAA would get to it about when Few’s kids have grandkids.

“Step up and be a leader and make some quicker decisions,” was among Few’s urgings to Emmert.

I can see where it might not be that simple. If some schools are cheating as wantonly as the grapevine (and the trial) suggests, the investigation will have a lot of tentacles, far more than contained in a New York courtroom.

But give Few points for the chutzpah. I contend that coaches self-policing is a prime avenue for helping to apply bleach to a sport that sometimes seems beyond cleansing.

He and I have discussed this. Always the devil’s advocate, he contends media should play a larger role. Quixotic, but unrealistic, I say. It’s simple economics.

In more robust times for newspapers, for example, there might be time to check out a rumor, but it always came with a caveat: You could spend days spinning your wheels searching, with no guarantee a story would come out of it. Editors only want to invest in so many wild goose chases.

Nowadays, newspaper resources have grown frightfully skimpy. It’s not that the will for investigative stories has evaporated, it’s the way.

Just about every writer has heard a coach bemoan losing a recruit to somebody who’s allegedly cheating. So why can’t coaches turn a violator in?

Long ago, Few did it. Gonzaga was a key player in exposing Washington assistant Cameron Dollar in the recruiting of Clarkston standout (and future GU player) Josh Heytvelt. It resulted in a finding of almost two dozen violations against Dollar, who went on to be head coach at Seattle University and is now back at the UW.

Few said recently he earned a “lot of grief” for it. You know, from the honor-among-thieves crowd.

Turns out Few’s recent comments about Emmert were egged on by a close friend, a former coaching associate, and somebody whose staff was involved in the Dollar-Heytvelt drama – Ray Giacoletti.

“I’ve been the one to tell Mark, ‘Hey, you got as much voice as anybody,’ ’’ Giacoletti told me this week. “ ‘Would you stand up and say something? You’ve got juice; it’ll be a national story.’ ’’

I asked Giacoletti – now living in St. Louis and doing TV and radio work, two years removed from stepping down from his last job as Drake head coach – about the risks in speaking out. He minimized them, maybe because he spent six years working for Few.

“The only risk would be if you were doing something yourself you shouldn’t be doing,” Giacoletti says, “and that’s not the case at Gonzaga.”

Giacoletti can tell you how self-policing works. A quarter-century ago, he was a young assistant to Bob Bender at Washington, and they were trying to resuscitate a program that had been dormant for almost a decade after the forced retirement of Marv Harshman.

They were recruiting a seven-footer from Winnipeg, Todd MacCulloch. So was Utah coach Rick Majerus. One night they called the MacCulloch home, and Todd’s mother said, “You guys should have been here this weekend.”

Why? Well, Coach Majerus was, she said, working Todd out and having dinner at the house. Giacoletti says it was during a restricted period when that would be improper. The UW coaches provided MacCulloch’s mother with a name and number of the NCAA. She called, described what had happened, and soon, Giacoletti says, MacCulloch was off the list of players Utah was allowed to recruit. MacCulloch went on to lead the Huskies to NCAA tournaments in 1998-99, a Sweet 16 the first year.

Now it’s 2018, and the headlines in the sport are seamy. But the silence is mostly deafening. It could be that Few’s entreaty to Emmert carries challenges but the thrust of his words seemed important.

“Krzyzewski never stepped up and said anything,” said Giacoletti. “If he ain’t saying anything . . . I think Mark’s got the respect of all his peers. The ones who did it the right way are elevating him even another step. Like, where’s everybody else been?”

Holding their breath, maybe. Waiting for another shoe (company) to drop. Or in the case of Emmert, staying away from New York, where college basketball was on trial.

“I think there’s a line drawn in the sand,” said Giacoletti. “The NCAA’s got one shot here. If they don’t do what they need to do, it’s done, over. If you can’t stop it now, you never will.”