The federal fraud and bribery investigation that stunned the major college basketball world earlier this week did not come as a shock to Maine’s lone NCAA Division I men’s basketball head coach.
“I was sad, I was not surprised,” said fourth-year University of Maine coach Bob Walsh. “I think you’d have a hard time finding anyone involved in college basketball who could honestly say they were surprised.
“It’s been talked about openly, the influence of the sneaker companies over the last 10 years or so. That influence was out in the open, and as far as the money side of it I think people naturally thought that there was money flowing somewhere.”
Federal prosecutors announced Tuesday that 10 men — including shoe company executives, sports agents and four assistant coaches at high-profile NCAA Division I schools — were charged with using hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to influence the choice of top recruits’ schools, agents and shoe sponsors.
Assistant coaches arrested were from Auburn, Oklahoma State, Southern California, and Arizona, while South Carolina, while the University of Miami and Louisville also have been mentioned in relation to the case and several other schools have started internal investigations.
The most well-known casualty to date is Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who was placed on unpaid leave in the aftermath of the federal announcement and said by his attorney to have been “essentially fired.”
Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich also finds his job in jeopardy after having been placed on paid leave by the school.
“I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Walsh said. “I think when you look at what has been uncovered and hear what has been said, it’s natural to think that (federal investigators) have a lot more information and that there’s probably more players, coaches and schools involved.
“It’s exposing an underbelly that is sad and unfortunate.”
Walsh expects little if any direct impact from the case on low- and mid-major basketball programs such UMaine and its America East brethren.
“I don’t think what’s going on at Louisville or Arizona trickles down to where we are at the University of Maine,” said Walsh, whose team next Tuesday opens formal practices for the 2017-2018 season. “I just think there’s a huge gap, and the divide has only grown bigger with all the money there is in college athletics between the big schools that want to spend a lot of money on it and the smaller schools that maybe don’t have as much invested.
“Fans of college basketball realize that that’s the elite level and that and the low- to mid-majors are pretty far apart.”
In the latest investigation, federal prosecutors say at least three top high school recruits were promised payments of as much as $150,000, using money supplied by athletic footwear and apparel company Adidas, to attend two universities sponsored by the athletic shoe company. Court papers didn’t name the schools but contained enough details to identify one of them as Louisville, the other was Miami.
UMaine’s arrangement with New Balance is different than the deals between big-time schools and other companies, according to UMaine athletic media relations spokesman Tyson McHatten.
He explained that New Balance provides UMaine with some of its athletic footwear and apparel, but that the university purchases most of those items from the company out of their respective budgets.
What impact there might be on low- and mid-major programs, Walsh suggested, may have more to do with the public’s general perception of college basketball and the recruiting process.
“It affects us in that it’s bad for the sport and it’s sad,” he said. “There are a lot of people you have to get involved with and get to know in recruiting that may not have the best interests of the kids in mind or may be looking for something personal, and I don’t mean money but it could be standing or possibly being considered for a job down the road in college, whatever it is.
“Recruiting is filled with a lot of different people. It’s not just mom, dad and the high school coach anymore.”