Ever play the board game "Operation" before?
You might remember it as the one with the big doughy neutered guy with the plastic bones set into little nooks on his body, and the object of the game was to extract the bones ever so carefully without touching the sides.
Everyone had to use the same instrument to pull on them, and just one little mistake and—Oops!—so close, you’re through, next player.
That said, recruiting young talent is a bit like playing Operation for NCAA schools— a fragile process involving equal parts nuance and caution—and getting a little hasty while picking up talent can cost a program a lot more than a lost turn.
And some programs get fed up with the recruiting game—they're competitive and will use any means possible in order to secure the best young athletes they can.
The following is a breakdown of “alternative” styles of recruiting that we've seen exposed in the news, where programs decided to throw away the rule book and began dealing in the dark gray area under the table.
It’s not honorable, advisable or exactly or what you’d call “street legal.”
It’s Shady Recruiting 101.
Step One: Tell recruit that reading comprehension skills don't get you a signing bonus.
Step Two: Doctor his papers with a nice pen.
Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette) Western received the harshest sanctions in NCAA history—a two year ban from competition—for the forgery of recruits’ high school documents.
Evidence was found that the school had doctored papers in order to allow recruits with insufficient GPAs to attend the university.
One particular instance was found of an assistant coach on the team forging the signature of a recruit’s high school principal in order to grease the wheels in the admissions process.
Step One: Give athlete scholarship money.
Step Two: Show them how to defraud the federal government for more scholarship money.
Federal Pell Grants, for those who don’t know, are grants given out by the federal government to undergraduate college students in need of financial assistance in order to go to school.
The system in which the grants are given out is based on need, and was abused by former University of Miami academic counselor Tony Russell between the years of 1989 and 1991.
Russell was discovered and exposed by the US Department of Education in 1991 for helping scholarship athletes on the Hurricanes football team make fraudulent claims for Pell Grant money.
Over $220,000 in scholarship funds were involved in the scandal, and Russell was sentenced to three years in prison.
Step One: Buy some rice paper, or that seaweed stuff they wrap sushi in.
Former Kentucky basketball coach Eddie Sutton thought he had an airtight plan when he overnighted a package of money to the father of California recruit Chris Mills in 1989.
Unfortunately for Sutton, the package didn’t hold up so well, and the $1,000 tucked inside fell out in Los Angeles on its way to its final destination.
“It was a set-up,” said Sutton. “An overnight package comes empty? You need a crowbar to open those things things.”
Step One: Never go full Baylor.
The tale of Dave Bliss and Baylor basketball is a sad and sordid tale, but the quick and dirty is this:
Baylor basketball coach Dave Bliss offered out more scholarships than he had available leading up to the 2003-04 season, and began paying the tuition for Patrick Dennehy and Carlton Dotson, two students who had transferred to Baylor to play ball.
And very long story short, Dennehy is murdered by Dotson, and after the crime is discovered Coach Bliss does what any normal caring paternal figure for young men would do and covers his butt, lest the NCAA find out he was shelling out dough for tuition.
The cover-up involved all manner of ugliness—Bliss told players and staff to spread rumors that Dennehy had paid for his tuition by selling drugs.
Bliss’ cover up was recorded and Baylor was banned from non-conference play for a season and put on probation through 2010.
Step One: See title of slide.
First, let me make one thing clear—this is in no way confirmed or true.
But the roots of this hypothetical are based in a rumor supposedly started by Louisville head coach Rick Pitino at a coaches conference in 1986.
As the story goes, Pitino reportedly spread a rumor that Calipari (then an assistant coach at the University of Pittsburgh) had begun telling recruits that St. John’s head coach Lou Carnesecca was afflicted with terminal cancer (he wasn’t).
Pitino completely cooking up the rumor is shady enough, but if a coach ever did stoop to leveraging deadly diseases in order to sway a young person to suit up for their team—
Well, it would be the Holy Grail of shady sports recruiting tactics. In a bad way.
Step One: Pay players.
Step Two: Talk about it and then regret that your words were recorded.
Former Auburn defensive back Eric Ramsey rocked the entire athletic department at the University of Auburn in 1991 by producing tape recordings of the football team’s staff conspiring to pay athletes.
The recordings were of various coaches discussing monetary payments they had made to players—discussions Ramsey had recorded of the course of three years.
A repeat offender and habitual line-stepper of NCAA rules, Auburn received some stiff punishment.
Step One: Take boosters out to a nice seafood dinner.
Step Two: Call them again. For slush fund money.
Southern Method University seems to truly took the cake in terms of bald, unabashed cheating.
The Mustangs and their football program’s underhanded recruiting techniques have drawn the ire of the NCAA on plenty of occasions but the most blatant case is the one which earned the university the now-famous “Death Penalty” ruling.
After receiving a three-year probation and a two-year bowl ban in 1985, further NCAA investigation revealed that SMU’s football team had organized a $61,000 slush fund of booster money and continued to pay players for pay while on probation.
Sensing that SMU needed a “firmer hand,” the NCAA decided to make itself clear and cancel their whole damn season in 1987.
Step One: Juice up your Nokia.
Step Two: Call a boat load of high school basketball players.
Step Three: Impede the eventual NCAA investigation of you at all turns.
Former Indiana University head basketball Kelvin Sampson provided a golden example of how not to telemarket recruits in 2007 when the NCAA nailed him for making over one hundred illicit phone calls to recruits while coaching at the University of Oklahoma.
Sampson was eventually found guilty of the calling violations and misleading the NCAA during its investigation. He resigned in early 2008 and Indiana was given three years probation.
(Head to the 1:00 mark for the Fitts story)
Step One: Hand out a hard-earned scholarship to a top prospect you want on your team.
Step Two: Wait until he’s about to move in and then rescind scholarship.
USC head Lane Kiffin recently embroiled himself in a bit of controversy after “deferring” a scholarship the Trojans had reserved for Kylie Fitts, a four-star defensive end recruit from Redlands, California.
A high school senior, Fitts committed to the Trojans and began taking extra high school classes in order to attend school at USC this spring.
After receiving further confirmation that the Trojans were ready to have him on campus this January, Fitts was informed three days before his planned arrival that his scholarship had been delayed until the fall due to a roster conflict.
To be fair, Kiffin thought the scholarship would be available by the time his recruit made it to campus. But offering an uncertain slot on your team to a kid in order to keep him from being recruited elsewhere and then putting him on the back-burner like a commodity isn’t exactly a classy move.
Step One: Allow rich playboys to woo recruits with women, booze and food.
Step Two: Pray the NCAA screws up its investigation.
A pristine slate isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of the University of Miami’s recruiting record.
The foremost example of Miami’s long and unsavory list of NCAA violations involved a wealthy booster by the name of Nevin Shapiro, who came forward in 2011 alleging that he and others involved in a professional sports management company had donated to the university’s athletic department and provided money for player recruitment, among a host of other illicit provisions.
Fortunately for the U, the NCAA has recently come forward and admitted its investigation of the university’s misconduct has been tainted with internal improper conduct of its own.
Step One: Introduce player to slimy agent with money.
Step Two: Win championships, but don’t get too attached to them.
USC football was crushed and levied with some of the stiffest of penalties ever laid down by the NCAA after news regarding former running back Reggie Bush’s involvement with a would-be agent during his time in college.
It was discovered that Bush’s parents accepted money and a home in exchange for signing with the agent.
As a result Bush's Heisman trophy was taken away and the Trojans were forced to vacate their 2004 national championship well as all of their wins during the 2005 season, among other penalties.
Step One: Recruit players from outside your country.
Step Two: Pay for any fees related with applying to the school.
Getting something done right typically means not doing it the fastest way possible.
Former Virginia Tech soccer coach Oliver Weiss learned this rule firsthand after fronting money for the matriculation and application fees of eight foreign recruits who had committed to the program during his tenure.
Virginia Tech officials insisted the players repaid Weiss, and that the coach had only provided the money in the name of expediting their entry into the university.
The fees covered by Weiss cost as much as $400 apiece, and the Hokies head coach resigned abruptly in 2009 for “personal reasons,” days before the NCAA’s investigation into the program was announced
Step One: Build it.
Step Two: They will come.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Wildcat Coal Lodge (click link for a tour of the lodge guided by Coach Calipari).
The “new gold standard in [player] housing,” the aptly named Coal Lodge is the brand new multi-million dollar digs exclusively for members of the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team.
There’s nothing illegal about it, but Coach Calipari definitely doesn’t mind that his team’s private buffet/staff secretary/pool table complex being situated right to their practice facilities.
Just like college was for the rest of us, right guys?
Step One: Buy new-fangled scouting software.
Step Two: Spam recruits with information about your program.
Step Three: Claim you totally spaced and didn’t mean to hit “Reply All.”
The University of New Hampshire’s hockey program was hit with a two year probation by the NCAA after sending out illicit emails to recruits.
New Hampshire head coach Dick Umile claimed an associate coach had used their new scouting software incorrectly and had accidentally sent over 900 impermissible emails to 30 target recruits.
Now, I’m no mathematician, but according to this calculator here, 900 divided by 30 = 30.
One email can be an accident. Maybe even two. But 30 emails each? Come on, that’s spam-a-licious.