UGA Basketball

As Alabama and Auburn sweat FBI probe, SEC coaches react to scandal

Alabama head coach Avery Johnson answers questions at SEC Men’s Basketball Media Day in Nashville, Tennessee.
Alabama head coach Avery Johnson answers questions at SEC Men’s Basketball Media Day in Nashville, Tennessee. AP

Facing inevitable questioning about a criminal FBI investigation into college basketball recruiting, Alabama head coach Avery Johnson shook his head repeatedly before offering a no comment.

Johnson, who is entering his third season at Alabama, has found his team caught in the FBI’s crosshairs. Shortly after four basketball assistant coaches — Auburn’s Chuck Person, Oklahoma State’s Lamont Evans, Arizona’s Emanuel “Book” Richardson and USC’s Tony Bland — were arrested on felony corruption and fraud charges, Alabama revealed that administrative assistant Kobie Baker resigned from his post in relation to an internal review regarding the same investigation.

Baker was alleged to have received money in return for his influence over the future decisions of Alabama players who may have professional potential. Johnson was therefore asked what level of communication remained between his staff and the FBI.

“We’ve already released a statement about that,” Johnson said. “I’m just here to talk about our team. In the future, if there is something else we need to say about it, we’ll say it at the appropriate time.”

Johnson was asked about the investigation a couple of other times but declined to answer in depth, other than to say it is “unfortunate.” It is worth noting that Alabama has not yet received a subpoena from the FBI, according to a report from Auburn, however, has received subpoenas from the FBI.

With Person facing six federal charges relating to fraud and corruption, Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl offered no comment on questions relating to the FBI investigation, as well. Asked if all of his players would be eligible to start the 2017 season, Pearl said they were all able to compete in his team’s most recent practice.

This topic was a recurring one during the SEC Men’s Basketball Media Day at the Omni Hotel. Coach after coach was asked about the FBI’s investigation and commented to varying degrees.

The contents of the FBI investigation didn’t shock Florida head coach Mike White, given rumors he has heard through the coaching circles.

“You hear stuff all the time — you guys hear stuff; we hear stuff,” White said. “In college basketball, we don’t know what’s true and what’s not. We do our best to try and focus on our own program.”

Mississippi head coach Andy Kennedy was flying back from a recruiting trip when he found out about the investigation and subsequent arrests. Kennedy echoed White’s sentiment but added the FBI’s involvement caught him off guard.

“Was I shocked at some of the allegations? No. I was not shocked,” Kennedy said. “Was I surprised that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was involved? Absolutely.”

Kennedy said shoe companies and third-party involvement created an influence throughout college basketball that is easy to notice. Adidas was implicated in the FBI’s round of arrests, which included the company’s head of sports marketing Jim Gatto. Gatto was booked over accusations he steered high school basketball players to schools that held contracts with Adidas. Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League is also reportedly under investigation.

With rule-breaking and illegal activity occurring at multiple programs across the country, an assumption could easily be made that most college basketball teams cheat to a degree. Vanderbilt head coach Bryce Drew disagrees with that notion.

“That’s not accurate,” Drew said. “It’s easy to clump in, all the time, every single bad thing. I’ve been around college basketball my whole life. I know for a fact that’s not accurate.”

But a perception — fair or not — has emerged that more college basketball programs break the rules than follow them. And in the worst cases, felony charges from the FBI have now been brought.

This is an area Georgia head coach Mark Fox would like to see cleaned up.

“I think the perception probably is that there is a lot of that going on,” Fox said. “But a lot of it is celebrated. The media celebrates some of this stuff by praising certain places’ ability to get players. Obviously, we all have a part in it. At the end of the day, it’s a black eye for the game. We’ve got an obligation to try and make it better.”