Four assistant coaches at four Division 1 schools were indicted by the FBI for fraud and corruption schemes and former Celtics coach Rick Pitino was placed on unpaid administrative leave by Louisville amid a federal bribery investigation.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens spent 15 years as a college assistant coach and head coach. He led mid-major Butler University to two NCAA championship game appearances before taking the Boston job in 2013. Stevens represented the new-look college coach making the adjustment to the NBA.
Thirty years prior, Pitino made that transition from Providence and failed miserably, especially during his stint with the Celtics. There was a brashness about him and John Calipari that soured NBA players and executives. They were too arrogant, convinced they would unleash their brilliant minds on a primitive game and become NBA coaching legends.
Both were ushered back to college basketball, where each has won a national title but their recruiting methods have gotten their programs on probation for previous actions.
Stevens has enjoyed impressive NBA success in his four seasons, leading the retooled franchise into the Eastern Conference finals last season. He sparked a new generation of NBA coaches nabbed from college such as Billy Donovan, Fred Hoiberg, and Quin Snyder.
Stevens ran a clean program at Butler and made the smooth transition to the NBA, but he doesn’t believe college basketball is perfect. What’s more, while he is consumed with the Celtics, he still closely follows Butler and the college game.
“It’s sad to see that stuff,” he said. “At the same time I want to be respectful of all the legalities and processes that are going on. I guess I really don’t have a comment other than that because I don’t want to jump to conclusions. I don’t think that would be right.
“Clearly there’s an issue. And I think there’s a lot of guys that are going to be not talked about that are doing it right and have done it right for a long, long time. Certainly, I don’t think you can paint college athletics with a broad brush. There’s a lot of guys doing it the other way, too.”
When asked whether college athletes should be paid, Stevens didn’t say no. He offered an astute answer of the changing times. The Celtics have drafted two one-and-done players in the past two years. They also drafted two-and-dones in Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart. All four undoubtedly made the jump to the NBA because they felt they were ready for the next level, but finances obviously played a part in the decision.
If NBA first-round picks are offered guaranteed contracts of at least three seasons, why not make the plunge? Why not be compensated for playing basketball instead of living moderately in college? These are questions that even the most honest college coaches have to answer and address.
“I think that whole deal is something that will be a discussion for another time,” Stevens said. “But there’s a right way to do it, if that’s the case. I certainly think that there’s a top small percentage [of players] that really bring a lot of attention to their programs and ultimately probably have some market value themselves at that age.
“And then there’s a large number of players that are on scholarships that don’t bring their scholarship amounts to the table from a marketing perspective. The hard part from an NCAA perspective would be determining how you divide that. But that’s somebody else’s job. I have to coach the Celtics.”
Jaylen Brown left the University of California after one season because he was a projected lottery pick. The Celtics took him third overall.
“With all the scandals and things going on right now, I can tell you it’s probably more people involved than they have right now,” he said. “It’s definitely a problem in the system for sure, just being grown up and raised through it, but it’s going to be interesting to see [how it turns out]. I’m glued in and interested to see how things play out.”
When asked how he determined sleazy recruiters from honest ones, Brown, a premium recruit out of Atlanta in 2015, said, “That’s tough. That’s a good question. At the end of the day, I made the decision I wanted to do. I didn’t let anybody influence my decision. I didn’t take anything from anybody. But as a kid, you got to try to make the best decision you can.”
It’s not easy when money is readily available for a 16-year-old who may feel he’ll eventually be exploited by the system. But players and coaches all over the NBA are paying close attention to their college brethren because many of them privately realize the corruption that has been ongoing for years.