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4 Wildly Illegal College Recruiting Scandals

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As cinematic classics go, it's hard to beat the Shaquille O'Neal vehicle Blue Chips. (Okay, fine, it's exceedingly easy to beat it. Still, for Shaq's canon, it looks like Citizen Kane.) The tale of a corrupt hoops coach plying recruits like Shaq and Penny Hardaway with cash and jobs showed a nasty underbelly to college sports. Does crooked recruiting like that really happen, though? Yep. Here are just a few examples of wildly illegal recruiting scandals:

1. SMU Gets the Death Penalty

Southern Mehtodist may not be a football powerhouse now, but it was pretty stout in the 1940s and 1950s. Eventually, though, the small school's program started to lag, and the Mustangs had to resort to ethically dubious recruiting tactics throughout the 1970s. Unfortunately, while the school was good at being underhanded, it was horrendous at evading detection. Between 1974 and 1985, the NCAA slapped SMU with probation five times for various offenses.

smu.jpgIt was during one of these probations that the NCAA discovered an even bigger problem at SMU: Sherwood Blount, a former Mustangs player and local real estate mogul, had built a slush fund from which the school paid players. Some got cash to sign with the Mustangs (linebacker David Stanley hauled in $25,000 to sign in 1983), while others received monthly stipends of as much as $725. Over $47,000 in cash changed hands during the 1985-86 academic year, and the athletic department knew about all of it.

Given the program's spotty ethical history, the NCAA was appropriately livid about these violations and slapped the school with a somewhat softened version of "the death penalty." The NCAA cancelled the team's 1987 season and practices; the players could only take part in conditioning drills. The team could start playing again in 1988, but the NCAA cancelled all of the team's home games that season. (The school ended up not playing at all in 1988.) The team wasn't allowed to do any off-campus recruiting for two years, and it lost 55 scholarships over the next four years. All of the players received their complete release from the program so they could transfer to other schools without losing any years of eligibility. The Mustangs haven't won a bowl game since.

2. Chris Mills' Gain is Kentucky's Loss

kentucky-shame.jpgYou might remember Chris Mills as a mediocre NBA journeyman and even worse rapper, but back in 1988 he was one of the hottest hoops prospects in the country. Kentucky was hot in the recruiting derby for Mills, so UK assistant coach Dwane Casey began a correspondence with Mills' dad. Much to the chagrin of Cats fans, Casey should have invested in nicer envelopes. One of the Emery overnight envelopes Casey sent to Mills' father burst open while in transit, and $1,000 in cash flew out. The ensuing scandal cost Casey and head coach Eddie Sutton their jobs, and the NCAA nailed the Wildcats with five years of probation. Of course, it wasn't all bad for UK; Sutton's exit opened up the door for the school to lure Rick Pitino to the Bluegrass State, a serious windfall for Lexington's designer-suits-and-hair-gel industry.

3. Dionysian Recruiting Days at Colorado

Who needs to pay players? After all, they're just 17-year-old kids, so you can give them what they really want: booze and female companionship. That seemed to be the operating principle for the University of Colorado's recruiting efforts during the tenure of former head coach Gary Barnett. When recruits came to visit the Buffs' on their home turf, they received a flurry of alcohol and female attention at off-campus parties.

Boulder County prosecutors would later accuse the program of using sex to entice recruits to commit to the school, and local strip clubs would admit that current players had hired strippers for recruiting visit. This might just sound like innocent college fun, but several women later claimed they'd been raped during these booze-soaked recruiting visits. Surprisingly, Coach Barnett didn't lose his job over any of these allegations. Instead, the school bought out his contract at the end of the 2005 season because he'd committed an even greater sin in the warped morality of the college football world: losing.

4. Michigan Booster Turns The Team Into Losers

fab-five.jpgQuick, how many games did the "Fab Five" Michigan hoops team officially win in the 1992-93 season? What about the Wolverines in the 1995-96 season through the 1998-99 seasons? If you guessed more than "zero," you were too high. The school vacated all of its victories in those years due to a massive recruiting and payment scandal that centered on booster Ed Martin.

From the 1980s on through the mid-1990s, Martin provided all sorts of money to Michigan recruits and players. Between the time when Chris Webber was an eighth grader and his last year at Michigan, Martin gave him upwards of $280,000. This wasn't some under-the-table rogue booster, either; Martin actually went on official recruiting trips with head coach Steve Fisher and stayed in the team's hotel rooms at the 1993 Final Four. In all, Martin gave at least $600,000 to players like Webber, Maurice Taylor, and Robert Traylor.

Where was Martin getting all of this cash? He was running an illegal lottery at the Ford plant where he worked. After the dust cleared, Chris Webber had to admit to the federal government that he'd lied about the cash he'd received from Martin, Michigan had to vacate all of those victories and put itself on probation, Steve Fisher lost his job, and Martin died of a pulmonary embolism.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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