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.

May 7, 2009 - 10:24am
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