Gray scale: Recruiters struggle with perfectly legal yet ethically questionable

Nearly 20 years ago, Eddie Sutton resigned as Kentucky coach after a package sent from assistant Dwane Casey to the father of recruit Chris Mills opened in transit, spilling $1,000 for all to see.

Pardon some coaches if they wax nostalgic for the days gone by, when rule breaking was clear-cut and obvious.

Like the evolution from Chuck Taylors to Air Jordans, the art of cheating has been refined and streamlined.

Sure, rules still are being flat-out broken the old-fashioned way, but the new wave sweeping the game is rule circumvention, not rule breaking. Clever coaches are employing a strong grip on semantics to expose loopholes and reinterpret rules to their benefit.

It's not so much cheating as it's, well …

"You mean shady?" Texas Tech coach Pat Knight supplied.

Here's some ways cheating is made in the shade these days:

Carefully choreographed elite camps; travel team coaches suddenly ending up on college benches with their super-stud players conveniently going along for the ride; speaking fees for those same coaches at colleges that just happen to be recruiting their players. It's all ethically questionable yet mostly on the up-and-up.

Why break a rule and buy a kid a hamburger when you can obey a rule and buy his coach?

"People are always going to work the gray areas," Georgetown coach John Thompson III said. "Most people if they've had any success in life have learned how to work the gray areas."

Guided by the security that no foul equates to no harm, coaches are pretzel-bending the NCAA bylaws, using a wink and Cheshire cat grin to trample and shred the original intent of the rulebook.

"Instead of having a really good skill instructor on your staff, you're better off with a lawyer who can parse the rulebook," Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli said. "You need someone who can say, 'I got it. Eureka! I got the loophole.'"

But the perfectly legal yet ethically questionable choices are causing a growing divide among college basketball people.

On one side are those who argue that they're being attacked yet technically haven't done anything wrong. This isn't about clandestine meetings or dark alley exchanges. Everything people are railing about is done in broad daylight because everything is within the framework of the rules.

"I don't even know why we're talking about this," said Larry Orton, the father of top recruit Daniel Orton, who has been sucked into the maelstrom thanks to his son's recruitment at Kentucky. "It's all legal. It's perfectly legal."

But on the other side is a growing number of coaches -- Martelli among them -- who see things a little differently. They don't see clever coaches so much as they see master manipulators, people who carelessly blur the ethical lines of the game without an interest in anything more than self-preservation.

They also see coaches who play by the rules fired for lack of production and coaches who report other coaches ostracized.

Worse, they see the very notion of college athletics taking a bath, sucked under by gamesmanship instead of sportsmanship.

"An awful lot of people have benefited or risen in the coaching ranks with huge raises as a result of being clever," Cal coach Mike Montgomery said. "And then there are the other guys, the ones sitting out there saying, 'I've followed all these rules and done it with the actual intent of the rule and I'm making a buck ninety-five.' Where's the incentive to do right?"

Wednesday marked the end of the early signing period. It should be a day to celebrate the future of the game as college kids inked their names to their futures.

Instead, most people exit November asking one question: What did that coach do to get that kid?

"There's an awful lot of money moving underground to get kids where they need to get to develop relationships," Montgomery said. "I just sit here and wonder, how are all these kids making unofficial visits 3,000 miles from home? How are they getting to these elite camps? Somebody is paying for it and that is very troubling to me."

The distrust and skepticism among coaches is almost palpable. This is a fraternity of men who spend as much time looking over their shoulders as they do breaking down game tape.

The paranoia is not at all unfounded. One AAU coach said that when it comes to recruiting the top echelon of players, "you can bet somebody is getting something."

But when the something someone is getting is entirely permissible, what do you do?

Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie, who impishly tweaks the NCAA at every turn, came under fire not once, not twice but three times in the past six months. First he lured a verbal commitment from an eighth grader, prompting the National Association of Basketball Coaches to recommend coaches refrain from making scholarship offers until after a recruit's sophomore year of high school.

Then he moved Midnight Madness up one week, prompting emergency legislation from the NCAA Board of Directors to cement the Midnight Madness date.

And the day after that early madness he got a commitment from Daniel Orton, a top-10 player. Orton played for his father, Larry, on the Athletes First travel team. According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, Larry Orton pocketed $4,800 from Kentucky for 16 speaking engagements at Wildcats summer camps. Terrence Crawford, Daniel's stepbrother, was paid $1,950 for nine talks he gave to Kentucky campers. It was all perfectly legal since coaches are allowed to be paid for speaking engagements, even if they also happen to be related to a recruit.

Daniel Orton, by the way, attended two of Kentucky's camps.

Critics argue it's little more than well-couched payola done under the artifice of the rules. By hiring Larry Orton, Kentucky basically funded Daniel's camp appearances, allowing the Wildcats to bring a top recruit on campus before he was allowed an official visit.

"It shouldn't be allowed," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said, "but it is."

Even Gillispie understands the criticism.

"I think the rule -- I've been in favor of the rule being changed for a long time," Gillispie said about being allowed to pay coaches to speak at his camps. "I think that's best for everyone."

But the rule hasn't been changed, and consequently, there is nothing more than the perception of a dirty deal.

Larry Orton insists that Kentucky did nothing to sway his son's decision. He also was paid to speak at camps at Oklahoma State and Kansas (attempts by ESPN.com to access records were denied since the camps are run privately and not funded by the universities) and Daniel attended elite camps at Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Baylor and Connecticut.

"Don't talk to me about how it looks, talk to me about the facts," Larry Orton said. "Did someone break a rule? The answer is no."

Glance down a college bench sometime. Count the number of people in uniform.

And then count the number of men in suits. You'll find less sartorial splendor on Wall Street.

Administrative assistants, video coordinators, director of recruiting, assistant director of recruiting -- you need a job on a college staff, it can be created, titled and filled. And the job requirements are the same as they are worldwide: It's all about who you know.

When Doug Overton left the Saint Joe's bench for the NBA this year, Martelli found himself in the market for an assistant coach.

"I had four or five guys call me and say, 'Hey if you hire me, I can deliver this guy,'" Martelli said. "It made my skin crawl."

Coaches like to argue the chicken or the egg question -- which came first, the recruit or his parent/handler/strength coach/travel team coach/Svengali? -- but there's no doubt so-called package deals smell like rotten eggs.

Michael Beasley was supposed to go to Charlotte, and in fact, had given Bobby Lutz a verbal commitment. But when Beasley's former DC Assault coach, Dalonte Hill, left Lutz's bench for a similar assistant's job at Kansas State, Beasley went with him. Beasley went on to become the player of the year and Hill the associate head coach at K-State, to the tune of $400,000 a year.

Instead of having a really good skill instructor on your staff, you're better off with a lawyer who can parse the rulebook. You need someone who can say, 'I got it. Eureka! I got the loophole.'

--Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli

Now the nation's capital to Little Apple train is chugging along smoothly. Three other former DC Assault players (Jamar Samuels, Dominique Sutton and Ron Anderson) are on the current roster. Two more (Wally Judge and Rodney McGruder) signed letters of intent last week and will join the Wildcats next season. And DC Assault point guard Daryl Trayhnam, a member of the Class of 2010, has K-State on his short list.

Chris Walker has established a similar pipeline at New Mexico. Since the former T-Mac All-Stars coach joined Steve Alford, the Lobos have brought four T-Mac players to town (Will Brown, A.J. Hardeman, Phillip McDonald and Curtis Dennis) and will welcome another (Jamal Fenton) next season.

After Mario Chalmers sank his dramatic game-tying 3-pointer in the national championship game, he got to celebrate with his dad, Ronnie, who was the director of basketball operations on Bill Self's staff. Since that game, Mario Chalmers has left for the NBA and his father has resigned from his position.

At Arizona State, James Harden has said reconnecting with his high school coach, Scott Pera (who arrived in 2006, two years before Harden), was part of his attraction to the Sun Devils. At Memphis, Tyreke Evans is sharing bench space with his personal strength and conditioning coach, Lamont Peterson, an administrative assistant to John Calipari; and next season top recruit Xavier Henry will join brother C.J. Henry there. Once committed to Kansas, C.J. originally signed a professional baseball contract with the Yankees, but in what the local newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, termed a "surprising recruiting turn," he joined the Tigers in August as a walk-on. He also had considered Kansas, the runner-up to Xavier's choice and alma mater of the boys' father, Carl.

John Wall, considered one of the top recruits in this senior class, has deferred his decision until spring. One of the schools on his short list is Baylor, which this year hired his D-One Sports coach, Dwon Clifton.

"It's sort of like Wall Street and the traders," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "If something just doesn't seem right, it probably isn't. But what can you do?"

Absolutely nothing. The NCAA can no more mandate who a coach hires as his assistant than it can dictate who a university names as its head coach, and you'll have better luck proving the existence of Sasquatch than you will a tacit package deal. Assistant coaches come out of the high school ranks all the time, so who's to say which hire is dirty and which isn't?

Besides, in today's game, even the most honest coach would reluctantly agree that these convenient pairings can make good business sense.

Basketball isn't complicated. The team with the best players generally wins and the team that wins generally keeps its coach employed. An assistant who can work the recruiting trail, or better yet, come armed with already established relationships, is more valuable today than a guy who can coach a big man solid footwork.

Illinois went to the NCAA tournament in both 2006 and 2007, and while its quick (second- and first-round, respectively) exits were tough to swallow, Bruce Weber didn't find his fanny placed firmly on the hot seat until last season, when Eric Gordon turned tail for Indiana.

"If I had an opening and there was a successful AAU coach, I wouldn't not look at him because he's an AAU coach," Jim Boeheim said. "I have a lot of coaches who are good recruiters. The fact that they know someone isn't going to be a deal-breaker for me. If you're asking me would I hire a coach just to get a certain player? No. I wouldn't do that. Does that happen? Sure."

Here's the one thing everyone can agree on: No one wants more NCAA rules. The reason the NCAA rulebook has swelled to its current 439-page girth is because of chronic rewrites and amendments necessitated by clever rule interpretation.

There was a time when the rules only mandated how many and how often a coach could call a recruit. And then along came text messaging. Lo and behold, a new rule was born.

Many members of the NABC believe it's time for coaches to stop looking to the NCAA to fix what ails them and instead look in the mirror.

Martelli points to the NABC's strong voice against early commitments and its quick action to help quell further early midnight madness sessions as evidence that a strong, proactive group using a little peer pressure and common sense can get things done.

Their argument isn't just that the actions of some are hurting the perception of the game, but that by chewing on the outside edges of the rules, coaches are only hurting themselves.

The NABC has been begging university presidents to allow coaches more access with their teams, particularly in the summer months, when players work out on their own.

They fear that presidents will see coaches who manipulate an inch into 45 miles and will be loath to grant them any more leniency.

"There's no doubt that presidents are paying attention to us and they want us to be more accountable," said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. "The NABC has to grow some more teeth."

Martelli said the organization quietly has done just that. This summer, he said, coaches made private phone calls to colleagues, quietly urging them to stop sending assistant coaches to elite camps for middle schoolers.

He believes that sort of private muscle versus public embarrassment is the key to changing the culture of the game.

"We don't want people to be defensive -- why are you coming after me?" he said. "But I honestly believe there is a groundswell of people who are willing to pick up the phone and say, 'Yes it's legal, but do you really think it's OK?' Is that naïve? Maybe I'll say I'd rather be naïve in this case."

But cynics argue that asking college coaches to self-police is like asking politicians to play fair.

"What's dirtier: college basketball or politics?" Pat Knight said. "Let's put it this way. None of us are going to run for office."

There's simply too much at stake -- not just lots of zeros on a paycheck, but jobs in general. Coaches are guided by a no-snitch mentality as strict as any you'll find anywhere, terrified that the same group that preaches collegiality will shun a rat in an instant (ask Bruce Pearl).

So they put on the blinders when dirty deals go down and throw up their hands when ethical quandaries erupt.

When someone is outed as a cheater or rule bender, they publicly gasp in indignation and privately snicker -- "It's laughable," Montgomery said. "Oooh, wow, look at that guy. Well, he didn't invent it."

And while many legitimately fret that the image of their game is being sullied by the questionable decisions of the few, they grudgingly accept the fact that two things never change:

Rules are meant to be broken.

And everything is subject to interpretation.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. (ESPN.com senior writer Pat Forde contributed to this story.)