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A March Madness Recruiting Tale

ESPN’s Bob Ley, in Sunday’s excellent Outside the Lines segment on women’s college basketball, illuminated the “feud” between University of Tennessee Women’s basketball head coach, Pat Summit, and the University of Connecticut’s head coach, Geno Auriemma. The rivalry that was reached nasty status this summer when UConn extended a contract to continue the annual regular season meeting between the two teams and Summit and Tennessee refused.It is no secret that the coaches dislike each other. It is no secret that, as the Boston Globe’s Jackie McMillan said today on the OTL segments, that Auriemma wishes that Summit would understand the entertainment, “grow the game” through a staged rivalry side of their jobs, while Summit wishes Auriemma would take the game and everything around it more seriously and, as McMillan said, “respect the game” more.

However, there is something more than just a difference of perspective that led Summit and the Volunteer program to refuse to sign an extension for the teams’ annual meetings. The obvious question is why, but when that question was put to Summit, she refused to answer. For his part, Auriemma said that it comes down to an intense dislike on Summit’s part: “Sometimes you wonder why [somebody doesn’t like you]. I don’t know. I like me.”

It is widely rumored, though, that Summit is deeply angered by the fact that when Connecticut arranged for recruit Maya Moore to visit and tour ESPN and its studios, a secondary NCAA violation, that the Huskies program stepped over the line into an ethical gray area and is using unethical practices in its recruiting processes.

Now, it is a recent phenomenon that the two schools even talk with the same high school players. Until the last three years or so of the teams’ 13-year rivalry, Summit and Auriemma had unspoken areas of regional recruitment areas throughout the nation that neither coach breached.

Now, though, the game has changed. The stakes are higher. Top high school players are coveted by not only the Volunteers and Huskies programs, but many colleges and universities across the country. And many of the “lesser” programs do engage in shady tactics, from insinuating a rampant lesbian culture at some schools’ programs to implying that some schools secular ways or religious affiliation is antithetical to the recruit – and particularly her parents – and somehow generally immoral.

Moore’s recruitment exemplified this new recruiting climate.

That UConn had no history of providing recruits with visits to the Bristol, Connecticut ESPN complex some 100 miles from the UConn Storrs, Connecticut campus was apparent in the NCAA’s ruling that a singular, secondary violation had occurred. But the fact that they felt it necessary to arrange the visit for Moore to be ingratiated into the high-profile media culture that would be inadvertently responsible for the bulk of the coverage of her and her team and help form her collegiate image and perhaps her worth as a professional, is illustrative of the pressure Auriemma, or someone in the UConn women’s basketball program or athletic department felt to be ensured that Moore signed on the bottom line of a University of Connecticut scholarship.

That Summit, or someone in the University of Tennessee’ women’s basketball program or athletic department had “moles” established somewhere around Moore (at ESPN?) to learn of and report the visit, then, though the visit was an admittedly very minor violation report it to the NCAA is indicative of the progress made by women’s basketball and its revenue-producing potential for collegiate programs and its growing place in our sporting consciousness.

Moore’s UConn-arranged visit and UT’s reporting of that visit also represents something deeper between with the schools.

In some circles, the sudden rise of the University of Connecticut’s men’s basketball program was built on shady and unethical practices.

For nearly three decades Connecticut Men’s Basketball was the regional power in the defunct Yankee Conference. The Huskies won 18 championships between 1947 and 1975. Despite its success the program was dropped by the university. But in 1979 the program was revived as one of the seven founding member of the Big East Basketball Conference.

For the next 10 years, the program flagged behind the upper-echelon Big East schools. As a result, the inclusion into the conference of UConn and fellow perennial doormat Seton Hall was questioned. The hiring of Jim Calhoun in 1987 represented a watershed moment in the program. Though UConn suffered through a 9-19 first season, the following year the Huskies went on what seemed to be a magical run led by guard duo and first nationally-recognized recruits, Tate George, Scott Burrell, and Chris Smith, and won the NIT Tournament defeating Ohio State, 72-65. In 1990, UConn opened the Gompel Arena and began the season unranked. They ended it as Big East regular season and tournament champions, earning a #1-seed in the NCAA tournament. They advanced to the Sweet 16 and there beat Clemson, 71-70, on what is known in Huskies lore as “The Shot by George” but were defeated in the Regional finals in overtime, 79-78, by Duke. That year propelled Connecticut on what has been an 18-year run of excellence.

But the question surrounding the Huskies program was and remains, at what cost is this excellence achieved? Because Storrs is an outpost of a town, it has been a mystery as to how Calhoun was able to recruit players, particularly black players from big cities to the campus “in the middle of nothing to do.”

There have been whispers of money payments to players, car, and other illegal amenities given to high school recruits to not-so-subtly encourage them to join Calhoun’s teams. The whispers reached a head in the recruiting battle for high school All-American point guard Khalid El-Amin (1997-2000). It was widely held that El-Amin, a product of North Minneapolis, Minnesota, was headed to the University of Minnesota to play for Clem Haskins. El-Amin had a child and was engaged to his high school sweetheart and, despite being recruited by schools across the nation, wanted to stay close to home to be near his family.

However, out of the blue, El-Amin signed with the Huskies. Haskins was irate. It was said that Haskins knew that there were improprieties in El-Amin’s almost secret recruiting by UConn. The whispers became shouts when the point guard arrived on campus only to be housed in an apartment with his – by then – wife and child. In an ironic – and some would say equally mysterious – turnabout, it was Haskins who found himself under fire just two years later when a female graduate assistant made public a grade-fixing scandal within the basketball program. Haskins was blamed and summarily fired.

The burgeoning shouts and ever-probing questions into El-Amin’s circumstances – and of recruits before 1997 – were silenced. Nothing more has been made of this issue in relation to UConn.

Until Maya Moore. The whispers surrounding the basketball program at Storrs have again arisen. The thought is that this might have been a trend – perhaps not visits to ESPN’s campus, but other illegal “gifts” to female recruits – in the long-held mold of the men’s program is the backdrop to Summit’s anger.

However it must also be said that Tennessee is not at all an innocent in this tale. Summit’s reporting of UConn, though for a mush lesser violation is eerily similar to the recent shenanigans between Tennessee football head coach Philip Fulmer and the University of Alabama. When Crimson Tide recruiters and recruiters from rival SEC schools began making deep inroads in the recruiting of players from Tennessee, Fulmer illicitly taped phone conversations with Tom Culpepper, a former Rivals.com recruiting analyst. After having his insider status at Alabama cut off by Ronnie Cottrell, Former rivals.com recruiting analyst. Culpepper, after having his “insider” status at Alabama cut off by then-Crimson Tide assistant coach Ronnie Cottrell, approached Fulmer about violations in the Alabama program.

In May and August of 2000, Fulmer, against NCAA regulations, initiated two phone conversations with NCAA investigator Rich Johanningmeier, to discuss what Fulmer felt were potential NCAA rules violations at Alabama. During the Aug. 7 call, Fulmer told Johanningmeier that, “with his lawyer’s advice,” Fulmer secretly recorded 90 minutes of an eight-hour conversation with Culpepper in Chattanooga during the summer of 2000 in which Culpepper discussed information he could provide regarding NCAA rules violations at Alabama.

Fulmer alleged knowledge of a laundry list of violations committed by former Alabama head coach Mike DuBose, ‘Bama players, boosters, Auburn, Kentucky, Georgia, and the University of Alabama, and even the venerable (and deceased) Bear Bryant. Each university had made the mistake of impinging on Fulmer’s self-perceived recruiting “territory.”

Though Summit followed NCAA regulations by reporting UConn’s transgression with Moore through the University of Tennessee’s Athletic Department, the context of the reporting of this violation by Pat Summit smacks of the same type of “territorial imperative” with athletes felt by her longtime UT cohort, Fulmer.

It will be worth following and noting the continued fallout from Moore’s visit and Summit’s reporting of that visit, and its impact on the two schools. The public nature of the events and the exposing of widespread unethical recruiting tactics in what is now big-time women’s collegiate basketball acts as a “welcome to big-leagues” for the sport.

Surely, though, because women’s basketball is seen as a “purer” form of the hyper-athletic nature of the men’s game, this is not the sort of welcome the sport imagined.

However, it is the reality of sports on college campuses everywhere and women’s basketball is not immune to the petty jealousies and outright corruption that goes with the promise of massive revenues for money-starved universities across the U.S.

Like the two schools that dragged the women’s game into the nation’s consciousness, University of Tennessee and the University of Connecticut, it is – sadly – fitting that these two schools would be the ones to also introduce us to the seamier underbelly of the women’s game.

Hooray for March Madness.

Photo Credit: ICON SMI

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  • Rashad

    This was an excellent story..as was the one that involved sexuality and recruiting

  • James

    Some one should check your facts before doing such a mud flinging on a program.

    UCONN never dropped it’s program
    All of your “facts” are not supported by any factual occurance nor identified witness.
    Just look at hte ESPN womens BB desk

  • John PekkaneN

    I thought your article entitled March Madness Recruiting Tale was one of the flimsiest and laziest pieces of journalism, if journalism is the correct word, that i’ve come across. A perfect example of junk journalism. Next time pick up the phone and do some real reporting.