Tough Weekend in LA: UCLA and USC Face NCAA Problems AgainPosted by Chris Johnson on September 4th, 2012
Chris Johnson is an RTC columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Situated only 12 miles apart, an angst-inducing, traffic-clogged car ride away from one another, USC and UCLA have for many years sustained an adversarial existence on the athletic playing fields. The Trojans have dominated their cross-town rivals on the gridiron of late, while the Bruins have lorded over their cardinal-and-gold clad foes on the basketball court. The rivalry is alive and well, and both teams continue to make strides hoping to find ways to outperform one another in the revenue-producing sports. It starts with recruiting, the elemental building block to any successful program. Coaches at top programs like UCLA and USC must be able to seek out and sway the nation’s best high school players to their respective institutions. The meteoric rise of recruiting, propelled by expansive coverage from general scouting sites like Rivals, Scout, 247sports and ESPN Recruiting Nation, has pushed the art of courtship into the national spotlight, and coaches/programs are now judged on their ability not only to win games and draw fans but to also attract the best prospects in the country. The two LA schools have long stood as premium destinations for top-tier high school talents, but in today’s financially-intertwined recruiting market, these programs’ reputations, coaches, facilities and prime location – who doesn’t enjoy the comfort of a sunbath on the way to practice nearly every day of the year? – don’t hold the alluring force they once did. Often times persuading the cream of the high school crop requires more than what NCAA legislation allows.
So even when an historic program like UCLA reels in the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class – as it did in 2012, built on the backs of four commitments and featuring the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect, Shabazz Muhammad – at least some measure of suspicion is warranted. Athletic director Dan Guerrero revealed on Monday that the NCAA has shifted its analytical eye toward that prized recruiting haul. In a statement released by the school, Guerrero confirmed that two members of the Bruins’ incoming class have yet to receive eligibility clearance for the upcoming season. A recent report by Scout’s BruinReportOnline.com indicated three players (Muhammad, Kyle Anderson and Tony Parker) are in danger of losing their eligibility, but ESPN Los Angeles, citing an unnamed source, reported the ongoing probe concerns potential recruiting violations on behalf of Anderson and Muhammad. Parker, according to the same source, has been cleared to play this season. Muhammad’s recruitment has been subjected to NCAA scrutiny over the past several months, with particular concern over his relationship with financial advisers Ken Kavanagh and Benjamin Lincoln and his method of payment for several unofficial visits. Muhammad was held out of UCLA’s recent foreign exhibition tour to China, but Anderson and Parker both attended with the team (though Parker did not play due to injury).
This is nothing earth shattering: Recruiting scandals are as commonplace as touchdowns and three-point buckets in today’s college sports world. The process of elite high-major basketball recruiting has transcended traditional grounds. For years UCLA recruited itself, attracting talent on its own merits. Playing in Pauley Pavilion, donning the traditional powder blue and gold threads, enjoying the fruits of one of the finest academic curricula the West Coast has to offer, joining the tradition John Wooden largely built and other great basketball minds have since continued – there are few schools that offer a better four-year student-athlete experience. Nowadays, programs, even elite ones like UCLA, must go above and beyond the traditional methods to secure top talents. This report, while not indicative of surefire violations, is yet another instance of shady recruiting tactics at the highest levels of college basketball’s competitive totem pole. Of course, financial compensation and impermissible benefits don’t always disappear once top prospects reach campus. When third parties get involved, they often have a lasting influence on their designated clients. USC may be culpable in this regard, according to an LA Times report revealing that Scott Schenter, a centerpiece of the widespread corruption scandal at the LA County assessor’s office, provided gifts and financial benefits to running back Joe McKnight and forward Davon Jefferson a few years ago. The paper obtained emails suggesting Schenter supplied McKnight with plane tickets and a Land Rover and Jefferson with roughly $3,700 in cash. While both players have since left the school – McKnight is a member of the New York Jets and Jefferson is playing basketball overseas – USC is liable for additional NCAA sanctions if sufficient wrongdoing is discovered. The school was already hit with severe penalties (some of them self-imposed) in 2010 for recruiting violations involving star running back Reggie Bush and shooting guard O.J. Mayo.
Not that any of this should come as much of a surprise, but the separate reports over the Labor Day weekend carry the real possibility of punitive measures for both programs. For one, UCLA’s short-term outlook may be much less promising. If the NCAA finds Anderson and Muhammad have committed violations, it changes the complexion of the Bruins’ immediate outlook. UCLA expects the duo to play major minutes and shoulder a large share of the scoring load, to step in and impose their unique brands of playmaking flair on Pac-12 foes. Without those two players available intheir incoming class, the Bruins won’t finish the season the way they had hoped: with designs on a Pac-12 title and a deep NCAA Tournament run. Less than a year after Ben Howland’s reputation was left in shambles by SI reporter George Dohrmann’s bombshell report revealing rampant leadership failures and player misconduct within the program, UCLA envisioned a return to national prominence with a new batch of freshmen leading the charge. Anderson and Muhammad are integral pieces of that puzzle. Their potential ineligibility turns UCLA into a middle-of-the-pack Pac-12 team. USC’s day of reckoning – if the NCAA follows through on the LA Times report – is likely in the long run. The NCAA will need to invest the time and resources to track down the alleged violator, trace the facts back to McKnight and Jefferson and thoroughly investigate the charges brought to light. Since no current Trojans are mentioned in the report, USC need not worry about similar eligibility hurdles. Instead, the program could see another wave of punishments resembling the bundle of sanctions levied in the wake of the Mayo-Bush scandal. In fact, this report could represent an extension of those same violations.
Whatever the specifics, the LA college sports scene received bad news on behalf of its two premier programs. UCLA and USC, rivals on the field, the recruiting trail and in the tabloids, will tread lightly in the next few months as they await word from NCAA leadership on their athletes’ alleged illicit behavior. It’s uncertain whether either program will be affected, so the panic meter, at least for now, remains neutral. Of the two programs, UCLA appears in greater immediate danger. Two of its best players, as it stands today, could be ineligible to play next season. This was supposed to be Howland’s year of redemption, the year when UCLA would triumphantly emerge from its Reeves Nelson-associated doldrums and restore its rightful spot atop the elite ranks of the sport. Unless Muhammad and Anderson are cleared, that mission seems downright impossible.