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NC State Case Shows Black Assistant Coaches Still Pay the Heaviest Price

Significant penalties were assessed to former head coach Mark Gottfried and former assistant coach Orlando Early. The differences between their sanctions is stark.
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The NCAA’s self-titled infractions “off-ramp,” which for so long has been a road to nowhere, has finally issued its first ruling. The end result looks a lot like everything else pertaining to the federal investigation of corruption in college basketball: harder on fired Black assistant coaches than anyone else.

The Independent Accountability Review Process handed North Carolina State its fate Monday, and the Wolfpack can exhale. They are eligible to compete in the 2022 postseason, though the current 7–4 team will have to do a lot of work to make the NCAA Tournament. There were some light recruiting sanctions and the usual fines, but there was no postseason ban assessed.

(Panel chair Dana Welch cited a reluctance “to punish the students that are currently competing.” Whether this first IARP resolution stands as lax precedent for anxious fans of Louisville, Kansas, LSU, Arizona and Memphis remains to be seen.)

The more significant penalties were assessed to two former NC State coaches, and the differences between their sanctions is stark. This falls in line with everything else that has transpired since the FBI started looking into the college basketball sausage factory.

Former head coach Mark Gottfried was given a one-year show-cause penalty, which in theory is a big deal for a current head coach, but in reality not much. Gottfried is at Cal State-Northridge, but he’s been on paid administrative leave since the spring due to another potential rules violation at that school. The news Monday gives Northridge one more reason to end its relationship with Gottfried at some point, although the school is not there yet according to a statement from its athletic director.

Former assistant coach Orlando Early got it much harder. Early was given a six-year show cause due to his hands-on involvement in arranging for Adidas bag man T.J. Gassnola to pay $40,000 to a representative of the family of former top recruit Dennis Smith, Jr. Gassnola laid out the plot in federal court, handing the NCAA a whopper case that ends closer to a whimper.

Early didn’t cooperate with the NCAA investigation, essentially signing up for the harsh penalty that was assessed. But his fate also underscores the age-old inequality of the crime-and-punishment system in college sport.

Assistant coaches—most often Black—take on the big risks in recruiting and pay the heavy prices when caught breaking rules. Head coaches—most often white— insulate themselves enough to proclaim plausible deniability and salvage their careers.

In 2017, the feds pinched Chuck Person of Auburn, Lamont Evans of Oklahoma State, Tony Bland of USC and Emanuel “Book” Richardson of Arizona. All were fired by their schools. All were charged with federal crimes and pled guilty.

Since then, other Black assistants have found themselves in the crosshairs as the SDNY investigation became an NCAA probe: Corey Barker at TCU; Preston Murphy at Creighton; Kurtis Townsend at Kansas; Kenny Johnson at Louisville; Early at NC State. Only Townsend’s employment remains unaffected (for now).

Person and Evans were hit with 10-year show cause penalties. Barker was given a five-year show cause; Bland three years; Murphy two. And there is Early’s freshly applied six-year sanction. Richardson, Johnson and Townsend should learn their fate in 2022.

Their white bosses haven’t faced anything nearly so dire. Rick Pitino was fired quickly at Louisville, but that was because of a succession of scandals—and he’s already made a re-entry into college coaching at Iona. Sean Miller eventually was fired at Arizona, but not before collecting several more years of multimillion-dollar salary. Auburn’s Bruce Pearl just served a whopping two-game suspension. LSU’s Will Wade was suspended for the end of the 2019 season, but that was more due to a refusal to meet with his superiors than actually being caught on wiretap discussing a “strong-ass offer” for a recruit. Since then, he has coached unimpeded while making a strong-ass salary.

North Carolina State Wolfpack head coach Mark Gottfried and assistant coach Orlando Early (right) in their game against the Duke Blue Devils.

And then there is Bill Self, teflon don of the sport. Not only has Self not been sanctioned by Kansas, he was given a “lifetime” contract last April, at least a year before knowing whether Self will face any sanctions from its current infractions case.

The optics and mechanics of these infractions cases remain so incredibly bad for college athletics, yet they never seem to change. Assistant Dwane Casey was run out of college basketball for his part in a scandal at Kentucky in the late 1980s, while his boss, Eddie Sutton, landed at Oklahoma State and continued a Hall of Fame career. Larry Gay and Scooter McCray lost their assistant coaching positions at Louisville in the 1990s while Denny Crum remained untouchable. In football, Todd McNair’s college career ended in the Reggie Bush scandal at USC, while Pete Carroll jetted off to be a star head coach in the NFL.

The defense in these cases remains laughable, but also remains effective: the head coach simply had no idea that violations were taking place underneath his nose. The NCAA got so tired of that excuse that it passed bylaws calling for head coaches to be held responsible for what their assistants were doing—and yet they still aren’t exactly being hammered when sanctions are delivered.

“As I knew it would, this decision reiterates that I had no knowledge of or involvement in any payment,” Gottfried said in a statement through his attorney, Scott Tompsett. “Although I am disappointed in the panel’s finding that I failed to sufficiently monitor, I appreciate the panel recognizing that the facts warrant a mitigated penalty.”

Gottfried’s fingerprints weren’t on the money, but the infractions report from the Infractions Review Panel showed that he was hardly in the dark where Gassnola was involved with NC State:

“In an interview conducted by the enforcement staff, (Gottfried) recalled discussing (Smith) with (Gassnola), but failed to remember any details,” the report read. “In interviews with the enforcement staff, several members of the NC State men’s basketball department recollected (Gassnola’s) presence on campus, at practices, and at intercollegiate athletics events on multiple occasions in 2015. Furthermore, (Gottfried) and (Early) communicated frequently with (Gassnola) during 2015, as detailed extensively in the statement of facts. As discussed in the statement of facts, many of these communications were clustered around events significant to the recruitment of prospective student-athlete No. 1, including the arrangement for the payment of $40,000.”

The report dives into some of the details of those communications: “On November 2, 2015, the day (Gassnola) flew to Raleigh and delivered $40,000 in cash to (Early), (Gottfried) spoke by phone to (Gassnola) for six minutes and texted with him twice.” The following day, Gottfried received two calls from Gassnola. And in the next week, leading up to Smith signing his letter of intent with NC State, Gottfried exchanged one call and four texts with Gassnola.

Perhaps Gassnola saved all the money talk for his many conversations with Early, and simply discussed the weather with Gottfried. It also seems reasonable to wonder whether Gottfried might want to be intimately involved in every development pertaining to the highest-rated recruit he landed in six seasons at NC State. Failure to prove anything beyond talking about the weather is the difference between a one-year show cause and six years.

Gottfried’s college coaching career should be over at this point, but the fact that he got another job and earned a lot more money in the midst of this interminable investigation revealed how easy it can be to push around inept campus leadership. Northridge shocked the sport when it hired Gottfried and has gotten what it deserves—three losing seasons and another investigation.

In the end, the system almost always rewards the head coaches. And in many ways, that system depends on guys like Early and Richardson not cooperating with NCAA probes. It absolutely depends on guys like Glassnola telling investigators to pound sand.

Christian Dawkins, the scammer who was at the heart of the SDNY probe, made his opinion clear in a 2020 documentary about the culpability of head coaches like Wade and Miller who were caught on FBI wiretaps talking to him about players. But what sticks to them is rarely as significant as what sticks to the assistants who stick their necks out to get the deals done. North Carolina State is the latest in a decades-long line of such cases.

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