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Blood sport

Skip Prosser and the brutal truth about recruiting

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Think of them as large corpuscles. Very large corpuscles. The biggest stand seven feet tall. Even some who are smaller boast wingspans--a term of art having nothing to do with aerodynamics--that stretch even wider. They are the lifeblood of men's basketball, these boys who populate the Nike All-Star Camp and similar events held across the country throughout July.

Most of the month following Independence Day is a "live period" in NCAA parlance, sending college coaches and their assistants, as well as NBA scouts, recruiting handicappers, media observers, diehard fans, and various wheelers and dealers careening from gym to airport to hotel, from Indianapolis to New Jersey to Las Vegas, in search of the raw material of on-court success and off-court fortune.

College coaches attract plenty of attention. "Coach!" fans shout in greeting wherever they go, often ignorant of the name but aware of celebrity in their midst. University of North Carolina coach Roy Williams, well-known inside the state even before the Tar Heels won the 2005 men's national championship, required bodyguards when he visited the U.S. Open at Pinehurst in June. Big-league coaches also command handsome salaries, averaging $2,000 to $4,000 a day for years at a time. Expectations and contracts are so substantial, both sides routinely indemnify themselves against any early souring of affection. The University of Virginia reportedly paid head coach Pete Gillen $2 million to go his merry way following the '05 season.

Clever and experienced as a coach may be, as handsomely as he may adorn the so-called front porch of the university, he'd better win. And to do that he needs talented players such as the youngsters Nike brings each summer to the National Institute for Fitness and Sport in downtown Indianapolis, just a stone's throw from NCAA headquarters. "I'm not crazy about it," Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser says of recruiting, "but I'm not crazy about losing, either."

Prosser considers himself an expert on Atlantic Coast Conference basketball. This seems a peculiar conceit at first blush, considering he's only been on the job at Wake for four seasons. Then again, despite its reputation for coaching excellence, the ACC experiences plenty of sideline turnover. Prosser's four-year tenure is one of the longest among active coaches, after Duke's Mike Krzyzewski (25 years), Maryland's Gary Williams (16), N.C. State's Herb Sendek (9) and Georgia Tech's Paul Hewitt (5). Al Skinner, head coach at Boston College, the ACC's newest and hopefully last member, has been on the job for eight seasons, but in a different conference.

Prosser is, like Maryland's Williams, among a dying breed who worked their way up from the prep level to become a millionaire college coach. He is not only fond of quoting "Billy Shakespeare" and otherwise displaying the literacy acquired in years as a high school teacher, but laments that "the cult of the NBA trumps the value of a [college] degree in almost every single case."

The Wake coach was highly successful at Xavier University in Cincinnati. He displays enough tartness on the bench to hold his own at Cameron Indoor Stadium and has acquired a Dean Smith-like propensity for citing exactly his program's record in ACC play and overall. Still, he found himself taken aback in several respects by competition in the ACC.

"It's a level of intensity I was unfamiliar with," he says of the grind of conference competition. Virginia Tech's Seth Greenberg, the '05 coach of the year in his first ACC season, agrees. "The league is exhausting," Greenberg notes.

Several former Prosser players are prosperous pros. Point guard Chris Paul was selected fourth in last month's NBA draft, highest for a Demon Deacon since Tim Duncan went first in 1997. Wake has at least two pro prospects on its upcoming squad in center Eric Williams and guard Justin Gray. Yet, even with Paul, Williams and Gray, the Deacons faded in postseason play in 2005 and were thoroughly overshadowed by UNC, which had four players taken among the top 14 in the draft. "No one told me that, but that's become my opinion--the team that has the most NBA players wins the league," Prosser says.

Which brings the discussion back to recruiting.

A handful of elite programs, their gear already adorning many a young player, enter the summer talent-hunting season with instantly recognizable head coaches and a winning mystique. Arizona, Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina belong to this group, followed closely by Connecticut, Michigan State and several others. These programs tend to select to fit their needs, with more than enough interested players awaiting a call. Stars of the Nike camp included Tywon Lawson, a point guard planning to attend UNC, and Jonathan Scheyer, a forward headed for Duke. High school players can sign in the fall of their senior year, shortening the hassles of the recruiting experience while freeing grateful coaches to concentrate on landing the next batch of prospects.

The rest of the big-time college basketball universe makes do. Wake has commitments from a pair of players at Nike--Anthony Gurley, a prominent prospect from Massachusetts, and L.D. Williams, a less polished hopeful from Yadkinville. Players on hand also were pledged to Florida State, Maryland and Virginia Tech.

The quest for talent is not always a savory affair, leading NCAA rules to proliferate like subdivision regulations in a fast-growing jurisdiction. Much as governments write rules to close loopholes exploited by cagey or civically indifferent developers, so the NCAA reacts to coaches who shave corners to get ahead. Honest recruits and coaches inevitably suffer as a result, and there is much talk of unnecessary regulation.

Ethical coaches also struggle in an environment where the money at stake leads informal agents to shop youngsters to secure the best deal they can. One former ACC player at Nike worried his refusal to compromise with sleazy operators would prevent his getting the players necessary to win and keep his coaching job.

This state of affairs is, of course, nothing new. Pervasive cheating and an inability of institutions of higher learning to police themselves led to creation of the NCAA in the first place.

Cheating to get or keep players in school is a carefully calculated risk with considerable revenue and prestige to be gained if managed successfully. Every year the coaching ranks are thinned as illegal inducements, unsavory academic practices and other shenanigans are revealed. Often offending head coaches skip town a step ahead of the NCAA posse, letting assistants take the fall while denying knowledge in true Nixonian fashion.

Several Southeastern Conference coaches privately reel off the names of successful colleagues they suspect of cheating. Yet turning in a fellow coach is still as likely to meet with ridicule as applause.

No one is too pure to be above reproach. UNC's Williams recently learned this bitter lesson when news surfaced that a few boosters gave minor gifts to departing players when Williams was head coach at Kansas. Williams claimed all but one instance occurred without his knowledge. "I take compliance with NCAA rules very seriously," he protested in a statement.

Williams couldn't help but add: "I did not know the rule that once you are a student-athlete, you are a student-athlete until death." Any restrictions to that effect surely reflected past NCAA experience with schools that offered illegal, deferred compensation to players who completed their eligibility.

Not all cheating meets with disapproval. Once, Bobby Cremins, the former Georgia Tech coach noted as a bit of a naif, arrived at a meeting of ACC coaches raving about the prospect he had just seen in New York. His colleagues burst out laughing, recalls Maryland coach Gary Williams. They knew, as Cremins apparently did not, that coaches were forbidden to be on the road at the time. Cremins was many things, but never so cagey that he would attempt to hide his dirty laundry in full view of his fiercest rivals.

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