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Fighting the good fight

Members of the Division I Men’s Basketball Ethics Coalition look to make a difference in challenging times

Toledo men’s basketball coach Tod Kowalczyk says while the vast majority of coaches conduct themselves with integrity, the few who cut corners “make a black cloud for everybody.” (Photo Credit: University of Toledo)

Division I Men’s Basketball Ethics Coalition

  • Dennis Gates, Cleveland State.
  • Dwayne Killings, Albany (New York).
  • Tod Kowalczyk, Toledo, chair.
  • Danny Manning, former head coach.
  • Donnie Marsh, Florida Gulf Coast.
  • Fran McCaffery, Iowa.
  • Martin Newton, Samford.
  • Vann Pettaway, former head coach.
  • Jean Prioleau, San Jose State.
  • Brett Reed, Lehigh.
  • Mike Rhoades, VCU.
  • Craig Robinson, National Association of Basketball Coaches.
  • Dedrique Taylor, Cal State Fullerton.
  • Wayne Tinkle, Oregon State.
  • Bruce Weber, Kansas State.
  • Mike Young, Virginia Tech.

After a massive storm hits, there are usually better days ahead. But what happens when the dark clouds linger, and the uncertainty remains?

This is the feeling of some in the Division I men’s basketball coaching community. In September 2017, the sport was rocked by the news that peers in their profession were arrested on fraud and corruption charges in an FBI investigation. The scandal involved accusations of a major sportswear company funneling money to players and of coaches taking bribes to steer student-athletes toward financial advisors and agents.

Most of the details that came to light painted a negative picture of intercollegiate sports and the coaching profession. As the drama played out in the U.S. courts, the reputational hits to the profession kept coming. Those who resisted the temptation of cutting corners felt like they were lumped into the same category as those who had succumbed to the pressures of reaching success.

More than three years later, the frustration among Division I men’s basketball coaches remains high as they wait to see how the NCAA infractions process plays out.

Amid these challenges, a group of coaches who serve on the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Ethics Coalition is working to encourage their peers to rise above the pressures and to help them navigate ethical dilemmas in what can sometimes seem to be an unequal playing field.

The role of the ethics coalition

Created in 2009 as a collaborative effort between the National Association of Basketball Coaches and the NCAA enforcement staff, the ethics coalition promotes ethical conduct among NCAA Division I men’s basketball coaches through education, leadership and mentoring.

The coalition is charged with:

  • Identifying ethical issues facing Division I men’s basketball coaches and providing general guidance to coaches on possible ways to deal with those issues through educational and reference materials.
  • Providing leadership by “walking the walk and talking the talk” with regard to ethical conduct. The coalition is vocal in addressing ethical issues and seeking to build a coalition of coaches committed to ethical behavior.
  • Acting as quasi-mentors and resources to other coaches on ethical issues and concerns. Coalition members are available to consult with other coaches on ways to resolve ethical problems.

Tod Kowalczyk

Tod Kowalczyk, ethics coalition chair and coach at Toledo, has seen the ups and downs in the profession for over 30 years as an assistant and head coach. He has run the Rockets men’s basketball program since the 2010-11 season, and he took his first head coaching position at Green Bay in 2002.

“We’re no different from most professions,” said Kowalczyk, who led Toledo to the Mid-American Conference regular-season title in 2021 and a berth in the National Invitation Tournament. “Ninety-five percent of college coaches do things the right way and stand for the right things. It’s the 5% that are trying to cut corners that make a black cloud for everybody.”

Dennis Gates, another member of the ethics coalition, is in his second year as the head coach at Cleveland State. He began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Marquette in 2003 and then worked for several teams as a full-time assistant, most notably at his alma mater California (2005-07) and Florida State (2011-19).

He said he was told to always do the right thing at every campus he worked.

“You have to understand on the front end what this profession is about,” said Gates, who was named the Horizon League coach of the year the past two seasons and led the Vikings to the first round of the 2021 NCAA tournament. “We get hired to get fired, so trying to avoid the inevitable by cutting corners isn’t the way to go.”

Kowalczyk, Gates and VCU’s Mike Rhoades, another ethics coalition member, all said they had strong mentors while making their way through the profession.

Now, they are running their own programs, and they are grooming the next generation of coaches to avoid the pitfalls of the business.

“I talk to a lot of young coaches, and the No. 1 thing is be yourself,” Rhoades said. “You have one reputation and one name. You should honor that by the decisions you make and by the way you go about your job.”

As a member of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Ethics Coalition, Cleveland State coach Dennis Gates says his job is “to help young coaches navigate a way to be comfortable enough to do the right things to be successful.” (Photo Credit: Cleveland State University)

Succumbing to pressure

Coaching Division I men’s basketball has the potential to be a high-earning career. 

The pressure coaches place on themselves to advance in their careers combined with external pressure from fans and media scrutiny can bring temptation.

It’s a fast-paced profession, and many times those involved are only as good as the last recruit brought in or the last game won. While there are examples of coaches who find longevity on one campus, it is a fleeting occurrence for most involved.

Mike Rhoades

“People think, ‘To get here, I have to do this shortcut, and I don’t care,’” said Rhoades, whose team earned a berth in the 2021 NCAA tournament but was unable to play due to positive COVID-19 tests. “They think, ‘It will help me get here.’ Well, you have to live with it. The status and money involved in DI basketball at the highest level is where you get people making bad decisions for themselves.”

The idea of competing against another team that may be cutting corners to gain an advantage is tough for coaches to accept. Kowalczyk and the other members of the ethics coalition hope sharing more information about the infractions process can build understanding and help alleviate coaches’ lingering frustrations.

“We are learning more from NCAA enforcement and learning the reasons of what they have to go through,” Kowalczyk said. “It isn’t common knowledge in the coaching fraternity. I wish it was.”

The NCAA enforcement staff could not begin its investigations stemming from the recent Southern District of New York cases while the federal court cases were being decided. This moratorium lasted for 20 months, and enforcement issued its first infractions allegations related to the federal charges two months later. Other infractions cases followed, with five more introduced before the end of 2019 and more in early 2020. The NCAA has released penalties in a few cases, but one of those is in the appeals process.

Until all the pending allegations are heard through the NCAA infractions process, all anyone can do is wait.

“I’m disappointed this is still going on, but it is what it is,” Rhoades said. “Hopefully, the right things occur in the end, and the people who did wrong are punished, and the people who do right continue on and respect the game the right way.”

The mission of the NCAA infractions program is to uphold integrity and fair play among the membership and to prescribe appropriate and fair penalties if violations occur. Additionally, the Independent Accountability Resolution Process, which was adopted by the Division I membership to augment the existing infractions process and became effective in August 2019, throws a new element into determining the outcome of the cases.

The independent resolution process draws on independent adjudicators — with no school affiliation — to review, hear and decide select Division I cases deemed complex. Five cases stemming from the Southern District of New York investigations are pending in the independent process.

Gates added: “I’m not a professional in FBI and governmental issues. We should have a patient approach and allow the process to rightfully take its course. It’s not my role or job to point out who’s right or wrong. My job is to help young coaches navigate a way to be comfortable enough to do the right things to be successful.”

Name, image and likeness

Evolving with the times is key in college coaching.

The push for student-athletes to receive compensation for their name, image and likeness is strong, and all indications are change is coming soon.

It will bring a different dynamic into play, and the coaches know they will have to adjust. But adapting is already a huge part of coaching.

Despite remaining questions about the parameters of what name, image and likeness bylaws will look like, many coaches think it may impact the mindset of incoming student-athletes.

Dennis Gates

“It’s going to change the level of conversation that you have,” Gates said. “We’re not just going to be looking at a four-year maturation of academics or four years and a postgraduate opportunity.”

None of the three coaches voiced opposition against allowing name, image and likeness opportunities, but they know there most likely will be some unintended consequences to team dynamics.

“Some people will have more availability to opportunities, and others will feel jaded because they don’t have those opportunities,” said Rhoades, who spent the first 13 years of his career coaching in Division III.

After serving as an assistant coach at VCU (2009-14) and a head coach at Rice (2014-17) before returning to lead the Rams in 2017, he has a global view of this issue.

“I see the hardships of some of the players I’ve recruited and coached,” Rhoades said. “They will have an opportunity to get a bigger piece of the pie to help themselves and their family. I hope we can do it and keep the team dynamic together.”

In leagues that may have only their automatic qualifier make the NCAA tournament field, the impact might be harder to project — especially since no one knows what the parameters will eventually be.

“I don’t see a lot of change from NIL in midmajor basketball,” Kowalczyk said. “Will there be some? Yes, but I don’t think it will be on a large scale. It will be a much smaller percentage than you might see at other levels.”

One-time transfer exception

Another area where the game is changing in Division I men’s basketball is the one-time transfer exemption making its way through the governance structure.

The legislation, which was adopted last week by the Division I Council and can be approved by the Division I Board of Directors, would give athletes the opportunity to transfer from one NCAA four-year school to another once in their college career without having to sit out for a year of residence at the new school. This is dependent on the student-athlete being academically eligible at the time of the transfer.

Currently, men’s basketball players must apply for a transfer waiver to be immediately eligible. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Division I Council granted most transfers in the sport immediate eligibility during the 2020-21 academic year.

“People are looking for instant gratification,” Kowalczyk said. “I’d like to think that if you treat your student-athletes the right way and get them better, there will by loyalty on both ends.”

Men’s basketball is now one of five sports in which student-athletes aren’t granted immediate eligibility after transferring. The others are baseball, women’s basketball, football and men’s ice hockey.

A new rule would bring greater empowerment to those who compete in those sports.

Gates, who earned his bachelor’s degree in sociology at California in three years during his playing days, hopes it won’t affect graduation rates.

“I’m all for the rights of the student-athletes,” Gates said. “The No. 1 goal has to be putting them in position to be successful. Maybe it can’t be judged in that immediate moment, but it can be judged in the long term, meaning the benefit of getting a college degree.”

Handling all these issues with integrity are why Kowalczyk, Gates and Rhoades wanted to be part of the ethics coalition.

Their work can lead to passing along knowledge and best practices through education, leadership and mentoring.

“We have to stick to the principles about why we are doing this,” Rhoades said. “This is to help young people move forward in their lives and become as educated as they can. … The greatest lesson we can teach our kids is by behaving the right way.”