|Friday, August 30
Updated: September 10, 12:59 PM ET
Scandal won't keep Amaker from rebuilding Michigan
By Andy Katz
When choosing his next college destination, J.C. Mathis inquired about possible NCAA sanctions against Michigan. Tommy Amaker and his staff gave him a straight answer.
They don't know how Michigan will be affected once the NCAA sorts through the Ed Martin fallout.
Mathis still chose the Wolverines. A decision that speaks volumes about Amaker, not to mention the approach he's taking in rebuilding the Michigan basketball program.
"It was a factor and I did think about it," said Mathis, enjoying his first week on the Ann Arbor campus after transferring from Virginia. "I know there is uncertainty, but I'm confident that nothing major will happen. I know there could be something like the team not going in the postseason, but coach Amaker was the reason I chose Michigan. We'll deal with it when it happens. But they were upfront about it and that's what I was looking for in a coaching staff and coach."
Amaker, who has referred all talk about the specifics or the effects of the Ed Martin case to Michigan athletic director Bill Martin, isn't hiding from the facts. But Amaker and his staff also understand the facts of this case are bad, really bad, as bad as any violation against NCAA rules in the history of the organization.
Martin was indicted in March on charges of running an illegal gambling operation and laundering some of the profits of more than $600,000 to four Michigan players during the 1990s. According to published reports in Detroit from the indictment, Martin loaned former Wolverines Chris Webber $280,000 from 1988-93, Robert Traylor $160,000 from 1993-1998, Maurice Taylor $105,000 from 1994-1997, and Louis Bullock $71,000 from 1996-1999.
Paying players has, and still probably, occurs somewhere in college basketball. But never had it been uncovered on such a large scale. The statute of limitations hasn't expired for the NCAA to do something, even though it's now 10 years since the most major violation. The NCAA starts its process from when it learned of violations, which began when Michigan and the NCAA were investigating Ed Martin after Traylor crashed a Ford Explorer in 1996.
In a Detroit Free Press story this past March chronicling the case, Martin was reportedly returning to Ann Arbor from Detroit with Traylor, Bullock and recruit Mateen Cleaves, who eventually went to Michigan State. The players had been visiting Martin, where reportedly alcohol and strippers were present at a party. These events proved to the NCAA that there was a pattern with Martin, and not just an isolated incident involving a series of payments. And this pattern of breaking rules over a longer period of time allows the NCAA to pursue the case, even if it's a decade old.
As a result, the NCAA can still punish coaches who were on the staff in the '90s, if it can prove the coaches knew something about Ed Martin's involvement with players. The Wolverines have gone through two coaching staffs, two athletic directors and two presidents since the initial violations with the Fab Five. One coach who could be included is San Diego State head coach Steve Fisher, although he denies any wrongdoing. Fisher coached all four players who reportedly received money from Martin during his tenure as head coach from 1989-1997.
It's clear Michigan wants a resolution yesterday, rather than in a year. Until one is determined, however, the Wolverines can't promise there won't be some pain felt by the present players, or those who are arriving in the next two recruiting classes.
"We'll follow the due process," Bill Martin said in reference to the legal and NCAA side. "But the number one thing I wanted when I got here was this to be resolved. But it's a credit to Tommy and our staff that kids want to come here even with the uncertainty."
The Wolverines could offer to pay back tournament receipts, remove the banners from the back-to-back Final Fours in 1992 and 1993, and basically rewrite one of their most storied chapters in the Michigan history books. Striping the program of scholarships and a possible postseason ban are all on the NCAA docket, too.
Michigan, however, has to be sensitive to the present and future players, considering some were just seven to 10 years old when the Fab Five was on the court at Crisler Arena. Bill Martin won't get into specifics about possible sanctions issued by the school, but there is public pressure for the NCAA to do something heavy-handed to Michigan, considering this pales in comparison to a free meal, an extra phone call, or watching a high school prospect during a quiet or dead period of recruiting.
Still, sanctions might not be known for another year, which means Amaker's staff is trying to rebuild a program as stable as a house of cards. But getting players like Mathis, who only has two seasons left to play college basketball, to take a chance on Michigan's future, and convincing class of 2003 studs like Detroit Redford High's shooting guard Dion Harris and 6-8 Griffin High (Ga.) forward Brent Petway to commit to the Wolverines, is a credit to the honesty of Amaker's staff and the Michigan administration on this subject.
And, although their word is not binding until they sign in November (Amaker also has 6-6 Romulous High's Ronald Coleman's word he'll sign in November of 2003), it's cleary a positive step forward. Amaker, his staff and Michigan are not running from the Ed Martin saga, but are actually meeting it head on, talking about some possible sanctions to start the process of moving past the chaos. And to make sure recruits know what may face them as a future Wolverine, Amaker has told each player that if they want to ask more questions, he'll get them on the phone with the athletic director, the president or the legal council.
"It's just something that's out there, but no one I've talked to is worried about it," said Coleman, who is more privy about the subject since he lives in the area. "It might take a year and the probation could be two years and then I would be a freshmen. I still have a while before I signed. But everything I asked they (the Michigan staff) answered. I'm not worried."
Petway was nine when the Fab Five were in the Final Four. He said he was a Duke fan back then but never could have imagined the news that is coming out about how Michigan's team was financially supported. It seems so long ago to him, like everyone else, so he's not going to let it get him down. He's still going to Michigan, even out of SEC country.
"No one knows what's going to happen," Petway said. "I like this program."
It's clear Michigan is still behind Michigan State when it comes to recruiting nationally, although getting Harris and Coleman is a sign that the Spartans don't totally own the state. Staying competitive in the rebuilding Big Ten shouldn't be a reach with the return of two stars in wings LaVell Blanchard and Bernard Robinson, who was never the same last season after battling mononucleosis. Getting point guard Daniel Horton for this season's team, and a steal in small forward Lester Abram, means the Wolverines will have only one glaring hole -- in the middle. Not bad for a program that doesn't know if it can play in the postseason in 2003, 2004 or beyond. Not bad for a program that awaits possible sanctions.
Talent is being recruited, a significant positive sign for the Wolverines, in what should be an exhaustive rebuilding process under Amaker's direction.
Legans and first-year Fresno State coach Ray Lopes have had a long relationship, dating as far back as to when Legans was 10 and living in Santa Barbara when Lopes was an assistant at UCSB. Lopes considered Legans like a little brother and even went as far as advising the NCAA that he had a pre-existing relationship when Legans was choosing a college out of high school.
Legans, a rising senior point guard would have finished his career with the Bears, but bolted on Ben Braun. Cal isn't claiming tampering, but clearly there is a private rift over Legans leaving for Fresno State right before school starts. Lopes declined to talk about Legans, but the word out of the Lopes camp is that he tried to tell Legans to stay at Cal and finish his career.
Legans will sit out one season and play one for the point-guard challenged Bulldogs. Fresno State lost its newcomer point to Miami when Armondo Surratt was released from a national letter of intent once Jerry Tarkanian retired. The Bears have suddenly dropped a peg in the Pac-10 race (dare we say below Arizona State).
The point will be handled at Cal by committee with A.J. Diggs (3.2 ppg, 1.6 apg, 1.4 tpg), Donte Smith (1.1 ppg) and 6-2 freshman Richard Midgley. Legans (8.1 ppg, 3.8 apg, 2.3 tpg) played in consecutive NCAA tournaments and the Bears can't replace that kind of tournament toughness.
Meanwhile, the Bears did pick up a much-needed commitment from 6-3 point guard Ayinde Ubaka to go along with Leon Powe for one of the better classes in 2003. Cal also finished its schedule for 2002-03 with a game against nearby San Francisco after both teams had a late opening. The game will be at Cal on Dec. 30.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His Weekly Word on college basketball is updated Fridays.