Tuesday, August 19, 2003 Updated: August 25, 2:13 PM ET
Cheating just part of high-stakes game
By Adrian Wojnarowski Special to ESPN.com
The nature of the job calls for cover-ups, and as insidious as those Best of Bliss tapes sound, college coaches do far worse to living players every day. There is a sinister and twisted touch to Dave Bliss' soulless plot to pitch Patrick Dennehy as a dope dealer, but understand something:
At the highest levels, where cheating has been so out of control for so long, the life of a corrupt coach is a constant cycle of cleaning up messes, suppressing incriminating evidence and intimidating possible squealers into silence.
It must be like life as a mob boss: As you're living large, basking in the adulation and ass kissing, there is always that fear in the back of your mind that some underling is going to roll on you, that a rat will leave your sinking ship and turn State U's evidence.
Like all good cheaters, Jim Harrick had a fall guy to take some of the heat at Georgia -- his son.
"Sometimes," one Division I coach says, "I wonder how guys in our business can sleep at night with the fear that it all could crashing down any minute on them. You have enough to worry about running a clean program, besides trying to cover up all the stuff that could get out on you when you're breaking rules."
Take a walk around the country, hitch major six-figure and seven-figure salaried coaches on a lie detector and ask them: If portraying a dead ballplayer as a drug dealer could save your job, could continue that life of luxury, and you absolutely, positively could get away with it, would you have gone Bliss on Dennehy?
Here's one cynical guess: a minimum of 50 percent would have walked down that dark path with Bliss.
The trouble was, Bliss had no chance of selling this story. When he tried this stunt, he was too far into denial to see his coaching career was done at Baylor. Everyone can feel free to turn Bliss into Satan with a clipboard. He deserves it. Yet, what Bliss did isn't a new low for college basketball. It's a new low caught on tape. It's business as usual, where college coaches have a history of sacrificing anyone, and anything, to save themselves. Come on -- Jim Harrick Sr. had Jim Harrick Jr. taking the fall for him.
Bliss comes from a long line of head coaches desperately trying to sacrifice someone so they could survive on the job. In these scandals, there is always an assistant coach getting hung out. A compliance director. Past players whom coaches once embraced as "good kids," thrown to the curb and portrayed as "disgruntled" and "disloyal malcontents" who purported to telling terrible, terrible lies about a good man and a good coach who just wanted to give the young man a chance to make something of himself.
The best cheaters always pass the dirty deeds down the food chain. They always have an assistant coach perched to take the fall. The smart crooks have plausible deniability -- "The assistant was acting alone, without my knowledge." Bliss was surprisingly hands-on with these violations, which probably contributed to his mindless desperation to save his job.
College coaching is a racket, just like a lot of professions. It is a high-risk, high-reward one for the renegades. Coaches can get rich fast, cheat and cheat until they get that one big, rich, long-term contract, and then, as one NCAA Tournament coach who's competed against Bliss said, "I think a lot of guys just say to themselves: Even if I get caught and get fired now, I'll have made my money. What do I have to lose?'"
The cheating never has been so out of control in college basketball, because the money never has been so intoxicating. Why would someone cheat at, say, St. Bonaventure and Fairfield? First of all, they can make six-figures at those places, and secondly, they need to win to get out of there and get to the good, good money. Good men go bad now, slaves to those high-six and seven-figure packages. There is so much cash awaiting winners these days, and so many of these coaches are hellbent to preserve that marvelous way of life at all costs.
The real cheaters aren't selective. They're into everything. ”
— Division I coach
What has been most amazing about this year isn't the violations being discovered across America, but who is getting caught. The good cheaters are hard to catch. There is a system to covering up, a step-by-step formula passed down on the black market. There used to be a blue-print to easily spot a candidate for running a dirty program. In the past, they had come from a coaching tree of cheaters.
In the year that past, assistants for Mike Krzyzewski, Bob Knight and Pete Carril were busted for bad behavior and the stereotypes used to make educated guesses on the clean and corrupt coaches has been obliterated. There was always a sense you could tell the good and bad guys in college basketball simply by the pedigree that spawned them. No more. This Bliss incident has reminded everyone that it isn't so much an issue of cheating in college basketball -- just degrees of cheating.
When coaches cheat, they tend to across the board. They pay high school and AAU coaches, and of course, the recruits themselves. They fix high school transcripts and send pinch-hitters to take SAT tests. When the players arrive to campus, they get them the use of cars. They pay them more money. They have tutors writing papers. They intimidate professors, undo campus rape charges and change urine samples on drug tests. And on and on it goes.
"The real cheaters aren't selective," the Division I coach said. "They're into everything."
If you've ever covered a dirty program, it's amazing the level of energy that goes into covering up. Check out the list of violations that a solid report in the Connecticut Post pinned on Fairfield University, using the testimony of a respected and credible ex-player, as well as unnamed sources. If the kid is telling the truth -- and nobody makes up stories with the vivid detail and anecdotes that ex-Fairfield Stag Oscar Garcia used -- just imagine how hard it must have been for Stags coach Tim O'Toole to sleep at night.
For this week, anyway, Baylor is the benchmark for college corruption. Bliss tumbles into history as scoundrel for the ages, and rest assured, he is a low-down creep in a low-down business. But, Bliss isn't the worst of the worst.
Dave Bliss was just the coach caught on tape.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for the Bergen (N.J) Record and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj@aol.com.