Raw Recruits: A Review

I recently reread the book Raw Recruits by Alexander Wolff and Armen Keteyian (Pocket Books, 1991) and felt it would be appropriate to write a review from a Kentucky fan's standpoint. The book details the corruption, influences and other problems associated with recruiting and the inner workings of college basketball in the mid- to late-eighties. Many of the chapters are well researched and an interesting and timely discussion of big-time college basketball, even today. The authors state in the introduction "we have nonetheless sought to be exhaustive and fair. For this book we drew on a combined nearly three decades of covering college sports." It is on this point where the book fails on both counts.

On the first count, the book is not exhaustive as it does not attempt to cover corruption within college basketball over a period of three decades as it suggests in the introduction. The only time the book goes significantly further back than the 1980's is when the authors rehash criticisms of the University of Kentucky and their venerable coach Adolph Rupp including suggesting that Rupp was racist and a retelling of the point shaving scandal in the early 1950's with an emphasis on Kentucky over other schools. These parts IMO are out of place in the context of this book. Raw Recruits works much better when it concentrates on the current players, coaches and schools. Tales from decades previous do reinforce the fact that cheating within college athletics is not a new phenomenon, but it fails to convey the pressures that today's programs and youth are forced to deal with including shoe companies, all-star camps, television, sports agents etc. The fact that the authors chose to concentrate on one school only, Kentucky, makes it even more odd. Perhaps the authors could suggest that Kentucky was a preeminent school at the time and thus the problems they had were more important than mentioning other schools of the era. But even giving the authors the benefit of the doubt and making that assumption, the results don't remain consistent with the authors intention of "fairness". UCLA won ten championships under John Wooden in a remarkable run from the mid-60's to the early 70's. Although at the time they were considered one of the cleaner programs and Wooden one of the cleaner coaches, it is well known today that UCLA had a prominent sugar-daddy plying their players with gifts and cash. City College of New York (CCNY) was a basketball powerhouse which was literally destroyed by the point-shaving scandal of the 1950's. Frank McGuire left a budding program at the University of North Carolina in the wake of NCAA violations in the late 50's. Yet Raw Recruits makes no mention of these or any other minor infractions or high profile scandals of the 50's, 60's or early 70's other than Kentucky's. Based on talking with and reading posts from fans of other schools, it seems that many teams of these times did commonly compensate their players in some form during these times. Raw Recruits's method of only citing such small-time infractions at Kentucky, which they do a number of times, might lead a casual reader to the incorrect conclusion that these things only occurred at UK.

The book also strays away from the topic of recruiting with regards to Kentucky on the issue of race. The authors chose to take the position that Adolph Rupp was an outspoken racist which is a popular and simplistic point of view now taken by many in the media. This phenomena of revisionist history can be traced in large part to Raw Recruits and the article in 1991 by Wolff's Sports Illustrated cohort Curry Kirkpatrick along with Frank Deford. The efforts of Kirkpatrick and Wolff since that time have led to the vilification of the man. Wolff in particular mentions the Jimmy Breslin incident in Raw Recruits, and has repeated the same incident in at least two subsequent articles spanning nearly a decade whenever Rupp's name is mentioned. No mention of readily available facts which shed doubt on the hypothesis that Rupp was an avowed racist have been acknowledged by the two. The fact that Wolff hasn't come up with any new information on the topic after nearly a decade and seems to include his detrimental information on Rupp in articles where they are unnecessary indicates that Wolff is apparently only interested in smearing his name rather than finding the facts behind his writings. The authors go further than that, however, by coming up with some accusations out of left field.

This is one of the most curious takes on the above incidents that I have ever seen concerning Rupp. To begin with, the authors don't provide all the facts in that not only did Kentucky replace Mississippi State twice, they also replaced Alabama one year. Beyond that, the authors provide no evidence to back up their claim that Rupp had "notions of white supremacy." In fact, of all the accusations against Rupp, there have been no public statements indicating these beliefs and most people who knew Rupp well have said he has never repeated racial slurs to them. The heart of the problem with the above quote is that the authors chose to criticize Rupp for playing blacks at a time when his SEC counterparts wouldn't. This should be an important piece of evidence that Rupp 'wasn't' racist but Wolff and Keteyian twist it around so much, they make it look like a liability. Again, they do this without ever attempting to bring supporting evidence to their off-the-wall theory. If Raw Recruits truly were interested in race during the time, it might seem more appropriate to investigate these many schools in what are now the ACC, SEC and Big 12 among others who refused to even compete against blacks instead of the one school, Kentucky, which was the leader in playing against segregated teams. (The first black to play against a major Southern University in the South was Solly Walker of St. Johns against Kentucky.) This quote in particular indicates to me the authors are either completely inept or are on a smear campaign against Kentucky and Rupp.

The authors also embark on a number of other issues involving race and the University of Kentucky.

Example 1

It turns out Reed overstated things as Kentucky signed black head coach Tubby Smith in 1997 while other prestigious basketball schools such as North Carolina, Duke, Indiana and Kansas have remained with white head coaches throughout their respective history.

Example 2

As someone who is himself part of a mixed marriage, I find Sutton's actions as objectionable as the authors. But I do question, however, the relevance of including this in a book about recruiting.

Example 3

The authors got the story half-way right but their zeal to make it a racial issue again clouds the text. The suggestion is made that if a Kentucky "Mr. Basketball" is white and from a small town, he is all but assured of gaining a scholarship to UK. That is far from the truth. In fact, the Commonwealth of Kentucky has been very poor in terms of Division I talent for a number of decades and UK often completely ignores the "Mr. Basketball." Richie Farmer was an exception in that he was a genuine legend in high school basketball history, with Jay Burson at Ohio State being probably the most similar example in the last twenty years (in the nation). Richie even turned out to have a respectable collegiate career averaging approximately 10 ppg his junior and senior years. The State of Kentucky has a rich high school basketball tradition with many noteworthy white rural legends who were considered by the University of Kentucky. To suggest that the clamor for Richie Farmer is 'typical' of Kentucky's recruitment of white native sons [i.e. a local white player is guaranteed to be signed by UK nearly every recruiting year] is very misleading.

The simple truth is that Miller was not a good fit for Kentucky in terms of talent level and available positions. UK signed the number one rated recruiting class in the nation that year with a player at every position. The class seemed so good, in fact, that the next year, Kentucky signed only a single player, Irving Thomas from Florida.

The authors do get back to the subject of modern-day recruiting when it comes to two major incidents involving the University of Kentucky. Both occurred around 1988 when the program went through a dramatic disintegration from one of the elite in college basketball to a literal shambles, shunned by most basketball coaches when the coaching vacancy opened up with the departure of Eddie Sutton. Although these are two incidents which should definitely be present in a book about recruiting violations, the biases of the authors again become clear in the text.

The first incident involved the apparent cheating by Eric Manuel on his ACT. After describing the situation in detail, the authors admit that the idea "that Manuel copied answer for answer" (pg. 160) from an unknowing student was virtually impossible. Yet this was exactly what the NCAA accused Manuel of doing on their way to banning Manuel for life from NCAA competition. And what do the crack reporters have to say about this contradictory situation ? Not much really. The authors don't question the NCAA's motives and decision-making ability, even though they admit that the events as the NCAA spelled out in their sanctions against Manuel were impossible. Furthermore, the authors suggest a number of possibilites of others who could have cheated for Manuel, without Manuel's knowledge, whether it was the student he was accused of cheating off of or an adult with access to the test forms. Yet the authors and the NCAA admitted that Manuel was given such a tough sentence because he continued to claim he was innocent and "refused" to implicate others. Again, even though the authors draw out a number of scenarios where cheating could have occurred without Manuel's knowledge, they don't follow it to the logical conclusion and suggest that it was indeed possible that Manuel was telling the truth to the NCAA. The authors don't suggest that it's a possibility that the NCAA prosecuted Manuel, not because they had enough proof, or even because they could come up with a scenario which involved Manuel and was plausible, but because they could and they needed someone as a scapegoat. The scary thing being that in a court of law, the prosecution (NCAA) would have had less lee-way in terms of their methods of obtaining evidence than law enforcement normally would. Yet if the NCAA's case was brought up in a civil trial, the evidence was so flimsy it would most certainly have led to an acquittal. Yet the authors go along with the NCAA's decision and seem to defend it at times. Seemingly odd behavior for impartial "investigative reporters."

The second incident involved the infamous Emery letter sent to the home of Chris Mills. It seems apparent that a package from the University of Kentucky basketball offices to Claude Mills, father of Chris, contained approximately $1000 in cash when it was delivered in Los Angeles on March 30, 1988. The authors go in-depth, describing the system for delivering mail at the Los Angeles Emery facility, describing the events of the day as the package was delivered, and describing the process that occurred when money was found in the envelope. The authors even go into the possibilities of what actually transpired and who put the money in the envelope. The NCAA determined that UK Assistant and former player Dwane Casey had sent the money and banned Casey from coaching in the NCAA's for five years. The book suggests that either Casey did it, or that a rich UK booster did it and even gives a name and circumstantial evidence that the day the news broke, the booster had a four hour meeting with Sutton and "looked like a Mack truck had just hit him."

Another theory is that someone at the Emery terminal, presumably a UCLA fan, planted the money in order to force Mills out of his commitment to UK.

The "investigative reporters" scoff at this theory. First, they mention in the opening chapter that the man who initially found the money was "not a basketball fan." Then they suggest that "To accept the scenario that Emery employees conspired to set Casey up, however, you would have to believe in a complex conspiracy. You would need $1000 in seed money, a warehouse full of colluding employees, and perhaps Cecil B. De Mille to choreograph the whole thing." (pg. 280) The only problem with this statement by the authors is that it is completely incorrect. It wouldn't require a warehouse full of colluding employees, only one or two actually. It's clear that the employees had ample warning that the package was coming and it's also clear that UK had sent previous packages to the Mills, some which had been misdelivered by Emery (pg. 280). An alert person certainly could have anticipated and prepared for another delivery. This scenario, where a person in Los Angeles planting money on the package after being given precedence for packages being delivered and a lead time for shipment is in some ways more plausible than the author's alternative theory that a UK booster was walking around the UK Basketball office with $1000 of cash in hand and happened to find the envelope open on a desk, guessing correctly that the envelope, despite still being open, was ready for delivery.

The authors even mention earlier in the book some serious motives behind why UCLA would be so interested in having the commitment by Mills voided, yet by the time they discuss the possible scenarios of the incident, this aspect is forgotten. "The defection of the best of the Class of '86 was a terrible blow to college basketball in the West," (pg. 33) as players such as Earl Duncan, Stephen Thompson, Scott Williams and Elden Campbell all went to Eastern schools. UCLA had lost out on John Williams to LSU earlier, Sean Higgins to Michigan, Chris Mills and LeRon Ellis to Kentucky and were in trouble of losing Don McLean also. In short, UCLA and the entire West Coast was in the midst of losing all their top talent at a time when the Big East, ACC, Big 10 and SEC were dominating the nation's basketball talent. Certainly if the Mills commitment could be broken by a recruiting scandal, McLean would not be lost either, at least to Kentucky. (Of course in hindsight, the big winner of the Emery incident was UCLA and the PAC-10. Don McLean ended up attending UCLA and becoming their all-time leading scorer while Chris Mills ended up transferring to Arizona.)

More circumstantial evidence which might lend credence to the scenario of a set-up is the way some Emery employees handled the package once it became known that there was cash inside. According to the book, the supervisor told the delivery man at around 8 in the morning "Deliver this package first, and be sure to get a legible signature." Yet it took the delivery man four hours to deliver the package, after "four, perhaps five times .. makes contact with the LAX facility about the Mills shipment." (pg. 7) Supposedly, there was a problem with the address but the people at the terminal had Claude Mills phone number and had been in contact with him many times during the morning. Wolff and Keteyian seem not in the least concerned over such an unbelievable set of circumstances where it would take four hours to deliver a package when the truck was in contact with the dispatcher by radio and the addressee was in contact with the dispatcher. Whether it was a deliberate action to create enough of a stir that "word of the cash has worked its way around the facility" (pg. 7) or not, it was appallingly unprofessional and the events that occurred that day by Emery entered the realm of violations of mail tampering and privacy rights. Certainly, an employee of a delivery firm should have known that revealing the contents of a private package to a newspaper such as the LA Times is a grevious invasion of privacy and opened Emery up to civil liability. What better way to have the story leak than to talk about it on the radio for over four hours ? Even though the "investigative reporters" didn't recognize this, Emery and the security firm which mishandled the package did and both settled out of court with Casey. Casey originally sued Emery for $6.9 million and in late October of 1990, settled after the judge in the case suggested that the two sides settle out of court. The terms of the settlement were sealed as was the information concerning the case although it is believed to have been a multi-million dollar settlement. Casey's sentence of five years banishment by the NCAA was later reduced to four years. He is currently an assistant coach for the Seattle Supersonics after coaching in Japan.

Personally, I find both alternative theories to be somewhat farfetched and difficult to prove. It is interesting, however, that the authors espouse one of these theories, which further implicates the Kentucky program, while they ridicule another theory, which although it provides a reasonable motive and has at least as much opportunity within the chain of events to have occurred as the first theory, also would happen to clear Kentucky of any wrongdoing. Kentucky's internal investigation concluded that Casey put the $1000 in the package. This conclusion was adopted by the NCAA.

Both the Casey and Manuel cases are similar in the aspect that the NCAA nailed these black men with some of the toughest sentences available despite a lack of clear evidence (and in Manuel's case, even a plausible scenario of events). In both cases, the authors point out plausible alternatives of the events, which involve others who happen to be white. Yet despite this, the authors chose not only to ignore this imbalance in NCAA prosecution, they try to defend it. This aspect of preferential treatment towards avoiding prosecuting white defendants while handing down stiff penalties for black defendants is not even touched by Wolff and Keteyian, who coincidently spend a good portion of their book sniping at the University of Kentucky for what they deem to be racist actions and attitudes.

When the authors concentrate on the subject at hand they produce an interesting book. It details the effects of shoe companies, summer leagues, recruiting gurus, street agents, and television on the current [1980's] collegiate game. It also describes the pressures and problems encountered by coaches who make their livelihood by the talent they can bring in to the school. However, from the point of view of a Kentucky fan, when the book takes on subjects which occurred in the 50's, 60's and even 70's, it seems to be excessive, slanted and narrowly focused on one school. The effect being that the book tends to stray from what is relevant to the current game. (The stated concept of covering all of college basketball over 30 years is completely abandoned by the authors.)

It's hard to overlook the authors' emphasis on Kentucky since approximately 136 of the book's 318 pages relate to them. Discounting that, the book continues to fail on its stated goal of being "fair." While mentioning a number of high profile schools including Kentucky, Illinois, Syracuse, Pittsburgh etc., it fails to mention others, including any in-depth look at the Atlantic Coast Conference. During that time, Maryland went through traumatic times with the death of Len Bias and the sanctions on Bob Wade's program, Clemson had problems with the NCAA, North Carolina State had a compelling story of Chris Washburn and Charles Shackelford and later was revealed to be a program rife with academic and institutional control problems, yet these subjects aren't even mentioned in the book. Likewise, even ignoring the possible tampering by UCLA with Sean Higgins, Don McLean and Chris Mills, the attempt by UCLA to tamper with Brian Williams after he left Maryland was not mentioned. Even Jerry Tarkanian's infested program at UNLV and in particular his recruitment of Lloyd Daniels was given little to no mention. Kevin Mackey's rise and fall at Cleveland State was perhaps the most apt story concerning recruiting in the 1980's but that too was overlooked. In short, the authors, despite their stated purpose, didn't write a book which could be considered "fair" or "exhaustive" as they shielded such teams as UCLA and those from the ACC while concentrating heavily on certain schools, in particular Kentucky.

JPS Note: After the book was published Wolff, to his credit, did followup with an article about Eric Manuel "Odd Man Out," Sports Illustrated February 11, 1991. In the article, Wolff updates readers on Manuel and goes over the events which led to him being kicked out of Division I college basketball. In the article, Wolff does finally admit that it seems not only possible, but probable that Manuel was innocent of what the NCAA accused him of. This article is about as close to a validation of the criticisms I level at Raw Recruits regarding the Manuel situation I expect to see.

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Jon Scott