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Black coaches were ‘low-hanging fruit’ in FBI college hoops case that wrecked careers, then fizzled

AP National Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — Book Richardson doesn’t sleep much past 5:30 a.m. anymore.

That was around the time seven years ago that FBI agents pounded on his door, barged in, handcuffed him and dragged him away while his 16-year-old son, E.J., looked on helplessly.

“Ever since then, everyone looks at me differently,” the former University of Arizona assistant coach told The Associated Press about his arrest, part of a sting designed to clean up college basketball. “And I don’t fall back to sleep when I see that time come up on the clock.”

He is one of four assistant coaches — along with a group of six agents, their financial backers and shoe company representatives — who were arrested in the 2017 federal probe aimed at rooting out an entrenched system of off-the-books payments to players and their families that, at the time, was against NCAA rules.

All four assistants — Richardson, Lamont Evans, Tony Bland and Chuck Person — are Black. Of the 10 men arrested, only one was white.

“Low-hanging fruit,” the 51-year-old Richardson said when asked why Black men took the brunt of the punishment. “Who do you see all the time that’s out there? Black assistants. Who is forging the relationships? Black assistants.”

Several coaches and other insiders told the AP it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Black men ended up as the fall guys, given the racial lines along which careers often play out in the sport.

An AP analysis of schools in the six biggest basketball conferences found the ranks of Black assistant coaches have risen from 51% to 59% between 2014 and 2023. But Black men command only about 30% of head-coaching positions.

Heading into this week’s Final Four, all the arrested assistants are banned by the NCAA, while the agents and shoe reps saw their connections in the college world vanish.

“Some people in the college space I very rarely talk to because, to them, I’m toxic,” said Merl Code, a Black former rep for Nike and Adidas who served 5½ months in jail for convictions in the case.

Meanwhile, most of the head coaches Richardson and the others worked with are white and still have jobs in college basketball.


Richardson served 90 days in jail and says he wears the “scarlet letter F” — for felon — now. The NCAA booted him out of college hoops for 10 years. Evans got a three-month jail sentence and a 10-year ban; the other two arrested assistants weren’t jailed but were banned by the NCAA.

Some see promise in the fact that Black men fill more assistant coaching positions now than in 2014. Others believe that while opportunities have expanded for African-Americans, they are still the lower-paid, higher-risk jobs in the “talent-acquisition” part of the game that’s rife with turnover and shadowy dealmaking — and landed Richardson and others in jail.

“Obviously if we knew exactly how to fix it, maybe we would already have done it,” said Florida State’s longtime head coach, Leonard Hamilton, who is Black. “It’s been something they were discussing when I got into coaching in 1971.”

Code, who lives in Greenville, South Carolina, and is still piecing his life back together, said conditions that exist in college basketball mirror America. In his recently published book, “Black Market,” he notes that his alma mater, sports powerhouse Clemson, was similar to many large Southern state universities built on former plantation land cultivated for decades by slaves.

“It’s not a difficult scenario to see,” Code said. “It’s just society in America as we see it. And we, people of color, are going to see it very differently than someone who is white.”


These days, Richardson runs the boys’ basketball program for the New York Gauchos, a venerated hoops proving ground based in a gym near the 149th St-Grand Concourse subway stop in the Bronx.

Whereas he says he made “2-3 hundred thousand dollars a year” at Arizona, he now clears around three grand a month. He is shaping lives with the Gauchos in much the same way he did as a college assistant — doling out everything from advice to tough love to recommendations about high school and college. Most of the players he works with are Black. One recently committed to play at Georgia Tech — a match made possible in part by Richardson’s connections.

Monique Hibbert, whose son is among the eighth graders Richardson coaches, said the coach brought the parents together to tell them about why he ended up in jail. “He said ‘take it or leave it,’ and I said, ‘I’ll take it. Every day,’” Hibbert said.

In many ways, Richardson’s job — building relationships — hasn’t changed much from seven years ago, when he was a top assistant for coach Sean Miller at the highly rated Arizona program. (Miller, who is white, got fired in the wake of the scandal but now has the head-coaching job at Xavier.)

For decades, college recruiting has involved relationships, starting with shoe-company reps, who identify talented players as early as junior high. They connect with college assistant coaches, who stay close in hopes of signing the players the shoe guys know. Then, there are the agents, who try to gain influence with all parties in the hopes of landing a piece of the action if a player turns pro.

Underpinning it all is the quiet and, prosecutors said, illegal movement of money to the players and their families, who often come from poor backgrounds.

“Some of these guys have parents on disability. Some have ailing grandmothers who can’t afford their medicine,” said Code, who remains unapologetic about using shoe-company money to help families. “These are young men and women who have actual, real-life situations they’re dealing with at a really young age and they’re using their athletic ability to assist their families through their struggle.”


When the charges against Richardson, Code and the rest were announced, an FBI assistant director boldly proclaimed, “We have your playbook.” The arrests came after an undercover operation that lured the accused into meetings in hotel suites and, in one case, a yacht where they picked up envelopes of cash.

One defendant, Christian Dawkins, who is Black, was sentenced to 18 months in jail. In a documentary about the case, “The Scheme,” Dawkins, who worked as an agent, is heard on a wiretap spelling out the risks assistant coaches take in their recruiting efforts.

“These guys have worked their whole lives to get to this point,” Dawkins tells an undercover FBI agent. “And if one thing goes wrong, and not to make this a race thing, but especially a guy that’s a Black assistant coach, if you have one (expletive) thing happen to you, you’ll never coach again, and that’s the bottom line.”

That’s what happened to Richardson, who was jailed and banned by the NCAA after pleading guilty to bribery for accepting $20,000 from Dawkins and an associate in exchange for steering Arizona players their way.

Richardson admits to using some of the money for a trip to Spain with his now ex-wife, Erin. But most of it, he said, was to pay for a high school recruit and his family to travel to Tucson to watch “Midnight Madness,” the celebration that marks opening night of practice in college basketball. The player had already committed to Arizona.

“It wasn’t like I was buying a player,” Richardson said. “My whole point was, when you made me out to be a monster, hell, I’m trying to get him back on campus. So, all I’m saying is, ‘Let’s use some common sense. I know everything I do might not be traditional, but c’mon.’”

Code ended up in jail because his boss at Adidas directed him to funnel $25,000 to the family of a Black player who would go on to sign with Louisville, which has an endorsement deal with the shoe company. The payment made the player ineligible under NCAA rules. Code’s crime was that he defrauded Louisville of the scholarship it wasted on the player by providing the money that made him ineligible.

“Let’s talk about the truth and what really happened,” Code said. “Who authorized this? How can I defraud a university that has a $160 million relationship with a company I work for?”

Louisville ended up firing head coach Rick Pitino. Unlike Code, Pitino, who is white, was never charged and the NCAA cleared him of wrongdoing. He now coaches at St. John’s.

“You’ve got people mugging people and injuring people and they’re in and out of jail the next day,” Pitino said. “And then, you took some assistant coaches and you’re locking up an Adidas guy and putting them in jail for that? It’s maybe the most hypocritical thing I’ve ever seen.”


Richardson now lives on the outskirts of an industry that has, in fact, undergone a seismic change, though not in the way the FBI thought it would.

New state laws and court rulings over the past three years have brought about the so-called “NIL” era in college sports — for name, image and likeness compensation deals for athletes. Players can now profit through sponsorship deals that begin as early as high school.

Richardson says NIL should stand for “Now It’s Legal” — a nod to the harsh reality that most of those under-the-table payments for which he was jailed can be made legitimately now.

The coach still has dreams of returning to college hoops someday, though he’s well aware that by the time his ban is over, “I’ll be 60, no one’s hiring me.”


Among the questions Richardson ponders when he bolts awake before sunrise: If he and the rest broke NCAA rules, does that mean they also broke the law? Also, what really changed because of those arrests?

Both the U.S. attorney’s office that prosecuted the case and the NCAA declined comment to the AP on these or any other questions about the case.

“I was able to recover,” said Will Wade, a white head coach who lost his job at LSU in the wake of the case but was hired at McNeese State in Louisiana, and led the school to the NCAA Tournament this year. “There were a lot of people that were not able to recover. I think it ruined a lot of people’s lives for very little reason.”

Even coaches who weren’t caught up in the scandal recognized the elements at play.

“We aren’t color blind,” said Marquette coach Shaka Smart, who is Black. “I was friends with some of those guys.”

Miami assistant Bill Courtney, who is Black, conceded there could have been reasons beyond race that led to the arrests.

“But as a Black assistant coach at the time, seeing that happen was very difficult,” he said.

Richardson, from the vantage point of his windowless office in the Bronx, reaches his own conclusions.

“Truth be told, out of 10 people who got arrested, nine of those guys were some kind of shade of me,” he said. “And now, none of us are coaching, which we were pretty good at. And we weren’t good because we were cheating. We were good at what we did.”


AP sports writers Aaron Beard, Stephen Whyno and Steve Megargee contributed.


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