By Marta Lawrence
When NCAA Associate Director of Enforcement Renee Gomila started monitoring nonscholastic basketball tournaments nine years ago, college coaches literally ran away as she approached. Now, nearly a decade into a concerted effort by the NCAA enforcement staff to clean up recruiting of elite players − an effort that involved the establishment of the Basketball Focus Group in 2008 − coaches know her by name and are not shy about sharing their thoughts and concerns in casual court-side conversations or over a quick meal.
At the recent AAU National Championships in Orlando, Gomila and two colleagues could be seen milling around the games and surrounding venues monitoring activities and, maybe more importantly, nurturing their relationships with coaches from around the country. Their presence was less about enforcing the rules (although they did not shy away from addressing potential problems) and more about networking, education and outreach.
Their effort might best be described as “community policing” − and it’s paying off.
“The operation of the events themselves has changed drastically since we have started attending,” said Sandy Parrott, NCAA associate director of basketball certification. “The operators make more of an effort to be organized and hang signage to separate NCAA coaches from those associated with prospects. They also are more diligent to properly conduct the required educational session for all of the participants and are more detailed with the information printed in the coaches packets.”
The AAU National Championships took place at the ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando. NCAA officials arrived at the site around 9 a.m.
“Having a visible presence at these events helps us develop and maintain contacts in the men’s basketball environment,” said NCAA Director of Enforcement LuAnn Humphrey.
“Because we’re interacting directly with coaches, prospects, nonscholastic officials and parents, we are able to stay current on issues surrounding the recruiting environment. We’ve had a lot of positive feedback from coaches who say we helped bring a new level of deterrence to the process.”
Humphrey said the enforcement staff recognizes that deals are probably not going down in the gyms. Still, being in the environment provides the staff with the opportunity to gather intelligence and information that might help in the future. Having a visible and friendly presence establishes credibility with the coaches, she said.
Memphis coach Josh Pastner puts it more bluntly. “It helps you see them as human beings,” he said.
NCAA coaches have a specific entrance and are required to wear identification, including their name and institutional affiliation. They aren't permitted to have any contact with prospects playing in the games.
NCAA President Mark Emmert and Vice President of Enforcement Julie Roe Lach have emphasized humanizing the enforcement staff and making the process more transparent. In May, Lach and her colleagues led a day-long “Enforcement Experience” for media from across the country, giving them an unprecedented glimpse behind the curtain of a major infractions case, from infraction to investigation to a hearing by the Committee on Infractions.
Building these relationships does not happen overnight. It takes a willful effort by the enforcement staff to cultivate and nurture contacts.
Assistant Director of Enforcement Elizabeth Ramsey sends hand-written thank-you notes to coaches she has met for the first time. She also goes out of her way to respond to phone calls and text messages, even while maintaining a grueling travel schedule.
“This job is about connecting with people,” she said. “Even though many of my relationships are friendly, everyone I work with knows that my job trumps our friendship at any time.”
Texas Head Coach Rick Barnes has a courtside conversation with Assistant Director of Enforcment Elizabeth Ramsey. Ramsey sends hand-written notes as a follow-up to coaches she meets at events.
Ramsey’s experience in men’s basketball will soon pay off for the women. She will be part of a new effort to better monitor the women’s game, too.
Football will also get special treatment with the addition of a football staff similar to the basketball focus group. Enforcement representatives have already begun monitoring seven-on-seven tournaments as part of the initial effort to keep the recruitment game within the bounds of the rule book.
Over lunch in Orlando, Minnesota assistant coach Saul Smith told Ramsey about his frustrations with the recruiting schedule and the amount of time spent away from campus.
A similarly candid conversation between Gomila and South Carolina assistant Mike Boynton focused on the academic responsibilities of coaches and the pressures of the coach and team Academic Progress Rates.
The games are held in two different gyms. This gym contains six courts with simultaneous games happening throughout the day. The main ESPN court hosts many of the higher-profile games, which are occasionally televised.
That type of open and honest feedback makes enforcement’s efforts worthwhile. They want coaches to see them as a resource and not just as the people who will bust them when they break a rule.
“At least they feel like they have a voice,” Gomila said.
She encourages those kinds of conversations and said she often asks coaches, “What’s the one thing you’d change about the NCAA?”
The presence of the enforcement staff helps in other ways.
“Having the NCAA there puts us on a level playing field,” said Jeremy Luther, head coach of Armstrong Atlantic State, a Division II school. “There are a lot of good guys in this business, but the only way it can be done right is if someone is holding their feet to the fire.”
Fans watch the Super Showcase final, which featured some of the top recruits in the country.
Maintaining parity among the recruiters is particularly important to Division III Ohio Northern head coach John Rhodes. Having the NCAA at the event allows Rhodes to access the talent without worrying about competing with other institutions.
“As the presence has risen, illegal contact has gone down,” said George Washington associate head coach Hajj Turner. Turner, a former NCAA intern, said having the NCAA at the events and in the surrounding venues “keeps people honest.”
That honesty was on display less than an hour into Day 2 of Assistant Director of Enforcement Ken Huber’s 13-hour day. A coach nervously approached Huber to clarify an incident that happened the previous evening.
The coach reported that he accidently spoke with a nonscholastic player − a violation of NCAA rules. The player, the son of another coach and a close friend of the coach in question, approached to say hello.
The coach told Huber he didn’t know the player was playing on a team. Once he found out the player was participating in the event, he shut down the conversation and told him he wasn’t allowed to talk.
NCAA Associate Director of Enforcement Renee Gomila (back to camera) and Assistant Director of Enforcement Ken Huber (left) discuss an open position on the enforcement staff with Air Force Academy Head Coach Jeff Reynolds (right). Reynolds was recommending a colleague for the job. Coaches at the event praised Huber, a former Gardner-Webb assistant coach, for his work with the NCAA.
“I don’t think that would have happened even three or four years ago,” said Huber, a former Gardner-Webb assistant coach. Huber and former Ohio State player Jason Singleton raised eyebrows a year ago when they were added to the enforcement staff − a move that coaches lauded time and time again at the Orlando event as an indication that the NCAA was making strides to better understand the coach and player perspectives.
“I have more opportunity now to have an influence on basketball than I ever did when I was a coach,” Huber said while reminiscing with a former head coach colleague. “I do miss it, though.”
“You see the commitment the NCAA is making to help the game of basketball,” said Ohio State head coach Thad Matta. “It’s all geared for the betterment of college basketball.”
Coaches watch the games from the sidelines and are not permitted to have any contact with players. One high-profile game packed the stands, prompting a seating dilemma for Ohio State Head Coach Thad Matta and his peers.
Matta and his colleagues are not shy about asking the staff questions and say the staff helps them better navigate the often tricky and confusing rules. The previous night, for example, a high-interest game filled all the available seating for coaches. Seeing plenty of room in the upper deck, coaches asked the NCAA representatives if they could sit above the spectators in general fan seats. Because coaches are not permitted to mingle with student-athletes or their families, the enforcement staff asked the event organizers to add additional seating that accommodated the coaches’ needs and made sure the rules were followed.
Matta said it is just one example of how the NCAA and the coaches work together.
“Most coaches want to do it right,” said Memphis’ Pastner. “The positives rarely get talked about.”