LAWRENCE — Minutes before news of verdicts in the federal government’s college basketball corruption trial broke Wednesday afternoon, Bill Self sat before a throng of assembled media at Big 12 media day at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.
With Self, his staff and the Kansas men’s basketball program central figures linked to evidence presented at the trial, the Hall of Fame coach dedicated most of his 53-minute question-and-answer session with reporters to addressing the ongoing scandal into illicit under-the-table payments to recruits. As he’s done since the outset of the trial just over two weeks ago, though, Self deferred most comment until the trial’s conclusion.
Asked if he’s “frustrated” by that policy, Self issued a blunt answer.
“Any time that somebody punches you, I think your initial tendency is to want to fight back. I mean, I don’t think that’s unusual,” Self said. “But sometimes the best thing you can say based on the situation is nothing.”
Just five hours after the verdicts in the New York-based trial were rendered — guilty on all charges of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud for former Adidas executives James “Jim” Gatto and Merl Code and former aspiring sports agent Christian Dawkins — Self summoned the media again, this time to Allen Fieldhouse.
The KU coach was ready to deliver his counter-punch.
“When recruiting prospective student-athletes, my staff and I have not and do not offer improper inducements to them or their families to influence their college decisions, nor are we aware of any third-party involvement to do so,” said Self, reading from a prepared statement at the outset of an impromptu news conference. “As the leader of the Kansas men’s basketball program, I take pride in my role to operate with integrity and within the NCAA rules, which is a fundamental responsibility of being the head basketball coach.”
Downright denial of wrongdoing aside, Self was still unwilling to offer rebuttals to specifics from the trial — that he and assistant coach Kurtis Townsend were shown through text messages to at least be aware of former Adidas runner Thomas “T.J.” Gassnola’s involvement with Jayhawk-targeted recruits; a $2,500 payment admittedly made by Gassnola to the guardian of now-withheld KU sophomore forward Silvio De Sousa; that Townsend, as shown in a wiretapped call not permitted as evidence, offered tacit approval to Gassnola to offer improper benefits to the family of former KU target Zion Williamson; that Adidas “defrauded” the universities involved, as asserted by the prosecution in the case; and whether he feels a proposed 12-year, $191 million contract extension with Adidas should move forward.
The news conference wasn’t without several newsworthy moments, however, beginning with Self’s stated confidence in all of his assistant coaches, including Townsend.
“That would be a 100-percent accurate statement,” Self said. “I have total confidence in all members of my staff, including the one you mentioned, and feel as strongly about that today as I did five, 10, 15 years ago.”
In an earlier statement, chancellor Douglas Girod and athletic director Jeff Long offered a vote of confidence for Self and his staff, the pair saying they “remain fully supportive” of the program. In addition, according to reporting by the Associated Press, KU officials have said they are not concerned about having to forfeit last year’s Big 12 title or Final Four appearances.
Girod and Long also said KU has made no long-term extension with Adidas and will continue to review its options with no timetable on a decision.
Asked if he understands skepticism of outsiders who wonder how college basketball coaches could be unaware of impermissible benefits to either their own recruits or those at other programs, Self said he thinks “that is probably accurate to say, somebody that’s uneducated as far as the way recruiting works.”
“But the Rice commission in large part, one of the things they tried to do was eliminate third parties, negative third parties. It wasn’t just shoe companies,” Self continued, citing the commission on college basketball reform led by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. “Sometimes shoe companies can get a bad name because obviously this is what’s going on with this, but there’s other third parties, and to say everybody should know everything that’s going on, I think that would be difficult to really do.”
Recruiting, Self acknowledged, has become more difficult the last few weeks, with targets and their parents questioning the program’s role and future. Negative recruiting — other programs in the running for the top recruits bringing the matter up — has also been an obstacle of late, though Self said his response is to ask the target whether it’s something they’ve heard or something they know.
“Sometimes the frustrating thing is the headlines aren’t always consistent with what the content of the story is,” Self said of the reporting of KU figures appearing in the trial. “Sometimes that makes it very, very hard to defend when there’s so much information out there (and) they are reading snippets as opposed to full bodies of work.”
Self said Wednesday night’s news conference is the only time he will address the college basketball corruption scandal until all proceedings are concluded, with future trials set for February and April. When that day comes, he “absolutely” feels he’ll be inclined to respond to specific allegations that have come to light, though that depends on what the “powers that be” instruct he can and cannot say.
“The legal proceedings in New York have caused undue stress on our university and concern within our loyal fan base,” Self said in his statement. “Although my initial reaction is to be transparent and confront these matters head on publicly, I must, under NCAA rules and guidelines refrain from any further comment until all the inquiries are officially concluded.”
Self declined to say whether the verdict, a rebuttal of the defense’s argument that universities were aware of the illicit payments and therefore not “defrauded,” was “a good thing” for Kansas — “I don’t believe that would be my place to do so,” he said — but he did remark on the timing of the outcome, just one day before the team’s 7 p.m. Thursday exhibition opener against Emporia State.
“I don’t know if there’s ever a good time to have a trial that certainly relates to college basketball or any of the names that have been mentioned during the trial,” Self said, “but it does bring some closure that, as a staff, we can certainly look forward to and prepare our team probably in as motivated a way as we have since I’ve been at the University of Kansas.”
As for his players’ response to the outside noise?
“One thing about our players, and I think this is probably pretty common for players across America: When you’re in the eye, you don’t really feel as much of what’s going on outside of it, and I think that’s probably more common for young people than it actually is for adults,” Self said. “I think as adults we internalize and we look at all aspects of everything going on. And players, even though they may know of it and may feel it a little bit, they’re worried about how to compete against this program or scouting report or what’s happening next in their own personal lives.
“So I don’t see this as being a distraction, and I promise you it won’t be an excuse if we don’t perform well, at all.”