Sunday, August 5, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Coaches' Shoe Contracts Evoke Concern

Knight-Ridder Newspapers



PRINCETON - Georgetown Coach John Thompson receives $200,000 a year for outfitting his players in Nike basketball shoes. Nevada-Las Vegas Coach Jerry Tarkanian, Arizona Coach Lute Olson and Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim make almost as much. And 56 other NCAA coaches are under contract to Nike, too.

Meanwhile, 6-foot-11 Cherokee Parks of Huntington Beach, Calif., widely regarded as the top center in the high school class of 1991, gets his size-15 low-tops free from Nike.

And each of the other 119 players at the Nike-ABCD basketball camp last month at Princeton went home with two free pairs of Nikes and the address to which they could write for more.

The address, in Pacific Palisades, Calif., is that of Sonny Vaccaro, the man who went to Nike Inc. Chairman Phillip Knight in 1978 with the idea of paying top college coaches to have their teams wear Nike's basketball shoes.

A consultant who is given virtual free rein by the company to promote its shoes, Vaccaro probably will be talking to the NCAA soon about suspicions that he uses his influence to help Nike-sponsored coaches recruit players who get free Nike equipment.

``Concern has been expressed by coaches that improper influence is being used - not necessarily by shoe companies, but by individuals who are associated with shoe companies,'' said David Berst, the NCAA's director of enforcement. ``There have been a sufficient number of coaches who have been involved in the recruitment of highly sought-after players - suffice (it to say) that I think we ought to look at it in the near future.''

Berst, who said he was concerned that ``improper payments are being made or that apparel is provided, causing an athlete to enroll in one school over another,'' said shoe-company representatives had told him that they would cooperate.

``That's me,'' Vaccaro said, when asked whom Berst was talking about. ``I've openly invited the NCAA to be part of the whole operation. I have nothing to hide. If I were David Berst - and I don't know what the guy looks like - I would want to spend more time with me, because I spend time with the kids.''

Vaccaro, 50, doesn't deny that he is a powerful man in the basketball world. (``If I were somebody, I'd want to know Sonny,'' he said.) He also doesn't deny that he had lunch with a high-school student named Alonzo Mourning a couple of summers back, when college recruiters weren't allowed to talk to him. He says that he will give his opinion about a school if a player asks or his opinion about a player if a coach calls, but he says he influences nobody.

``It's absurd,'' said Vaccaro, who was sitting in the stands at Princeton's Jadwin Gym last month, when most of the best high-school players in the nation played in front of most of the top college coaches, Nike-affiliated or not, at the camp he runs.

``Influence what?'' Vaccaro said. ``Influence is when I make you do something you don't want to do. But if I don't do that, I'm not influencing anybody.''

At Vaccaro's request, Nike provides:

-- A total of $4 million a year to 60 college coaches, including the $200,000 to Thompson and $150,000 each to Tarkanian, Olson and Boeheim. (For the money, the coaches speak at high-school coaching clinics. But Georgia Tech Coach Bobby Cremins says: ``(The company likes) the teams playing on TV to be wearing their shoes. That might be 100 percent of it.'')

-- One hundred fifty pairs of shoes a year, plus clothing and gym bags, to the teams of each top college coach under contract. Less established coaches' teams get 85 pairs of shoes.

-- Forty-five pairs of shoes a year to each of 20 top high-school programs and one free pair of shoes for every two bought by any high-school coach who contacts Vaccaro.

-- Two hundred fifty thousand dollars a year to fund the Nike-ABCD (Academic Betterment and Career Development) camp.

-- One hundred twenty-five thousand dollars a year to fund summer leagues.

-- Funds to co-sponsor Pittsburgh's Dapper Dan Roundball Classic, the high-school all-star event founded by Vaccaro in 1965.

``It's brainwashing,'' said Reebok's director of marketing, John Morgan, who used to be Vaccaro's boss at Nike and who added that Reebok doesn't provide free shoes to high-school players or high-school coaches.

``I think Sonny's a great guy,'' Morgan said. ``In his heart, he's trying to do the right thing. But it's hard to believe you're not influencing kids when you're dropping $125 basketball shoes in their back yard.''

Cremins, signed away from Converse by Nike four years ago and now receiving more than $100,000 from his shoe contract, said: ``There might be a case where a kid might like wearing Nike shoes and might want to go to a Nike school. I could see that. I could really see that.''

But Cremins points out that, two years ago, he was in pursuit of high- school all-American Don MacLean, a ``Nike kid'' from Southern California, but that MacLean signed with UCLA, a ``Converse school'' with Jim Harrick coaching.

``If Sonny would have really been a power broker,'' Cremins said, ``I could have really used him.''

Not that Cremins doesn't use Vaccaro as a resource.

``I'll call Sonny,'' Cremins said, ``and I'll ask him about a kid, (ask him), `What do you think about that player?' He might know something about him. But he would jeopardize his whole career and everything he's trying to do by pushing a kid to a certain school.''

Cherokee Parks, the 6-11 phenom, said shoes won't influence his college choice.

``You see the schools I'm looking at,'' Parks said. ``I've got a Converse school. I've got a Nike school. I've got an Adidas school.''

In fact, one recruiting expert at the Nike camp said Parks was thought to be leaning toward UCLA or toward Duke, whose coach, Mike Krzyzewski, is under contract to Adidas.

But the coaches who have complained to the NCAA are not the only people convinced that Vaccaro can use his influence in subtle ways.

Some people wonder why Mourning's high-school coach turned up as an assistant director of athletics at the Nike-ABCD camp the year after Mourning signed with Georgetown.

And an assistant to former UCLA Coach Walt Hazzard told the authors of ``Raw Recruits,'' a book about the seamy side of college basketball recruiting, that Hazzard shouldn't have turned down a $75,000 offer from Nike to sign a $125,000 deal with Reebok.

``I told Walt, `You're gonna cost us players,''' the book quotes the anonymous former assistant as saying. ``Sonny's a great guy, but it's an unfair advantage. It's brutal what he can get away with. Everybody knows it, but nobody says anything about it. It's taboo.''

Hazzard, a graduate of Philadelphia's Overbrook High School, who is out of coaching now, would not express agreement. last month.

``I'm not putting all the blame on that,'' he said.

Vaccaro argues that such schools as Georgetown and UNLV don't need any help and that Nike schools have won six of the past eight NCAA titles.

And Southern Cal Coach George Raveling, who was the best man at Vaccaro's wedding and who introduced Michael Jordan to Vaccaro and Nike in 1984, has said if Vaccaro was going to help anybody, it would be him. But USC is 38-78 and has not had a winning season since Raveling took over in 1986-87.

But even if there is no influence being used, some people question the way the shoe-contract system is set up.

David Roselle, the former president of the University of Kentucky who became the president of the University of Delaware in May, wonders why coaches are the ones receiving money for what their players wear.

``It would be interesting if Nike were to sign a contract with a college president and Converse were to sign a basketball coach,'' Roselle said. ``Where would the ownership lie? I think there ought to be discussion about that.''

Tom Murray, coach for the past 22 years at New York's Cardinal Hayes High School, also questions why coaches are getting so much money from shoe companies.

``It's a farce,'' Murray said. ``The college coach gets an awful lot out of his kids, and there are a lot of kids in the inner city who can't afford these shoes. I just think the coaches have to come back and put more into the community. They're taking a lot out.''

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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