KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Kansas basketball coach Bill Self emphatically denied Wednesday night that members of his staff ever offered impermissible benefits to prospective players, hours after Jayhawks forward Silvio De Sousa was indefinitely benched amid questions about his relationship with an apparel company.
The case centers on Kansas apparel partner Adidas and its former marketing executive, Jim Gatto, who was convicted in federal court in New York earlier in the day of conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
Adidas consultant Merl Code and NBA agent runner Christian Dawkins also were convicted in the case. All three of the defendants had been accused of funneling money from Adidas to the families of recruits at Kansas, Louisville and its other sponsored schools – a trial that was closely watched across the sport as some of its biggest names were drawn into the spotlight.
Self learned of the guilty verdicts while attending Big 12 media day in Kansas City. He refrained from comment until Kansas Chancellor Doug Girod and athletic director Jeff Long issued a statement, then spoke at a news conference at Allen Fieldhouse a day before the No. 1 Jayhawks’ exhibition opener.
“When recruiting prospective student-athletes, my staff and I have not and do not offer improper inducements to them or their families, nor are we aware of any third party to do so,” Self said. “As the leader of the 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 a head basketball coach.”
Self declined to discuss specifics of the case, saying multiple times he could not comment until all inquiries are concluded. Two federal cases are still pending in the FBI’s corruption investigation.
De Sousa graduated from IMG Academy last December, joined the Jayhawks for the spring semester and provided valuable interior depth as the school made a run to the Final Four. He starred in their Big 12 title victory over West Virginia and helped to beat Duke in the NCAA Tournament’s regional finals.
Self said during the Jayhawks’ local media day two weeks ago that he was planning for De Sousa to play this season, and De Sousa himself declared, “I know I’m going to play.”
That was just as Gatto’s trial began, though.
During testimony, text messages presented by the defense indicated Self and Kansas assistant Kurtis Townsend may have been aware that ex-AAU coach T.J. Gassnola had helped to deliver money to De Sousa’s legal guardian, Fenny Falmagne, to pay for online classes and to escape from a pay-for-pay scheme brokered with Maryland. De Sousa committed to the Jayhawks a few days after the text messages.
Kansas officials do not believe last year’s Big 12 title or Final Four will be jeopardized because De Sousa had been declared by the NCAA eligible at the time. But it left his status going forward in limbo, and the Jayhawks erred on the side of caution by withholding him from games.
“From a commonsense standpoint we have had new developments that we were unaware of,” Self said. “We know positively that we will work with the NCAA hand-in-hand on his eligibility review.”
Girod and Long said in their statement that they were awaiting clearance from the Justice Department before the school begins working with the NCAA to review information presented at trial. Kansas also plans to review the eligibility of all its current athletes.
Meanwhile, Girod said no decision has been made about a long-term contract extension with Adidas. The sides had agreed to the $191 million deal in late 2007 but the contract was never signed.
“We continue to evaluate our options. There is no timetable for a decision,” Girod said. “A strong apparel partnership is important and beneficial to all our student-athletes and our institution, and we will take great care in making the right decision for KU.”
Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said he anticipates the NCAA will launch an investigation into the corruption case once the remaining federal trials are complete. But he sidestepped several questions about the Kansas case Wednesday, calling it “premature” to comment on a sensitive situation.
“The conference and the NCAA have intentionally deferred to the federal governing process,” Bowlsby said, “and until that process is complete we can’t continue down that path.”
Bowlsby did acknowledge having conversations with Self and Long earlier this week, but the commissioner said the corruption case was not discussed in any detail.
“I know people at all of those companies that are involved and they operate with integrity in the ways I’ve encountered them,” said Bowlsby, a longtime college administrator. “But clearly there is influence in the system and to the extent we can manage it and control it, we ought to do that. And I think that’ll be the step that comes after it, rules that respond to things that have been raised in the court case.”
Kansas decided it couldn’t wait that long, choosing instead to bench De Sousa indefinitely.
The Jayhawks have plenty of interior depth to pick up his minutes, including a trio of elite transfers highlighted by former Memphis standout Dedric Lawson. Add one of the nation’s top recruiting classes to the holdovers from the Final Four team and it’s no surprise the Jayhawks were voted No. 1 in the AP’s preseason poll this week, and are the runaway choice to win their 15th consecutive Big 12 title.
It’s also not surprising there was little interest in using a player in De Sousa who, if later deemed ineligible by the NCAA, could wipe out what promises to be a big year in Lawrence.
“Sometimes it’s hard to focus when you have a lot of distractions,” Self said. “Now I have to listen to what I tell our players and I need to lock out the noise and focus in on my team to get them as prepared as I can be to have a great season, and I do believe we have a team of great guys of character that are also good basketball players, that have an opportunity if things fall right to have a special season.”
AP freelancer Jordan Wolf contributed to this report.
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