Back in 1981, I was the Maryland beat writer for The Washington Post. Lefty Driesell had two clear-cut first round draft picks on that team: Albert King and Buck Williams. King was a senior; Williams a junior.
After games, when I was in the locker room talking to players, I frequently saw two men who very clearly weren’t members of the media circling the room, glad-handing the players. Often, they would wait until those of us on deadline finished and then swoop in to tell King and Williams how wonderfully they had played.
The two men were David Falk and Donald Dell. In those days, they were still partners, Falk working for Dell at ProServ, which was then one of the mega-agencies in sports, trailing only IMG for prestige, power and name clients. I remember saying to Driesell back then, “why do you let agents in your locker room?”
Lefty shook his head and said. “If I don’t let ‘em in, the players will be upset. They’ll think I’m trying to keep them away.”
“You SHOULD keep them away,” I said. “Agents shouldn’t be talking to players during the season under any circumstances and you shouldn’t be sanctioning it by letting them in the locker room.”
Lefty didn’t listen to me just as 99 percent of the coaches alive would not have listened to me. Like most coaches, he was afraid that if banned the agents, they would tell the players (which they would) ‘your coach isn’t looking out for your best interests. He’s only worried about what you can do for HIM.’
At the end of that season, Buck Williams left Maryland a year early and turned pro. The agent who guided him through the process of making that decision was—you guessed it—David Falk. (Dean Smith once told me that the first time Dell introduced him to Falk he said to his assistants, “I don’t trust that young one.” Boy did he have the one right).
Years later, agenting had become more sophisticated. The big-shots like Dell and Falk only made their presence felt when they truly needed to do so. Falk spent a lot of time in the 90s traveling to Duke to woo Mike Krzyzewski. He didn’t spend much time with the players. Instead, he would go in to see Krzyzewski after games to tell him what a great job he had done that night. Eventually, Krzyzewski hired him as his agent and a lot of Duke players landed with Falk—just as virtually every Georgetown player has landed with Falk since John Thompson became a client of his thirty years ago.
In 1994 I was on a trip to Hawaii with Maryland. Joe Smith was a sophomore and a lot of people thought he had a chance to be the first pick in the NBA draft if he turned pro that spring. Throughout the trip there was a guy hanging around the team who was clearly bird-dogging for an agent. He was outside the locker room waiting whenever the bus pulled up and would hug most of the players as they walked inside. One afternoon I saw him walking on the beach with Smith.
Later that day, just prior to a game he walked up to Chuck Walsh, who was Maryland’s sports information director and said, “Hey Chuck, my man, you got a media guide for me?”
Gary Williams was standing no more than 10 feet away and his face was chalk white as Walsh went to get the media guide. He said nothing. As soon as the bird-dog walked away, Gary went off on Chuck. “What are you doing?!” he screamed. “Why are you helping him? Don’t you understand—he’s the ENEMY! You don’t help him in any way.”
Gary was exactly right. He WAS the enemy. Smith turned pro at the end of that season and there was nothing he could do about it. If he had told Smith to stay away from the bird-dog or any other agenting types, just as Lefty had said, Smith would have seen the order as selfish and self-serving and the agents would have reinforced that every chance they got.
That’s what makes this latest spate of NCAA investigations into player-agent relationship so difficult to deal with as an outsider. It’s very easy to say, “police the agents,” but how? To begin with, the NBA and NFL would have to work with the NCAA and that almost never happens. Beyond that, most agents are smart enough to not leave a trail behind. As Digger Phelps once said about coaches paying recruits: “it’s tough to prove cash.”
It’s tough to prove anything—especially given that the NCAA has always been monumentally understaffed in enforcement and seems more concerned with not talking to the media than with actually getting anything done.
Look, I’m not making excuses for anybody. The agents and the people who work for them shouldn’t be anywhere near college athletes and if they go anywhere near one, coaches should have the guts to tell them to get the hell away. If a player gets upset about it, you explain to him why he cannot be associated with an agent or anyone who has even been breathed on by an agent. If they don’t understand that, chances are they already have their hand out and you (the coach) have a serious problem.
Any agent caught dealing with a college athlete should be banned. And if it someone who works for him in any way, same thing. By banned I mean he can’t be registered with the NFL or the NBA or negotiate a contract with a team on behalf of an athlete for at least two years. I don’t mean if he’s caught giving a kid money, I mean if he shakes hands with a kid.
Years ago, when Eddie Fogler was still an assistant at North Carolina, I was standing with him on the court at University Hall at Virginia about 45 minutes before a game. All of a sudden, Eddie said, “oh dammit, now I’ve got trouble.”
I looked up and saw a man walking in his direction, hand out, smile on his face. I honestly don’t remember the man’s name but Eddie began waving his arms and saying, “Mr. Jones (made-up-name) nothing personal, but I can’t even shake your hand, I’ll be breaking the rules.”
The man was a potential recruit’s father. The last thing Fogler wanted to do was be rude. But the no-bump rules back then meant even accidental contact could be a violation.
Did Fogler act that way because I happened to be standing there? I don’t think so, but even if he did—fine—those are the kind of rules agents needs to be forced to live under. We all know all these excuses are, to put it in polite terms, hooey. The agents are friends of the family; they’re trying to help a kid out (that’s the biggest lie of them all); they just happened to have a house they could rent to a kid’s parents for $25 a month—and on and on. Just say none of those excuses wash. If it WAS an innocent mistake, well, too bad, you lose.
And the notion that the players don’t know they’re doing something wrong? Oh please. They’re all told the rules and they’re all told to stay away from three groups of people: agents, gamblers and the media. (We’re bad guys too because we ask questions). Here’s what I’ve heard coaches say to players: “If ANYONE wants to give you something for free, come tell me. Do NOT accept it, not even a movie ticket.”
The players know the rules but they’re also taught that they’re above the rules. And most of the time, even when they get caught—see Bush, Reggie; Mayo, O.J. et al—they don’t pay the price, the next generation of players and coaches pay the price. That’s another problem with NCAA enforcement: it moves so slowly that the guilty parties are usually out of dodge by the time the posse gets to town. (See Carroll, Pete and Floyd, Tim—who is somehow coaching at UTEP this coming season with no penalty while USC is still under NCAA sanctions).
The bottom line is this: It’s a hard problem for everyone. But the solution is NOT to do nothing. The solution is to understand that no answer is perfect but try to find one that sends a clear message to players, coaches and agents that this behavior won’t be tolerated. And if that behavior upsets a player—tough. Gary Williams was right—agents (and their surrogates) ARE the enemy. In college athletics it isn’t some of the time that they’re the enemy it is ALL the time.