The celebration was still fresh. Florida Atlantic's players had gleefully cut down nets to mark their first-ever trip to the Final Four. Yet coach Dusty May was talking about the challenge of protecting a history-making roster in the transfer portal era.
“Absolutely, you're always concerned because they're getting recruited now,” he said. ”They've been recruited through this tournament."
Tampering isn't new in college sports. Yet coaches say the efforts to lure players from one roster to another are exacerbated by a 2021 rule change allowing undergraduate athletes to transfer once without sitting out a year in a move that basically kicked off a form of collegiate free agency, particularly with that extra eligibility year still floating around from the pandemic and teams chasing more experienced talent than unproven freshmen.
At its core, tampering violates rules for contacting recruits. College athletes are off-limits until entering their name into the portal.
Yet Boston College coach Earl Grant is among coaches with stories saying otherwise, such as player parents reporting back to him about contacts from people tied to other schools. Those accounts typically involve more subtlety than coaches directly calling targets.
Sometimes there are middlemen brokering the best financial deal through school collectives since players since 2021 are now permitted to profit on endorsements featuring their name, image and likeness (NIL). Or it's as simple as a player chatting with a pal at another school and relaying a message of opportunity in a word-of-mouth chain.
“It’s a significant concern for coaches, for the membership,” said Jon Duncan, the NCAA’s vice president of enforcement. ”Therefore it's a significant concern for us.”
There’s also skepticism about what can really be done to stop it.
“The NCAA says it can, but I don’t know,” Grant said. “I just don’t know. They let a few cats jump out of a box and now they can’t go find them all. It’s hard to herd them.”
Coaches who share stories — such as Wake Forest football's Dave Clawson saying in July that multiple players returned despite tampering featuring lucrative offers — don't name names. Or offer specifics.
Perhaps it's because the coaching world is so interconnected, from coaches who have worked together previously — or, odds are, will eventually — to intermediaries tied to grassroots recruiting. Regardless of why, it turns those stories into mere anecdotes.
“When I was at East Tennessee State ... I’d get some calls during the year like, ‘Would you be interested in so-and-so if he left?’” Wake Forest coach Steve Forbes said. "It was never the kid. It was somebody around the kid or whatever. I was like, whatever. What ended up happening was nine times out of 10, those guys didn’t transfer because they didn’t want to sit out. But now you don’t have to sit. So that makes it a little bit more prevalent.”
Duncan said enforcement staffers probing potential violations typically receive general tampering concerns more than details. That includes coaches who go public but prove “reluctant to cooperate with us privately.”
NCAA staff are expected to generate independent leads about potential tampering violations that might go unreported in high-profile sports like football, basketball, baseball, and track and field. They're charged with building connections and relationships throughout those sports that could yield information.
“The more cooperative individuals are, the more we can do. That may go without saying,” Duncan said. “But with actionable information from people who have personal knowledge — copies of messages, text messages, messaging applications — we can move very quickly. Without that, we can move, but it's harder and more time consuming."
Jeremy McCool has been the NCAA's director of basketball development since 2014, overseeing a four-person staff pursuing an “on-the-ground” approach to generating leads.
“(Tampering) is not something that kind of arrived with NIL,” McCool said. “Now NIL has definitely created an environment where the tampering kind of activity is more loaded. It’s not just, ‘Come to my school because of room, board, tuition, fees, cost of attendance and our football stadium and our locker room.’
“It’s the question of what else is involved with that consideration. Whether that’s NIL, a straight-up inducement – I think that adds to the equation of what we’re trying to manage."
Meanwhile, the stories keep coming.
Stanford Hall of Famer Tara VanDerveer oversees a traditional women's power in the 15th-ranked Cardinal, but is frustrated by her players being approached — including preseason Associated Press All-America center Cameron Brink.
“We have players that are being contacted by other players at the direction of their coaches to tell them, ’We can get you this collective money or NIL deal,'" she said. “That’s tampering. The pros have limits on their salary cap, and they have tampering rules.”
A blueblood men's program like No. 2 Duke isn't immune, either.
Second-year coach Jon Scheyer said schools contacted his returning players who weren't in the portal in some fashion, dangling starting roles and NIL opportunities.
So what prevents coaches like Scheyer from naming offenders or contacting the NCAA?
“Because you're going to spend all your time talking about (it),” Scheyer said. “To me, it's not worth it. Look, our guys are back. We're going to continue to form relationships and build trust. And because the NCAA clearly, they don't want to do anything about it, other schools are going to continue to do it. So naming, it's not worth it.”
Asked about Duncan's comments on the NCAA seeking leads, Scheyer offered a frank response.
“If a kid puts their name in the portal, then commits three hours later, and you tell me that you need somebody to call you and tell you that they've had a conversation beforehand, then God help you,” Scheyer said. “That’s what I would say.”
He's not alone in that skepticism. Asked about the NCAA seeking to prevent tampering, Forbes said: “Good luck.”
“Look, these things have been happening, man," Pittsburgh coach Jeff Capel said. "This is the nature of our business. I’m not saying that’s right. It’s not right. It sucks. But it’s not anything new. ... Hopefully, you’re good. If you’re good, then they want your guys.”
AP Basketball Writer Doug Feinberg and AP Sports Writer Pete Iacobelli contributed to this report.
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