Challenged all of last season by questions surrounding his program's recruiting tactics in the midst of an FBI investigation into college basketball's seedy underbelly, USC coach Andy Enfield did not avert prying eyes in late March when he replaced fired associate head coach Tony Bland with a new assistant named Eric Mobley.
Mobley, an area AAU coach for more than a decade, is the father of two blue-chip recruits — Isaiah, a power forward in the 2019 class, and Evan, a center in the 2020 class. The Mobley brothers play for the talent-stocked Compton Magic AAU program, and Eric Mobley had joined the Magic coaching staff as of last summer, working with the 16-and-under squad. One of the top players in the 2019 class, Chino Hills power forward Onyeka Okongwu, also plays for the Magic and is close friends with the Mobley brothers. USC had been recruiting Okongwu hard.
Hiring an assistant coach with deep youth basketball connections is nothing new in college basketball. And it is not an NCAA violation to hire family members of top recruits. Adding an AAU coach to a program that already was in the FBI's scope, however, raised eyebrows in the court of public opinion.
So at noon Monday, when Okongwu took the stage at Chino Hills High in front of his coaches, friends and classmates and unzipped his gray hooded sweatshirt to reveal a "Fight On" T-shirt, the news reverberated throughout college basketball.
He is the first player committed in USC's 2019 class, choosing the Trojans over UCLA, Kansas, Arizona State and Washington because, he said, he had always dreamed of playing for USC and wanted to stay close to home. Etop Udo-Ema, the founder of the Compton Magic, was in attendance Monday and said that the Mobley connection also was a factor in securing the commitment.
"It helps," Udo-Ema said. "It helps. [Isaiah and Evan] play for me too. They're all close. When their dad got the job, that helped. When that happened, it was a big thing."
Said Chino Hills coach Dennis Latimore, "I would imagine [Okongwu] would have been interested in going there even if Mr. Mobley wasn't coaching there, but I don't think that hurt, you know what I mean?"
Okongwu, the Los Angeles Times' boys basketball player of the year in 2018, was so sure about USC that he elected to commit at the end of his junior year and not take any official visits.
"I guess the decision surprised me a little bit this early," said Latimore, the first-year coach at Chino Hills. "I thought he'd take a couple of visits, but he knows what he wants, and that's his personality to go after things. It's probably a smart play. He can just relax and focus on his senior year and know that college is taken care of."
Okongwu, who averaged 28 points and 12 rebounds a game last season, said he was leaning toward USC the whole time and decided about a week ago to end his recruitment. He said that Eric Mobley started recruiting him as soon as he joined Enfield's staff.
"I've known coach Mobley for a while now," Okongwu said. "He's a really good guy. He's a players' coach and gets his players better by any means."
The Mobley brothers have not announced their college decision, but Okongwu was already thinking about the damage they could do together. He's seen it on the AAU circuit.
"I think we have a chance to make something really special over there," Okongwu said.
In January, USC fired Bland in the aftermath of his arrest last fall in a college basketball bribery and corruption probe. Bland's attorney, Jeffrey Lichtman, told The Times the school cited the federal charges as the reason.
USC placed Bland on administrative leave hours after FBI agents arrested him in September. Assistant coaches at Arizona, Auburn and Oklahoma State were among 10 people arrested.
Federal prosecutors in New York alleged that Bland received a $13,000 bribe in July from would-be agent Christian Dawkins and financial advisor Munish Sood in exchange for steering USC players to use their services when they turned pro. The prosecutors also accused Bland of facilitating payments of $4,000 and $5,000 to associates of two USC-linked players in late August.
In November, a federal grand jury in New York indicted Bland on four charges. He pleaded not guilty.
Many college basketball recruits are having to consider the reports and rumors of where the FBI investigation is headed as they make their decisions, but Okongwu said he didn't give it much thought.
"The FBI doesn't really faze me," he said. "Because I know what I'm doing is right. I'm not doing any of that stuff. I just want to hoop, and that's it."