Ex-Investigator Tells His Story : How NCAA Keeps Law and Order
NCAA investigations and probation are to university athletic programs what death and taxes have been to the rest of us--seemingly unavoidable.
So much has been written about investigations and infractions, but what do we really know about the process? The Times went to Mike Gilleran for answers.
Gilleran, who played three years of college basketball and played professionally in Europe, has a journalism degree and a law degree. He spent eight years as an investigator, or “enforcement representative”, for the NCAA from 1976 to 1984. In his later years with the organization he served as assistant director of enforcement.
Gilleran has been the commissioner for the West Coast Athletic Conference since January, 1984. He recently consented to be interviewed about his years as an investigator, thus shedding light on a relatively unknown subject.
Question: How many of your investigations were begun as a result of staff work and how many were the result of one school telling on another school?
Answer: Ultimately everything has to be the product of a tip or a squealer. Let me just say the most common ways a case would begin. A coach who lost a kid in the recruiting process would call up and say, “Mike, we had Joe Smith. I don’t know what happened. All I know is that he was with us at 8 in the morning, State University was there at midnight. Now I hear the kid’s mom has a new job and his sister has a new car.” Stuff like that was real common.
Occasionally a parent would call us and say, “My son is telling me this stuff and I don’t think it’s right. They (coaches) said that he doesn’t need to worry about school, or clothes or a car. And that doesn’t sound right. Is it right?”
You get that occasionally.
Most of the time it’s coaches. Or high school coaches.
Q: You must have heard about many alleged infractions, how did you decide which ones to investigate?
A: You try to take a look at what’s important. Is there a pattern here? Is it a school we’ve heard about for years and we’re hearing about again? You don’t live in a vacuum. You are hearing stuff all the time.
Contrary to what most people would like to believe, there is no hit list. There is no feeling that we can’t go after so-and-so or let’s nail this little guy and let somebody big go because it will be too much trouble for us.
In all my time, I never heard anybody on the staff say, “We have to get these guys,” or, “We can’t go after them.” We used to get a kick out of people who assumed that was the case. There were no hit lists; there were people who were constantly scrutinized because they deserved it.
Q: Would you mainly concentrate on the larger schools?
A: No. For example, without naming the school, I had a kid call me, he didn’t speak much English. He said, “Hey, they flew me out from Africa and they cut me loose. I’m just sitting around in a trailer park and my life is ruined.”
It was not a name school at all. The sport was not a revenue sport, track and field. It was a fascinating little case.
It turned out that the kid had lied to the school about who he was. He portrayed himself to be a world class track athlete. He happened to have the same name as a world class athlete.
So this track coach at a mid-level Division I school said, “Hey, we are going to rule the world.” He got a booster to pay $800 to fly the kid over.
The kid had stolen an Olympic jacket from the Nigerian Olympic Team, so he really played the part. The kid shows up, turns out the kid can’t walk as fast as we can, much less run.
He keeps saying, “I’ve got a pulled hamstring,” or “My ankle is bad.” He made it through a semester. The guy (coach) finally said, “You’re really not who you say you are, are you?”
Q: How did you get started on a case?
A: I always barged in full scale but then if it appeared nothing was happening, I barged out. It had to be a common sense approach. If you weren’t getting anywhere, the hell with it. Don’t spin your wheels.
My very first case, under the old rules, I went out and just sort of blitzkrieged through this little town. I guess I thought nobody would know about me. I got a call the next day at my hotel from the school president ordering me into his office. We had what amounted to a shouting match in his office. I was 27 and I had all the answers. We ended up becoming decent friends. He had a fair point: “What is this, what’s going on.”
I said, “Well, I’m investigating, you don’t need to know any more, so shut up.” I learned a little tact, a little diplomacy.
There’s a median between announcing yourself at the airport, and trying to be James Bond or something.
I must say that early on there were cases that took forever. Guys went crazy on some of these schools. You had cases where you’d investigate for two years, you’d hear it and appeal for a year. That to me was excessive.
Q: What was the longest case for you?
A: I had one that took a year and a half, two years. That was our friends in the Southwest Conference. That just happened. It just took us a long, long time.
Q: What is the protocol for the investigation?
A: Things may have changed in the four years I’ve been out, but it used to be that you would notify a school once you got information that appeared to be somewhat credible. And that’s a vague standard, I understand.
If we would think, “Gee there may be something here,” we would write what was called a letter of preliminary inquiry. It basically said: “Hey , we’re out there. Don’t be surprised, we are going to take a look at your program. If you want to call me and ask me, fine. I’ll let you know what’s going on. But, beyond that, you’re just going to have to wait to hear from us.”
Then, if you got allegations together you would write a document called letter of official inquiry.
That would say something like: “It is alleged that on January 27, 1988, Mike Gilleran, a representative of the university’s athletic interest, offered to purchase an automobile for a perspective student athlete, Joe Smith.”
It will ask questions under that. Basically it would say, “Is this true, do you have any information about this?”
Q: The NCAA has been accused of using heavy handed tactics in these investigations. Really, you don’t have the weight of law on your side, do you?
A: Basically, we operate under NCAA procedures. Which, of course, since it’s a voluntary organization, that doesn’t mean they are immune from federal standards. They (the procedures) have been challenged and upheld.
The fact is, due process is a sliding scale. There are greater protections afforded as the possible penalties arise.
Civil proceedings, administrative proceedings such as ours, the level goes down. Clearly, we are an administrative proceeding. We don’t have civil penalties attached. We don’t have criminal penalties attached.
It’s strictly an administrative group that has set up its own rules and its own regulations and unless those are found to be unconscionable, basically indefensible at any level, they are going to pass muster legally. Ours had more than the minimum levels of due process.
Really, we lived and learned. The stakes rose. It wasn’t the case of the NCAA being insensitive or indifferent prior to that time. It was a case of evolution. The NCAA, let’s face it, it was a growing organization, never had these problems in the past. The early investigations were bloody and brutal and all that, but it took a long time for things to shape up.
Q: Still, the NCAA investigators appear to have an adversarial relationship with members.
A: It appeared to me to be less adversarial the longer I was there. It appeared to be a shift in position in the NCAA.
I think, early on, the NCAA tended to be that way too much. It was, “We are in here now, we are going to stomp on your throat, we are going to punish you and you are going to take it and shut up.” Nobody likes to be on the receiving end of all that.
I’ve exaggerated, of course. But, the fact is, that was the perception in a lot of places, that we weren’t interested in the truth so much as we were interested in getting a notch on our guns.
We did try to be very sensitive to schools, we really did. At the same time, we can’t forget that what we are talking about, basically, is us telling them, “We think you are cheaters.”
Q: Are some schools antagonistic?
A: A lot of it is the attitude you convey as an individual. You have to be straight with somebody. If it’s the athletic director you have to say: “Listen, there are some serious allegations here. You as an institution can go one of two ways. You can try to learn the truth about your own program. You can take the long view, which is do we have a problem. Now maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’ve been lied to. That will come out. That’s if you take the long view.
If you take the short view, that you are going to defend this, respond to the allegations and you are going to attempt to refute each one, even if you know the truth to be contrary, then I suggest you are doing yourself a disservice and your institution. You are going to find yourself back in front of us, in three years, six years, nine years from now.
With some schools, you have that discussion and it’s a candid discussion.
You’ll say, “If you are prepared to spend the time and money to fight this, we are too. You won’t outspend the NCAA.
“It’s entirely up to you. If you want to go through court hearings and if you want to intimidate witnesses, and all that, all of those avenues are open to you. You’ve got your downtown lawyer here, he’s going to play hardball, we are going to play hardball. Is that really want you want to do?”
Q: Do you think the NCAA rules are overreaching? Basketball player Steve Alford at Indiana is suspended for appearing in a calender, for charity. It seems, that with the broad way in which some rules are written, every school could be found in violation of some rule.
A: Yes, I agree. What we have to do, is distinguish between the rules that apply to ethical behavior, which are not overreaching and are not complicated, and the vast morass of NCAA legislation that even I don’t fully understand. The many technical errors, those aren’t going to get a school on probation, unless they are so dismal that it’s been a total disregard for everything.
What happened with Alford, that was bad legislation. That was a case of blaming no one but us, the schools that voted it. The NCAA staff simply enforces the rules the membership votes in. Fortunately for all of us, that rule has been changed.
That’s the problem we have in any bureaucracy. If a rule is on the books, and you don’t enforce it, then the criticism is, “Hey that was Steve Alford, your golden boy, your protected program. If it had been my guy, we would have missed a game.” I guarantee you we would have heard that from everybody else in the country. It had to happen the way it happened.
I developed a philosophy. I did overlook certain things. I tried to focus on what I felt to be ethical problems. I got information on violations that I didn’t work through because they were your jaywalking types of things.
I can’t speak for anybody else, but I tried to make a real distinction between things I would have done in the same position, versus, giving the car, fixing the grade. I really came down hard on stuff like that. I just didn’t want to waste my time criticizing somebody for something I would have done or putting them through the wringer. I just really wanted to get after somebody who exploited a kid, who lied to a kid and his family, who took food off an honest coach’s table.
Q: What was the most serious accusation you knew was true, but couldn’t prove?
A: This one annoyed me a lot. A college coach went to a high school with a couple of his assistant coaches. They met in the (high school) coach’s office with two recruits and the high school coach.
Behind them there was bulletin board with all these cards from all the coaches from other schools. They would pin their cards to the bulletin board, demonstrating how many people had been there to see their kids.
The coach looks at it and says, “Say, I don’t see my calling card here. " He takes out a $100 bill and pins it to the bulletin board and says, “That’s my calling card. I want you guys to remember that. That is Coach Gilleran’s calling card.”
He took the bill down and said, “If you want to see this calling card more, you know where to come.”
The coach’s explanation was that, when he’s excited, as he is when he’s giving a recruiting pitch, he has a tendency to fiddle with his hands.
He keeps his money in a money clip and attached to the money clip is a fingernail groomer. It’s common for him to fidget with this when he’s talking. And he (said he) could well have gestured. They probably saw him gesture and they saw the money there (in his hand). He had no idea what happened.
At the hearing, this coach took out his money clip and passed it around. Even the committee was trying hard to keep a straight face. Before that, we had said, “Let’s watch to see when coach starts doing it (fidgeting) to set this up.”
About five minutes before, we were getting close to the accusations, he starts doing this with his hands (waving them around). It was great. All of a sudden his hands were flying out. He’s setting up his alibi.
The committee, in my mind, dropped the ball. They didn’t find a violation, they found a questionable practice. The distinction is such that it let the guy off.
Q: What form does the hearing take?
A: Basically, the investigator will describe the background information, describe what happened. You have to give them the fullest sense of what happened.
If the school has admitted all of this, of course, you don’t go through it. If the school is denying it, you present your side, your sources, your evidence. The school presents its evidence.
The rules of evidence do not apply. Of course, the weight you give to the evidence is affected by the quality of the evidence. Hearsay information is one thing, first hand information is another thing.
Of course if you say, “I heard this and I heard that,” you can present that, but no one will think it to be credible. On the other hand, you have to realize that when people are making offers of money and assistance, they are not putting it down on paper and having it notarized and having it witnessed.
Somebody has to make that determination as to who is the credible witness here. That task falls to the committee on infractions. They are not going to believe the investigator just because he’s with the NCAA. They have to believe a significant infraction exists.
Penalties are entirely up to the committee. They will ask the NCAA staff for comparable cases to help their decision. But they are not even bound by that. They can do what they want to do. They happen to be fairly consistent. They don’t want to kill somebody for jaywalking.
Q: What powers do you have during an investigation? Can you look at bank accounts?
A: Cooperation was all it is. Mostly.
We had other means. There were banks I was in with forms that we created. We made them at at the office. We had lots of forms. I’ve been thrown out of bankers’ offices and everything else.
I wouldn’t try to run anything by them. I would say, “Look here’s this form, you can see that the kid has signed it.” It (the form) would say, “I allow the NCAA investigator to examine my records at such and such bank.” A lot of times that would be sufficient for them, but we had no subpoena power. If a guy said, “Get out of here,” I turned around and left.
You may say, “How can you ever prove anything?” You just have to be persuasive. I’m out of practice now, but you just develop a speech almost, you say, “Look I’m just looking for the truth, if you want to help me in my quest, you’ll do it.”
Q: What you are really saying is if you don’t have anything to hide . . . put a little guilt on them.
A: Sometimes that would work. They’ll think, “I’ll show him the records,” and they think I’m too stupid to understand them anyway.
There was a situation where there was a bank . . . these athletes at a school were all showing up with new cars. We’d go talk to them and they said, “Yeah, I got my loan down at Wells Fargo Bank,” to make up a bank. “Sure, I got a car loan, go see Mr. Smith. He’s the one who set up the loan.”
The banker’s story was, “Mike, we give everybody interest free loans here.” Everybody who comes in gets interest free loans, that was their defense.
I said, “OK, give me the names of people who have received interest free loans, other than athletes.” He said there was a state law against it.
Then he said: “I might not be much of a banker, I don’t know, but I like to help people. If a young man comes in to me and he happens to be a football player, it doesn’t matter. And he happens to go to my alma mater.”
Finally, it turned out that the only people who got these loans were football players at his alma mater. Not one farmer, not one businessman. Not one other student.
Q: In the case of payments, how do you prove money changed hands?
A: I had this case. On this visit, a recruit says he gets money from a booster. Happens to be a $100 bill. You’d say, “Exactly when did it happen? Describe the day, paint the picture.” The kid says, “Well, it happened inside the booster’s car.”
In this case the kid had kept the booster’s pen. The pen said, “Joe Smith Bank.” None of that proves he gave him the money, you just want to fill in all the details you can.
Like, “Did you tell anybody? What did you spend it on? People remember things the more you get into it. Get all the corroborative information that you can come up with.
That’s still not enough. If that booster has never done anything, you are going to have a very difficult time convincing the committee. Sometimes on those I wouldn’t even allege them. Sometimes it depends on the boosters response. If the booster denies even being in the car with the kid, that tells me something.
I have had boosters tell me, “That kid is crazy. I’ve never seen this Joe Bob whats-his-name in my life.” You get boosters who hang themselves, you just have to give them an opportunity to hang themselves.
Q: How do you control boosters, who are outside of the NCAA’s legislative tentacles.
A: Actually, they are not. We hold the school responsible. Once you could identify a person as a representative of a school’s athletic interest, then it was like--coach did it.
Boosters were the overriding problem when I was there. There are some amazing people out there. They are used to buying and selling anyone and anything in their business and they can’t understand why they can’t buy and sell athletes.
I’m not totally unsympathetic to some of the arguments, I just didn’t hear too many good ones. Most of what I heard, I heard from people who were egocentric and concerned mostly about themselves and their glory. They were trying to live vicariously through the athletes. Maybe they had never had an athletic experience in their life.
I don’t think these people care about the kids. I think it’s an easy out to say, “I’m just helping a poor kid.” You are not helping, to take away their options is no help. Where are these guys when the kid blows out his knee and can’t have a pro career? I have yet to see one surface. Where are they now?
I used to follow up. I’d call kids, even the ones who didn’t like me at the time, just to see what’s going on. I never heard one say “Hey, that booster, we are good friends. He’s helping me out, he’s helping me get a job.” It may have happened, but I never heard about it.
It seemed to me that the guy would come in and be the Sugar Daddy and get him (athlete) in there and he’s out looking at next year’s crop.
Q: What about banning agents from contacting college athletes?
A: It seems to me that the unethical agent is still going to go after the kid. We might only be hurting the ethical guy.
My experiences with agents have been so disturbing that it’s not a subject that I can talk about with any objectivity. I’d just as soon as line ‘em up and shoot ‘em, the ones I’ve worked with. It’s just happened that the ones I’ve worked with are scum.
I’m sure there are ethical agents and attorneys out there.
A guy I knew who was an attorney and agent, is now out of the business. He said, “The reason I’m getting out of the business is because I can’t afford to keep giving them (athletes) this much money, I can’t afford the cocaine, I can’t afford the cars.” He said, “ I’d like to have the money, I’d like to have the cocaine and the cars that I’m giving these idiots. Only to have them turn around . . . maybe they will stay with me and maybe they won’t.”
Q: What was the worst violation you dealt with?
A: I had a deal where one kid was coming up short on hours, and they put him in two different junior colleges over the summer so he could get eligible the next year.
While the kid is living in his home town and working, he’s also enrolled in two junior college and they are not even in the same state. His home is 800 miles away.
He goes to the school the next year, then gets kicked off the team. This was when all this stuff hit the fan in the mid ‘80s about bogus grades. The school panicked and said, “We’ve got to cut this guy loose.”
So the kid came back to his room one night and the coaches were cleaning out his dresser. The kid said, “What’s going on?” The coaches said, “You’re gone, you’re history. You don’t like it, we’ll report you for drugs.”
I got a call from an attorney who just happened to be playing ball with the kid one night. The lawyer said, “I don’t know the kid, but he described the situation to me and it doesn’t sound Kosher to me.”
So I flew down there and talked to the kid. This was a bad kid, he’s a manipulative kid. But what he’s saying has the ring of truth to it, what he’s saying is so bizarre that he’s not smart enough to make it up.
I went to the different junior colleges. The two JCs were in on it. They wanted the money from the school. The teachers were in on it.
I was able to find people at the JCs who were opposed to this kind of thinking. So I got into open warfare with two JCs. Finally ended up getting the test that the kid allegedly took to get his credits.
I looked at it and said, “This is fine, except the kid’s name is typed up at the top.” It’s a multiple choice test and you could see the circles were different. A left-hander had made these circles, a right-hander had made these circles. At no point did the kid’s name ever appear in writing.
This is one of the times when I got a little sophisticated. I was angry at this point because the school was really stonewalling it (the investigation). I said, “I am going to get a fingerprint analysis on this test. We are going to find out once and for all . . . “
Well, I didn’t know anything about fingerprints. So I go up there and I get the fingerprints of the kid and he’s not on the paper anywhere. Which shocks me because I thought they (fingerprint experts) were going to tell me this is just TV stuff.
I took it back to the school and said, “Darrell’s fingerprints aren’t on here. I’d be real interested, coach, to see if your fingerprints were on here.”
The coach had driven the kid down to one school one day so the kid could watch a film and answer questions about hygiene. The kid fell asleep during the film, so the coach had to do that test for him, too.
It just infuriated me, even though it was a bad kid, that this guy blatantly created grades for him to get him in to their school. Then they kicked him out. So what service did they do him? Instead of telling that kid, “Hey, if you want to turn your life around, you will go to school yourself , you will do the work and then, maybe, maybe, we will let you have the opportunity to play ball for us. You will have earned that opportunity.”
Instead, that kid is sitting down in little shack in the South, thinking that schools owe him a chance to play and so to this day his outlook hasn’t changed. The coach is gone. What’s the point?