The sound of heavy footsteps in a hallway woke Tony Bland early on a September morning in 2017.
The associate head coach for the USC men’s basketball team tried to go back to sleep after a late-night dinner to celebrate the commitment of a top recruit, but pounding on the door of his hotel room in Tampa, Fla., replaced the footsteps.
When Bland opened the door, FBI agents burst into the room with guns drawn and voices raised. One agent twisted his right arm behind his back and pushed him against a wall. The scene reminded the coach of a shoot-’em-up video game. He kept telling the agents they had the wrong person. They didn’t.
“It was like they were looking for a violent criminal,” Bland told the Los Angeles Times in a telephone interview Wednesday.
The arrest in the federal investigation into college basketball corruption ended Bland’s promising career at USC, thrust him into the middle of a national scandal and, finally, led to Room 619 in the Thurgood Marshall Courthouse in New York. U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos sentenced Bland to two years of probation and 100 hours of community service Wednesday after he pleaded guilty to a felony count of conspiracy to commit bribery.
The sentence fell short of the six to 12 months in prison prosecutors requested and ended a 20-month saga that consumed the coach’s life.
“I was praying for the best and praying for leniency,” said Bland, the first of four college assistants who have taken plea bargains in the investigation to be sentenced. “I’m just happy to have another opportunity at developing as a person and to move on with my life.”
Bland admitted to accepting a $4,100 bribe in July 2017 in exchange for directing USC players to retain a sports management company when they turned professional.
Prosecutors originally alleged Bland received $13,000, but bank records and court testimony showed Christian Dawkins, the chief executive of the sports management company, pocketed most of the money provided by an undercover FBI agent posing as an investor. Dawkins gave Bland some of the money to use at a bachelor party.
Last month, prosecutors filed a victim impact statement from USC. In it, the school alleged that Bland and others charged in the case “significantly damaged the reputation of USC as an institution, the USC athletic department, and its men’s basketball program.”
During the hearing Wednesday, Jeffrey Lichtman, Bland’s attorney, mentioned several scandals to engulf USC in recent years, including the federal college admissions investigation that led to the FBI arresting four current or former athletic department employees, and allegations that former USC gynecologist George Tyndall sexually abused hundreds of students while working at a campus clinic.
“How … dare they put out that letter and pretend they have a reputation to protect,” Lichtman said in a telephone interview.
“They were technically a victim, but the idea that they’re a victim that anybody should give a damn about is absurd.”
Lichtman, who represents convicted drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, directed strong words at prosecutors in the college basketball investigation. The attorney said Bland made a mistake that warranted punishment, but took significantly less money than the three assistant coaches and others charged.
“They destroyed the man’s life over $4,100,” Lichtman said. “I’m not suggesting for a second that he didn’t violate the law. But giving him a felony conviction? Really? When you know half of college basketball is doing the same thing, if not more?”
He also questioned why head coaches such as Arizona’s Sean Miller and Louisiana State’s Will Wade were linked to the investigation in news reports, but never charged.
“When the case started, we were hearing, ‘This is just the beginning. So many more arrests are coming. We’re going to be opening up everything in college basketball,’ ” Lichtman said. “But they didn’t do … after the initial arrests. They didn’t do a damn thing.”
Three other men have been sentenced in connection with the investigation. Earlier this year, former Adidas employee Jim Gatto got nine months in prison while Dawkins and Merl Code, another ex-Adidas employee, each got six months after being convicted of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
A jury convicted Dawkins and Code on bribery charges in a related trial in May, though they were found not guilty on seven of 10 counts.
Former Arizona assistant Book Richardson will be sentenced Thursday, followed by Lamont Evans (Oklahoma State) on Friday and Chuck Person (Auburn) later this year.
Bland, whose shoulder still aches from the arrest, regrets not listening to “that little voice” that told him to not get involved in what became one of the biggest scandals in college basketball history. He’s thankful for the coaches who stuck by him — including USC assistants Jason Hart and Chris Capko — even if it meant coaches calling or texting knowing that Bland wouldn’t respond because of the legal proceedings.
He has opportunities with a couple of NBA teams, but isn’t sure if that’s the right path.
He’s happy to speak with the NCAA — which is launching a probe of schools connected to the case — about anything.
He has nightmares about the arrest. It still feels like it happened yesterday.
He believes he’s gotten a second chance. He wants to show people he is about more than the investigation that roiled an entire sport.
“I wouldn’t wish this on any other coach in America,” Bland said. “I have to get on my knees every night and pray that it won’t happen to someone else.”