Two months ago, Tony Bland walked into a Las Vegas hotel room for a clandestine business meeting.
The men’s associate head basketball coach at USC wanted to reassure Christian Dawkins, a former sports agent trying to start his own firm, that his “heavy influence” would convince Trojans players to hire Dawkins as their agent.
Dawkins and Bland discussed with two other men how to compensate the coach for his services. Then the sports agent left the meeting with Bland and an envelope containing $13,000, promising to give it to the coach.
What Bland and Dawkins didn’t know was that the man who brought the money to the meeting was an undercover FBI agent investigating fraud and corruption in college basketball. Hidden video cameras and a microphone recorded every word.
On Tuesday, Bland, Dawkins and eight other men were charged in U.S. District Court in New York as part of a wide-ranging investigation. The USC coach is accused of several crimes, including conspiracy to commit bribery and wire fraud.
The investigation is far from over. The FBI set up a tip line for those with more information, and William Sweeney, the assistant director in charge of the New York FBI office, had a warning for coaches who may still be involved in similar schemes.
“We have your playbook,” he said.
The FBI arrested Bland in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday morning, according to an agency spokeswoman. Bland appeared in federal court in Tampa and was released on a $100,000 bond.
During a news conference, Joon H. Kim, acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, called the allegations a journey into the “dark underbelly of college basketball.”
“Coaches at some of the nation’s top programs soliciting and accepting cash bribes,” Kim said Tuesday. “Managers and financial advisors circling blue-chip prospects like coyotes.”
The FBI has been investigating the influence of illicit money on college basketball coaches and athletes since 2015. In building the case, law enforcement used two undercover agents, numerous authorized wiretaps and a cooperating witness, according to court documents.
“The investigation has revealed several instances in which coaches have exercised that influence by steering players and their families to retain particular advisors, not because of the merits of those advisors, but because the coaches were being bribed by the advisors to do so,” the complaint said.
Prosecutors said that during one recorded conversation, Bland called the opportunity to direct USC players to certain agents a “gold mine.”
Prosecutors also charged Bland with facilitating cash payments of $9,000 to families of two USC basketball players. That would violate NCAA rules. The two players, who weren’t named, were identified in the complaint as “Player-8” and “Player-9,” an incoming freshman and a rising sophomore.
During a meeting at a restaurant on USC’s campus Aug. 31, which was recorded by an undercover FBI agent, Bland told Dawkins, the sports agent, and Sood, the chief executive of an investment advisory firm, that if they continued to pay the families of USC players and recruits, the coach would ensure the players hire Dawkins.
“I definitely can get the players,” Bland told the others at the meeting. “And I can definitely mold the players and put them in the lap of you guys.”
Kim described the alleged bribes as a “business investment” for Dawkins and Soon.
Prosecutors also allege they worked with three Adidas-linked individuals to funnel money to families of players in exchange for their commitment to play at schools that have a sponsorship with the company.
Prosecutors accused Gatto, director for global sports marketing for basketball for Adidas, and others of bribing high school athletes on at least three occasions this year. It included giving $100,000 to one top recruit’s family in exchange for his commitment to play at Louisville and eventually endorse Adidas.
In one recorded meeting, Dawkins said: “If we take care of everybody, control everything, you can make millions off of one kid.”
Earlier this year, Dawkins was fired from ASM Sports and his agent’s license was revoked by the National Basketball Players Assn. after allegations he racked up tens of thousands of dollars in unauthorized charges on a player’s credit card.
Mike Blanton, USC’s vice president for athletic compliance, said Bland has been placed on administrative leave and the school has started an internal investigation.
“USC places the highest priority on athletic compliance and is taking this situation very seriously,” Blanton said in a statement. “Accordingly, we have hired former FBI director Louis J. Freeh, and his firm, Freeh Group International Solutions, to work with us in conducting an internal investigation into this matter so that we can take action quickly and appropriately.”
In a statement, USC Athletic Director Lynn Swann said the school was “shocked” to learn of Bland’s alleged involvement.
Neither Bland nor USC head basketball coach Andy Enfield responded Tuesday to requests for comment.
Bland is scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court in New York on Oct. 10.
USC hired Bland from San Diego State in April 2013. At the time, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported the new job paid more than $300,000. Bland grew up in South Los Angeles, led Westchester High to a state championship and played in college at Syracuse and San Diego State. He is referred to as an “elite recruiter” in his biography on USC’s website.
USC self-imposed sanctions on its basketball program in 2010, in the middle of an NCAA investigation that found a basketball player had taken impermissible benefits. The investigation concluded guard O.J. Mayo and people close to him accepted cash, lodging, transportation, a cellphone, a television, watches, shoes and clothing from Rodney Guillory, an event promoter representing a sports agent.
The team was barred from the 2009-10 postseason, lost one scholarship a year over two seasons, vacated 21 wins from the 2007-08 season and returned about $206,000 for its participation in the NCAA tournament. The NCAA accepted the penalties and ordered USC to disassociate from Mayo and Guillory.
By the 2011-12 season, USC had sunk to a 6-26 record. The Trojans didn’t have a winning record again until two seasons ago.
Enfield rebuilt the program with waves of strong recruiting classes, helped in part by Bland. USC reached the NCAA tournament two seasons ago and won two tournament games last season. This season USC is regarded as a favorite in the Pac-12 Conference.
Kim said authorities did not inform the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. of the investigation until Tuesday.
“We have no tolerance for this type of behavior,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said. “Coaches hold a unique position of trust with student-athletes and their families and these bribery allegations, if true, suggest an extraordinary and despicable breach of that trust.”
Los Angeles Times staff writers Zach Helfand and Eric Sondheimer contributed to this report, as did correspondent Matt Hansen from New York.
2:17 p.m. This article was updated to include related allegations against an Adidas executive and an upscale clothier.
1:39 p.m. This article was updated with details of Bland’s arrest and court appearance, as well as a statement from the NCAA.
11:40 a.m.: This article was updated with more reaction and background on Bland and USC.
10:45 a.m.: This article was updated with more details and background information.
10:05 a.m.: This article was updated with more details and background information.
9:20 a.m.: This article was updated with details about the charges against USC assistant coach Tony Bland.
8:48 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with Los Angles Times staff reporting.
This article was originally published at 7:15 a.m.