Commentary

Staff should have been more careful

Dual roles tough, but Mulkey needed to avoid any conceivable impermissible contact

Originally Published: April 10, 2012
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW

Women's basketball, just like any other sport, has its constantly churning rumor mill. And in regard to Baylor's recruitment of center Brittney Griner, the fact that coach Kim Mulkey's daughter, Makenzie Robertson, and Griner were on the same DFW Elite Basketball club team, along with other current Baylor players, was grist for the mill during that process.

Thus, the news broken by ESPN.com's Jason King on Monday that national champion Baylor is facing possible NCAA sanctions -- on top of already self-imposed penalties -- for violations that include improper contact with Griner and her father during recruiting didn't completely shock those who follow women's hoops.

That said, the rumor mill is so active, it seems like out of every 25 or so rumors you hear, one might actually result in NCAA penalties as a consequence. Does that ratio sound bleak? I guess it does, but it's partly because there really isn't merit to all the rumors … and partly because the NCAA simply doesn't have the investigative force to dig into every one of them.

However, King's analysis of the summary disposition, produced by the NCAA enforcement staff and Baylor officials, examined the violations that chiefly involve the school's football, men's basketball and women's basketball programs.

So this isn't about rumors anymore. It's about things Baylor acknowledges it did and now must account for.

College sports are coached by extremely competitive people. To compete at the top level, they must have great athletes. To get great athletes, they need to make the right connections and do an outstanding sales job.

So are lines blurred or crossed frequently by coaching staffs in all Division I college sports? Or do most coaches follow the rules, even to the extent of going out of their way to avoid any semblance of impropriety?

[+] EnlargeGriner-Mulkey
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireAt at a time when Baylor should be celebrating a perfect season and a coach who has done so much to aid the growth of women's basketball, there are clouds around the entire athletic department.

Depends on whom you ask. The only certain thing is that lots of coaches think lots of other coaches are bending or breaking the rules. The rumor mill never stops.

Many of the women's hoops coaches I've talked to about the Griner situation thought that Mulkey used her situation as a club team parent to work around the rules about her contact with the Griner family. Do those coaches have self-interest in viewing it this way? Yes. But do they also have a valid point? Yes, again.

It's not as if Mulkey somehow could have plotted years in advance to have her only daughter be around the same age as Griner -- obviously, that's preposterous -- or that this is a perpetual advantage Mulkey will have in the recruiting process.

Still, six players from DFW Elite -- Griner, Robertson, Odyssey Sims, Kimetria Hayden, Jordan Madden and Brooklyn Pope -- were on Baylor's NCAA title team this season. Yes, that's four of Baylor's five starters.

It was the Griner family's honest answers in an interview for the NCAA's former Top Prospect Program that got that organization looking into the contact -- even though the Griner family wasn't trying to implicate Mulkey.

To be fair, Mulkey's dual roles as parent of a recruitable player and coach of Baylor's women's program put her in a potentially difficult-to-navigate position. Still, she should have steered far clear of any conceivable impermissible contact with other DFW Elite parents while at club team games. It would appear that's the NCAA's view as well. Is that entirely fair or reasonable? I think so. Is it a mild breach of the rules or something more severe? That's going to be the NCAA's call.

Admittedly, the NCAA rules on recruiting are contrary to how your average business would operate in regard to selling itself to prospective employees. But college sports programs are governed by different standards. However pie-in-the-sky idealistic or impractical they might seem when you consider that college athletics really is a giant business, the rules are still the rules, as agreed upon by the NCAA member institutions.

There are limits now -- which weren't always there -- to restrict contact between coaches and prospective student-athletes. These were put in place to protect the young people from being bombarded with calls and texts (although that technology came later) from the schools hoping to land them.

I've talked to several women's basketball coaches who started their careers as assistants in the 1980s when there was no limit on contact (although in the pre-cellphone/email days, there also were fewer ways to reach people). Most of them liked the no-limits policy at the time, because they were young, eager, energetic and out to climb the ladder in the coaching ranks. But the coaches came to realize that limiting contact actually was to their benefit, too.

The rules -- and the self-policing culture of abiding by them -- help coaches manage recruiting just a little better and keep it from being quite literally a never-ceasing process. But even with the rules, most coaches will tell you it still feels like a 24/7 job regardless.

Which leads to the other issue with Baylor: allegations of impermissible texts and phone calls. King's analysis of the violations breaks down this way:

• From April to November 2008 (when Griner was transitioning from junior to senior in high school), the Baylor women's hoops staff made 74 calls and sent 24 text messages to recruits and/or their parents that were deemed impermissible. Assistant Damion McKinney was responsible for 38 of the calls and eight texts. Mulkey had 22 calls and four texts. The rest were made by other staff members.

• From January to July 2011, Baylor women's hoops had 155 calls and 159 texts deemed impermissible. McKinney made all but nine calls and one text. The report states that McKinney made the majority of calls (134) and texts (113) to Corey Hegwood, a DFW Elite coach who is a longtime friend of McKinney's but also had a daughter, Kristin Askew, who was a Division I prospect.

She was never recruited by Baylor and had already signed with SMU in November 2010, and McKinney maintains in the report that the calls were personal/friendly in nature and not about recruiting, which was confirmed by Hegwood to ESPN.com. However, they were still impermissible.

Before McKinney came to Baylor, he worked for DFW Elite Basketball, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Dallas-Fort Worth that fields various club teams and essentially exists to help prepare players to become college prospects.

DFW Elite was begun in 2004 by the late Marques Jackson, whose daughter, Tiffany, played at Texas and is currently with the WNBA's Tulsa Shock. Tiffany was already at Texas when her father founded DFW Elite, and in the ensuing eight years, several Division I players have come through the organization.

Many Big 12 schools have had at least one DFW Elite "alum" on their roster in that time; four from the class of 2012 are headed to SEC-bound Texas A&M. Also getting DFW Elite players from this year's senior class are the likes of UConn, Duke, Texas, Vanderbilt and South Carolina. As mentioned, six were with Baylor's title team this year, one other has committed for the coming season.

Hiring people to be college assistants because of their connections to club teams -- in effect, tapping into a hoped-for recruiting pipeline -- is hardly unique to women's basketball, let alone specific to Baylor.

Where it can become an NCAA rules issue is the potentially murky ground that includes how those coaches are compensated (before and after they join a college staff) and how closely they adhere to the guidelines about contact with players and parents -- some of whom they already knew before they became college coaches.

However, not everyone will view any of this as murky, nor do they see any gray areas. As one coach told me, "Looking for the gray area is looking for a way to get around the rules."

Is it necessarily a quid-pro-quo situation that because of her contact with the Griner family through DFW Elite, Mulkey signed the 6-foot-8 prep star? That's unlikely. Baylor had a lot going for it anyway: Griner is from Houston and seemed to want to stay relatively close to home, so Texas schools had an advantage to begin with. Baylor was the only Texas school at the time of Griner's recruitment that could boast of having won an NCAA title in the previous decade (2005).

Mulkey has helped Griner open up her personality with media and develop her game to the point of sweeping the national player of the year awards this season. Griner went through a difficult freshman season, culminating with the punching incident at Texas Tech, but she has matured emotionally since then. Mulkey has molded Griner as a competitor and has been a motherlike figure whom Griner trusts.

Mulkey has done much to aid the growth of women's basketball, and it's not as if she has a known history with the NCAA of violations or integrity breaches. However, none of these attributes changes the reality of NCAA rules about which she and Baylor should have been more careful.

The questions must be asked: Did Mulkey take a calculated risk to push the rules to (or past) their limits for a so-called "once-in-a-lifetime" player? Will Baylor's self-imposed penalties, none of which seem very damaging to the program or its future, satisfy the NCAA? Should they satisfy observers of the game?

The NCAA will have the final say, punishment-wise. But the bottom line for Baylor is that at a time when the school should be celebrating a perfect season in women's basketball, there are clouds around the entire athletic department that could bring more storms.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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