“The System” is a recently-released, behind-the-scenes college football book that has received rave reviews for its unvarnished look at the good, the bad and the ugly of the sport.
Called “the best book on the sport written in years” by Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel, the book covers Mike Leach’s firing at Texas Tech and hiring at Washington State, the scandals at Ohio State and Miami (FL), the shady world of recruiting hostesses and tutors, the epidemic of college football player arrests, Nick Saban’s blueprint to success, the corruption in recruiting and the world of big boosters – among many other topics.
Lost Lettermen’s Jim Weber recently spoke with co-author Armen Keteyian of CBS News about the groundbreaking book:
Jim Weber: Leach has always said that he did nothing wrong with Adam James. But, from the quote that he told the trainer to “Stick him in a dark place where the onlyway he’ll remember that he is a man is to reach down and grab himself” and then telling the trainer for James to stand up in the shed – I don’t understand how he can justify that as treating a concussion.
Armen Keteyian: Mike is very offensive in everything that he does in life, and whether it’s his approach to life or his approach to coaching his team. And, I think sometimes he just was color blind to the reality of how his actions were being perceived. Whether that’s a character flaw or whether it’s a quirk – whatever you want to call it – It’s hard to read those exchanges and not feel like he had crossed the line. But, Mike doesn’t feel that way.
JW: After reading about the whole Adam James situation and then the two incidents at Washington State. Now, I know he was cleared of both of those, but those were incidents that had questionable behavior. Do you feel like Leach is just kind of a ticking time bomb for something like this to happen again?
AK: No. I think he’s like a lot of major college coaches. If you spend time at a practice field, you know – it’s not Sunday School. So, there’s words used and threats made – and I mean that in sort of a – not a murderous sense, but … it can be very intimidating. And I don’t think he’s, frankly, all that much different than any other college coach I’ve observed. And I think in the end, the comments from the wide receiver were not in an abusive nature, but were in a … you know, he just kind of misinterpreted what was happening there. So, no – I don’t think he’s any more of a ticking time bomb than any other major college coach under a tremendous amount of pressure at this point in time to win.
I mean, these are not $15 investments these schools are making. In the case of Washington State, you’re talking upwards of $100 million by the time all is said and done with the renovation of the football stadium and the facilities, Mike’s contract, and everything else that goes into these enormous commitments that schools are making to these coaches. And sometimes that pressure finds its way out of people’s mouth.
JW: The other huge headline that people were talking about as soon as the book came out is the Ricky Seals-Jones recruiting situation. You said that there was an offer of $300,000 from a school. You’ve mentioned you heard about seven-figure black box funds. There was the Cam Newton investigation and they didn’t come up with anything. There’s the Seals-Jones situation. There’s just all this talk about hundreds of thousands of dollars going to recruits. I know that you said things have evolved where it’s always in cash and there’s a third person involved. But, how in the world has no one been caught to this point to something of this magnitude?
AK: Well, that’s a good question. I think a lot of it is that – unless it’s in someone’s interest to talk – nobody talks. You can look at the Miami situation with Nevin Shapiro. He was pissed off because I think he felt like he was being used by the system and wasn’t getting his due. And then when he went to the NCAA and to Yahoo! Sports, he was upset. If you’re part of the system and you’re getting taken care of by the system, it’s not in your best interest to open your mouth.
So, unless you’re really stupid or somebody is cut out of a deal or feels like they’ve been wronged, these are not conversations that are traveling very far past one or two people. However the money is going to move, it’s going to move very, very quietly and it’s going to move two and three places removed from the main target.
JW: The NCAA has become a running joke not that it’s been over two years since the story broke and still nothing has happened to Miami. We have no idea what timeline there is for a ruling. What do you think will ultimately happen?
AK: Well, I think with Nevin Shapiro, they had and have certainly enough to put the school on probation for more than a year. And, the problem was: they were going, at least as I saw it, they were going for the lack of institutional control and knowledge within the department by several people of his actions. And, because those people didn’t cooperate, and because all they had, essentially, was Shapiro’s word – not knowing what the documents were – they went for the kill shot essentially on Miami. And, they missed because they committed an unpardonable ethical breech.
So, my sense is they are going to still hit them in a way much similar to what Ohio State got and USC got. Death penalty? I don’t think so. But, you’re talking about a guy who says, for years, he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars entertaining, at the very least, dozens of athletes. So, I don’t know how Miami slips out of that noose. The idea that it’s taken this long is not good in any way, shape or form.
JW: In terms of all the talk about these big programs moving on from the NCAA and setting up their own organization, I thought you raised a good point in the Reddit AMA. People always raise this point like it’s inevitable, but have no real plan for what would happen next. How do you envision the future?
AK: I think it’s easy to say. It’s like saying, “I want a divorce.” But, when you actually have to go through the divorce, you might want to have some counseling before you do that. And, I think the NCAA needs to sit down, which I think is what they’re doing right now. I think whatever is happening with these presidents and Emmert… I don’t have a great deal of faith in (the presidents) right now.
But, if this thing is going to happen, the mechanics of it are critical. Eligibility, academic oversight, recruiting rules and regulations, the division of money, if there is a stipend that’s going to be paid within the premier programs – all of that sounds easy to kind of fix, but it’s going to be an enormous issue. And, I don’t see it happening in the near near future. But the fact is, with this playoff looming, and the money that’s going to pour in to these conferences, even though as part of the deal, the non-BCS conferences have got significant upgrades in their piece of the pie – it’s still going to be a world of have and have-nots. And, I don’t know how much longer this can last.
JW: And you are in favor of a stipend, but not full-out paying players.
AK: I am in favor of – and it’s not me, well it is me – but far more important, it’s Nick Saban, it’s Brian Kelly. They are speaking that there has to be the full cost of an education. And that means some sort of stipend. I don’t know what you want to call it, other than a stipend. Where the athletes who cannot work, they just don’t have the time, these college football players, to do anything that would put additional money in their pockets. So I laugh when they say, as they have been saying for 30 years now, “Oh, they’re taking money from agents.” Well, who do you think they’re going to take it from? They’re either going to take it from boosters or they’re going to take it from agents because they need to live.
And Arian Foster’s remarks in school were a classic example of it. The last paragraph in the first SI piece was a classic example it. “We did it because we needed food, we needed to have some ability to go to the store and buy something.” This inequality that is now the norm was quaint when these were $50 million, $40 million football programs. But the fact they’re now $80, $90, $100-million programs that are the front door of these institutions and are the single most marketing device a university has. If they think that the natives are going to remain quiet for much longer, I think they’ve got another thing coming.
JW: But you don’t think paying them a salary is a good idea or feasible?
AK: I don’t. Because it opens up too many – it just adds too many problems. I mean you’re talking about worker’s compensation issues, you’re talking about… I think the worker’s comp issue is the biggest thing. Plus, the NCAA is a tax-exempt, non-profit organization. Now all of the sudden, you’re going to be paying employees like they are part of the entertainment Goliath? I don’t know. I think a stipend is a much easier answer than just flat-out paying these people – paying the kids.
JW: It seems like another issue – it’s like leaving the NCAA – people just kind of throw it out there without really thinking the whole issue though.
AK: Well the thing is Jim – I’m trying to figure out who’s in charge here. And you’ve gone through a period of absolutely convulsive change and certainly with Oklahoma State, the system, the Miami case, Alabama and agents, the looming playoff, I haven’t heard one college president stand up – I haven’t seen it as yet – one college president stand up and say “You know what, we have to make some changes or somebody’s got to take a leadership position here.” And everybody likes to point the finger at Mark Emmert, but Mark Emmert … he doesn’t have a lot of power that way.
So whether it’s the NCAA Executive Committee or it’s a group of powerful college presidents – but in my mind, I don’t think they want to change this. I think they love the system the way it is right now because they’re profiting from it in unimaginable ways. Athletic directors aren’t going to change it. College presidents see the advantages of having an incredibly powerful football program. It’s no longer about just the wins and losses. The wins and losses add enormous value to a university in terms of donations and in terms of applications.
JW: I wanted to also ask you about the scariest issue for me in the book was the arrests and, in particular, the issue of sexual assault. And you talk about tutors and hostesses and rape cases like Lizzy Seeberg and the incident at BYU. It seems like schools aren’t really doing anything to solve this problem and, if anything, they’re part of the problem with the tutors and the hostessing programs – do you see anyone stepping up to try and stop this epidemic?
AK: Well I don’t know if people, prior to the book, understood the consequences and the significance of what was happening under their noses, so to speak. And I think the first thing that had to happen, whether it was with us or with somebody else, was to raise this issue of the relationships between the hostesses and the recruits and certainly between the tutors and the athletes. And now that it’s out there, you would hope that that would be part of the discussion of how the system has to change. And that to me and [co-author] Jeff [Benedict] was the most disturbing aspect of our reporting, was the use and abuse of women – young women – by these programs, for the benefit of the program.
But in the case of Lacey Pearl Earps, look what happened when she got caught up in the Tennessee investigation. She was jettisoned like bad… like spoiled meat – within days. And after everything she had done for that program, she was collateral damage. And that’s what happens far more often than not.
JW: Last question I have for you: You’ve spent more time around Nick Saban than almost any journalist and you have a story coming up on him on “60 Minutes.” I guess I’m just curious – I got a little bit of a glimpse of what he’s like when he’s not looking at tape all day, doing pick up basketball, in the off season – I know he goes to his lake house. When the cameras are off and you are just spending time with him, is there another side to him that we don’t see?
AK: Oh, there absolutely is. I think he’s one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met. And he’s got a great heart. He’s funny, in his own way. He’s a West Virginia guy through and through. I mean hard work and great ethics and married to the same woman for 42 years. He’s just – I don’t know. He’s one of those people that you have to understand that he’s never satisfied with anything. He’s a teacher at heart who’s searching for perfection. But he’s not above cracking jokes and showing his emotion and playing cards and going out on his boat. He’s not a robot by any stretch of the imagination.
JW: I think that’s the perfect way to sum it up because I think that’s how everyone looks at him. Why does he never let anyone else see that side of him?
AK: I just think it’s part of who he is. Growing up, his father had just been this enormous influence on Nick’s life. And I think you’ll see it in the 60 (Minutes) piece – the bar was set so high by his dad. And Nick doesn’t begrudge him for it, but it’s just something that’s been bred into him that you’re never satisfied – that there’s always something else that you can do better. And it’s that kind of striving for, literally, perfection that drives him. I’ve never met anybody like him. The only one that I’ve met in sports that I’ve… Well, I’ve met a few: Peyton (Manning), (Tom) Brady, (Bill) Belichick, (Lance) Armstrong, Saban. They are just cut from a different cloth. And each of them, in their own way, they’re just not like us. But that’s OK.
Nick is a funny guy. He’s got a droll sense of humor. He makes fun of himself. He’s self deprecating – which is one of his most, frankly to me, endearing qualities is that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. Don’t go out on a practice field and not give less than your best. These kids, the ones that come out of there Jim, that can withstand the cauldron that is Alabama football – they’re tested by fire both in practice and in conditioning and in the classroom. Nick is never going to let anything slip by. They just come out different people – they come out better people. That “Built By ‘Bama” is not just a phrase – it’s a process too.
You can buy “The System” online here. Keteyian’s in-depth look at Nick Saban is tentatively scheduled to air on “60 Minutes” on November 3rd.