Bland, a former U.S.C. assistant coach arrested in 2017 as part of an F.B.I. investigation, is now coaching at a Los Angeles-area high school. He still hopes he can return to the college level.
PLAYA DEL REY, Calif. — In an alternate universe, Tony Bland might have been a world away on Tuesday night, on the sideline at the University of Southern California’s sold-out Galen Center, coaching the home team in a nationally televised, high-stakes men’s basketball game against Arizona.
Instead, Bland was in a well-worn high school gym about 20 miles away with the St. Bernard High School boys basketball team in a state playoff game.
He is trying his best to, as he says, plant himself where his feet are, to think about where he is and not stew about what he once had — a college career that had him on the fast track to possibly becoming a head coach.
Still, the reminders are hard to miss: After St. Bernard dispatched feisty Long Beach Poly, 52-40, Bland was congratulated by Wyking Jones, a University of Washington assistant recruiting one of his players. In the stands was the U.C.L.A. assistant Rod Palmer, whose son Joshua is a freshman at St. Bernard. One of his team’s leaders is Jason Hart Jr., whose father was on the U.S.C. coaching staff with Bland and now coaches in the N.B.A.’s G League.
The triggers are particularly strong in March, when college basketball takes center stage in the American sports landscape and deep N.C.A.A. tournament runs, like U.S.C.’s to last year’s regional final, can be springboards for coaches with aspirations.
“It’s the competitive itch,” Bland said. “The what if? Ascending the college coaching ranks to maybe soon be a head coach. How I would have done it. I remember when I used to do this. It’s the whole thing.”
Everything changed for Bland on Sept. 26, 2017, when armed federal agents — their weapons drawn — stormed into his hotel room in Tampa, Fla., and arrested Bland as part of a nationwide college basketball corruption scandal. Bland was one of 10 people arrested that day as a result of an investigation that targeted some of the nation’s most prominent programs and that federal prosecutors boasted would expose the sport’s shady underbelly.
“We have your playbook,” the F.B.I.’s William Sweeney thundered, sending a chill through the college basketball world when he added that the investigation, which had been fortified by wiretaps, was ongoing.
Now, some four and a half years later, it has long been clear how empty those overinflated proclamations have been. (The same can be said for the breathless exclamations that a sea change in the sport was at hand.)
The N.C.A.A. has done little more than slap a few schools on the wrist, and Rick Pitino is the only head coach who was fired in 2017 — a result less of his culpability than that the investigation was the latest in a string of embarrassing incidents during his tenure at Louisville. (Pitino now coaches Iona).
And the Feds, rather than exposing top college coaches, went lengths to shield them. They fought in court in 2019 to keep Louisiana State’s Will Wade, Arizona’s Sean Miller — who was fired last year — and other coaches off the witness stand. They also fought to keep an undercover agent from testifying, the reasons for which became clear last week: An F.B.I. agent pleaded guilty to gambling with $13,500 in government money at a Las Vegas casino in late July 2017, dates and circumstances that coincide with the sting operation that nabbed Bland and others.
So, the head coaches who were accused in court of having known about — or even having facilitated — payments to players have almost all continued to collect million-dollar salaries, and business has proceeded as usual. (Arizona, Auburn and Kansas — all implicated in the scheme — are ranked second, fifth and sixth, respectively, in this week’s Associated Press poll.)
“If anyone thinks that there is such a thing as a clean big-time program, they need to wake up and smell the donkey” manure, wrote Merl Code, a former shoe company employee, in his recently published book, “Black Market: An Insider’s Journey Into the High-Stakes World of College Basketball,” using an expletive. “Somewhere along the line, even the so-called cleanest of programs has some dirt if you look close enough.”
Code, like Christian Dawkins, an aspiring agent, was sentenced to prison for his role in shunting money to top high school prospects and/or their families — a practice that has long been against N.C.A.A. rules, but one that has looked far less illicit as schools have made millions off the backs of an unpaid, largely Black labor force.
(Code said Pitino and Kansas Coach Bill Self knew about payments he facilitated to players; both have denied any involvement.)
The case has only underscored the racial dynamic that is coming under greater scrutiny in major college sports: Coaches and top administrators, most of them white, enriching themselves thanks to the athletes, largely Black, who power their team’s success. All but one of the nine people who have been convicted or pleaded guilty in the corruption case are Black.
Chuck Person (Auburn), Emanuel Richardson (Arizona), Lamont Evans (South Carolina and Oklahoma State), Preston Murphy (Creighton), Corey Barker (Texas Christian and New Mexico State) and Bland were all fired as assistants for accepting bribes. Murphy and Barker were not charged with crimes because they had returned the bribes.
All have also been hit with show-cause penalties ranging from two years to 10, meaning that any college that wants to hire them has to explain to the N.C.A.A. why it wants to do so.
The penalties effectively serve as a ban, and so many of the coaches are working as trainers, running workouts and camps for anyone who will pay them. Bland seems to be the only one coaching at a school.
“I’m not saying these guys did anything wrong,” Bland said of the head coaches. “But what the assistant coaches went down for, I don’t know if they anticipated something more coming from it. I don’t know if there was supposed to be a Part B. This whole scheme and TV and bust for that? I don’t understand it.”
Bland pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit bribery — accepting $4,100 from Dawkins to steer players to a financial adviser — and received two years probation.
Bland said he accepted only $2,100 from Dawkins, a friend for about a decade who told him to enjoy a night out in Las Vegas as a thanks for meeting with the financial adviser. He said, though, that he had little choice but to accept the plea deal because, if his case went to trial, it would be lumped in with those of four other defendants. “It was a business decision,” said Bland, who said he was so traumatized by the arrest that he couldn’t sleep in a hotel room. “I had to protect my family.”
Bland, 42, said his wife urged him to think beyond basketball and reminded him that he had much to offer, but a few decades ago, the game is what carried him from South Los Angeles to Westchester High, the powerhouse public school that’s just around the bend from St. Bernard. A state championship helped earn him a scholarship to Syracuse and San Diego State.
Bland felt at home in those same Los Angeles gyms when he returned to recruit one of the nation’s most fertile talent grounds, first as an assistant at San Diego State and then at U.S.C. He volunteered at St. Bernard, then took over as coach before last season.
“We had a team, but he’s building a program,” said Jamie Mark, the athletic director, who had spent most of her career working for a sports agency. “And I think Tony likes the idea of building something.”
The opportunity to coach has meant something for Bland, too. He has not given up hope of returning to the college game and one day being a head coach. “The people in college basketball understand my situation,” he said, later adding that his former boss at U.S.C., Andy Enfield, remains one of his biggest supporters. (Enfield is recruiting one of Bland’s best players, Tyler Rolison, a junior guard.)
But he also knows there is more to the equation. A college coach is going to have to sell his athletic director on hiring Bland, and the athletic director will have to explain it to the university president. And so, with two more years left on his show-cause penalty, Bland said he knew better than to look too far down the road — or even across town.
“This right here,” Bland said Tuesday night, sitting on the bleachers of a nearly empty gym, “has been helping to rehabilitate my soul.”