National FBI Sting is a Rifle Shot to Auburn’s Heart

Lyn Scarbrough

September 29, 2017 at 12:56 pm.

Feb 24, 2016; Auburn, AL, USA;  Auburn Tigers head coach Bruce Pearl (left) and assistant coach Chuck Person direct the Tigers during the first half against the Georgia Bulldogs at Auburn Arena. Photo Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Feb 24, 2016; Auburn, AL, USA; Auburn Tigers head coach Bruce Pearl (left) and assistant coach Chuck Person direct the Tigers during the first half against the Georgia Bulldogs at Auburn Arena. Photo Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

On March 24, 1998 the San Antonio Spurs played the Cleveland Cavaliers at Gund Arena in Cleveland. My press row seat that night was among the best in the house.

Both teams were still in the playoff picture that late in the season, but that’s not why I was there. San Antonio’s Chuck Person, still dangerous late in his career, was playing against younger brother, Cleveland’s Wesley Person, at the top of his career, the NBA’s three-point leader the season before.

There wouldn’t be many more chances to see Auburn’s All-American brothers face each other on the court and I didn’t want to miss what could be the last opportunity.

San Antonio won, 86-85. Both brothers were in their starting lineups, Chuck joined there by current Alabama head coach, Avery Johnson. But neither brother had a stellar night; the older one scored nine points and the younger one had just five. I don’t remember much about the game.

But, I vividly remember the postgame, talking with the Person brothers, especially Chuck, about the game just concluded, about playing against each other, about their growing up days in Brantley, Ala., and about their playing days at Auburn. They talked about how much Auburn meant to them and how so much was owed to Auburn for providing the platform from which they could springboard into all-star NBA careers.

The Person family name had become the most well-known, most heralded and most respected in Auburn basketball history. That all ended early this week.

On Tuesday, news broke about an FBI sting operation entrapping several college assistant coaches, along with, among others, an apparel executive, a former agent, a financial adviser and an agent/clothing store owner in a scheme to influence players to choose the agents, and wear specific athletic shoes after their college days were over. The assistant coaches were paid to use that influence.

Auburn was one of several schools initially named in the report. Several other schools have been exposed since then and the list could still be growing.

It’s still early in the process, but at this point, it appears unlikely that most of the schools named will face NCAA sanctions or that the head coaches knew about what was happening or face penalties relating to it.

Still for Auburn, the shocking news was especially devastating. The arrested coach was charged in the Southern District of New York with six counts including bribery conspiracy, solicitation of bribes, wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, travel act conspiracy, and conspiracy to commit honest services fraud – to defraud his employer, Auburn University.

The arrested coach was the associate head coach … Chuck Person.

No, not Chuck Person! Anybody but Chuck Person!

“Say it ain’t so, Chuck! Say it ain’t so!”

In America, people are still innocent until proven guilty. But unless the 32-page, extremely detailed complaint is grotesquely inaccurate and false, a denial like that isn’t going to happen.

Auburn fans are among the most loyal on the planet. They will defend people in the family, help any Auburn person anywhere, willing to forgive and forget. But, not for this, even if it is Chuck Person. Intentionally taking an action, knowing that it is likely to do irreparable damage to Auburn, will not be forgivable for many, and will not be forgettable for any.

It’s hard to express what this represents to Auburn, the magnitude of the shadow that had been cast by the older Person brother for decades.

During his playing days on the Plains, Chuck Person was a two-time All-American and was three-time first-team All-SEC. He led the Tigers to the SEC Tournament championship in 1985 and was the tournament Most Valuable Player. After more than three decades, he is still the team’s all-time leading scorer with 2,311 points, an average of 18.3 points per game. Drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft by the Indiana Pacers, he was 1987 Rookie of the Year.

Named after television Western star Chuck Connors, Person earned the nickname “The Rifleman” for his legendary accuracy from three-point range, often dramatically in big game situations. But the shot for which he will now be most remembered was fired starting over a year ago … a shot with deadly accuracy into Auburn’s heart, a shot with much greater impact than any he ever made against the Boston Celtics or the Los Angeles Lakers.

Those complimentary and appreciative thoughts about Auburn sound pretty hollow now.

It’s possible that Person and others who have been, and will be, charged are in dire financial situations. Maybe they have critical personal or family challenges requiring significant money. Or maybe it was just greed, disloyalty, selfishness and lack of character. It doesn’t really matter. If the counts against them are true, what happened can’t be defended or justified. There is no middle ground on this one.

How can you put a price on your reputation, your good name, your future? How can you put a price on loyalty to your alma mater, to your employer, to the people who look to you for guidance?

It looks like Chuck Person was able to do that, and according to the charges against him, that price was a little over $90,000.

Fallout from the FBI sting was damaging and almost immediate.

Louisville was a program implicated with payments to recruits at the core of those charges.
Head coach Rick Pitino and Athletic Director Tom Jurich were gone within 24 hours.

Oklahoma State, where the charges did not involve recruiting, fired assistant coach Lamont Evans, who had also coached at South Carolina and Kansas State. The Cowboys’ top 2018 commitment, 4-star wing Antwann Jones from Tampa, Fla., decommitted.

Alabama, another program drawn into the FBI net, accepted the resignation of director of basketball operations Kobie Baker amid innuendos similar to those brought against Person. Baker was an associate athletic director, and had previously served as the assistant director of enforcement at the NCAA. A Tuscaloosa High School graduate, Baker had previously worked on the Alabama basketball staff.

The timeline was uniquely ironic at Auburn. On Monday, it was announced that season tickets had sold out. On Tuesday, came the announcement that multiple schools had been named and Person was arrested. On Wednesday, the team’s top 2018 commitment, 5-star 6-10 power forward E.J. Montgomery from Marietta, Ga., announced his decommitment. And, on Thursday, it was announced that full refunds would be offered to season ticket purchasers.

How quickly things can change.

The list of teams involved has grown. In addition to Auburn, Alabama, Louisville and Oklahoma State, others mentioned or with assistant coaches charged include Arizona (Lindy’s preseason No. 1 pick nationally), Southern California, Miami and South Carolina. Reportedly, there will be others.

Comments were quick in coming.

“Tuesday’s allegations of recruiting improprieties across the college basketball landscape have shaken the game and the coaching profession to the core,” said Jim Haney, executive director of the National Basketball Coaches Association. “Should the progression of this case ultimately indicate a pressing need for reform within our sport, the NABC will unquestionably be on the forefront of those efforts.”

Charles Barkley, Person’s former Auburn teammate, is seldom without comments.

“Everybody’s got dirty hands in this whole thing,” he said. “ESPN, the money they make on college basketball. The NCAA for the millions they make on the NCAA Tournament The shoe companies who follow kids. And the kids who take money. They don’t have to take the money. There’s nobody who’s got clean hands in this whole scenario.

“It’s been there forever. Now everybody wants to act like they’re totally in shock now,” he added. “Everybody wants to get on TV, people who make a great living off these guys I might add, and say, ‘I’m totally shocked. I’m totally appalled.’ Give me a break.”

Barkley also weighed in on Person.

“I played with Chuck at Auburn,” he said. “He’s a friend of mine. I just wish Chuck the best. I feel bad that (Person) is in this situation.”

Almost every Auburn fan would agree with Barkley, and who knows, the Tigers greatest days in basketball may still be ahead. But, Auburn basketball will never be the same.

When you walk into Auburn Arena, Chuck Person’s name and retired No. 45 jersey hang from the rafters. How long will it be there? Should it still be there? Photos of Person in his playing days are on the walls. His memorabilia is in the sports museum. How long will those things be there? Should they still be there? Can Auburn fans ever look with unquestioned trust and loyalty toward the basketball program again?

But, it’s not just at Auburn. This is far reaching and other places are facing situations which are equally, and in some cases even more, appalling. Can college basketball fans anywhere ever look at things the same again? And, will that understandable distrust and disgust carry over to football and other sports, as well?

It would be great if the focus could again be on the games on the court, positive personal stories, remembering long ago days like growing days in places like Brantley, Ala.

Unfortunately, with the fallout from this scandal, those days may be gone forever.