NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - At 5-foot-7, Chuck Swenson is dwarfed by most college basketball prospects. But after 13 seasons of coaching and recruiting, Swenson's first glance at a promising player is not up. It's down. At his shoes.
``When I walk into a gym, I always look at what kind of shoes a kid is wearing,'' said Swenson, a former Duke assistant and now the head coach at William and Mary. ``The thing I hate about recruiting at the highest level is you have to recruit the high school coach, junior high coach, summer league coach, parents and the shoe company.''
Yes, the shoe company. By signing top college coaches to lucrative personal endorsement contracts and by supporting high school and summer league programs with money and free products, firms such as Nike, Converse and Reebok have entrenched themselves in basketball, from the crumbling outdoor courts of inner-city Los Angeles to the palacial Carrier Dome at Syracuse University. Adidas, New Balance and Pony are on the fringe. L.A. Gear is entering the market with a splash.
Critics claim shoe companies, in pursuit of a sales edge in the approximately $3-billion-a-year athletic shoe market, have misused their influence by befriending top players at an early age and later dictating their recruiting decisions. They say direct payments from shoe companies to coaches can compromise coaches' ethics.
NCAA officials say they have received enough complaints to merit investigation.
``If things don't improve soon, we'll have a cesspool,'' warned Nike consultant Sonny Vaccaro, himself a frequent target of critics.
``Right now we're relying on ethics,'' said Roger Morningstar, Converse's assistant vice president of promotions. ``And as long as it's that way, some people will step over the line. Pretty soon, everyone is jumping over the line. . . .
``The shoe business should be performance-oriented. Now, if you give someone enough money, they'll wear shoeboxes on their feet.''
The shoe companies' foundations are contracts with college head coaches. According to college basketball and shoe industry sources, headliners such as Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, Georgetown's John Thompson and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski command six-figure payments to outfit their teams in a particular brand of shoes. The pay scale trickles down to smaller programs such as Virginia Commonwealth, where Sonny Smith receives about $17,000 from Converse.
In almost every case, the sources said, the money is paid directly to the coach, and the university has no say in its use.
Many of the remaining Division I programs, and scores at Division II and III, receive free shoes only, shoe manufacturers said.
Teams receive warm-ups, travel bags and between 85 and 200 pairs of shoes. A coach receives personal apparel, apparel for his assistants and T-shirts for his summer camp. The package, officials said, can be worth approximately $30,000 for top programs.
Coaches make a few promotional appearances, wear the clothes and cash a check, while the shoe companies receive priceless exposure.
``It's very effective marketing,'' said Liz Dolan of Nike, which sells more than 25 percent of America's athletic footwear. Nike has approximately 60 coaches in its fold, Converse 40, Reebok 25. New Balance is affiliated with 15 Division I programs, but approximately 90 in Divisions II and III. Pony has 13 coaches under contract, Adidas just two, Krzyzewski and Indiana's Bob Knight.
Beset by financial woes, Puma has discontinued its contracts with college coaches, company spokesman John O'Rourke said. L.A. Gear recently set the industry abuzz by signing Louisiana State's Dale Brown away from Converse with a unique contract that industry sources value at $300,000 annually. The contract requires Brown to donate 25 percent of his shoe earnings to charity or LSU.
Pony, Reebok, Converse and, particularly, Nike don't stop there. They provide free shoes and uniforms to summer leagues, mostly in inner-city hotbeds of basketball talent. Nike sponsors a July camp, at which each of the 120 specially invited college prospects receives two pair of shoes and the promise of many more. It organizes national tournaments, whereby a prospect from New Jersey may find himself playing in Las Vegas in front of scores of college coaches. Nike also provides free shoes to 20 top high school programs.
Unlike college coaches, high school and summer league coaches and shoe company representatives have unlimited access to top prospects. They are not governed by the NCAA.
Which prompts the question: Will a high school or summer league coach who is receiving free equipment from a particular shoe company steer a top recruit to a college also affiliated with that firm?
``It wasn't an overt thing I ran into on a daily or weekly basis,'' said Terry Holland, Virginia's head coach from 1974-90 and now the athletic director at Davidson College. ``There might be an instance where you say, `Maybe they had a little advantage.' But there's a lot of room for stuff to go on.''
Swenson: ``When I was at Duke, I ran into an inner-city public school coach who wanted me to pay him $5,000 so I could visit a kid's home. The coach had two nice cars, and on his income there was no way he could afford that. I knew it was the shoe contract.
``I walked into his office and it was like a shoe store. Stacks of boxes. Not too many coaches are that up front, but I know it happens.'' The recruit in question eventually signed with a college contracted to the same shoe company as the high school, according to Swenson.
Old Dominion's Tom Young, a 30-year head-coaching veteran, still maintained, ``Shoe companies get their hooks into kids 100 different ways. Before we get them, they've traveled all over and been given everything they want. They're spoiled, and you've got problems.''
After coaching Rutgers to the 1976 Final Four, Young said he signed his first shoe contract - $500 with Pro Keds. A year later, Nike hired Vaccaro, a former high school head coach who founded the Dapper Dan all-star basketball game in Pittsburgh in 1965. Armed with a legion of contacts and seemingly unlimited budget, Vaccaro upped the ante and began signing top coaches. Kentucky was always a Converse program, until Vaccaro lured Eddie Sutton away in 1985; prior to Danny Manning's senior season, Nike bought out Kansas Coach Larry Brown's contract with Puma.
``Sonny has amazing control,'' said Mike Cronin, a marketing executive with New Balance, ``and a lot of it dictates where kids will go to school. It's pretty powerful stuff.''
John Morgan, who worked at Nike for 14 years before joining Reebok four years ago, agreed.
``Sonny doesn't believe he's doing anything wrong,'' Morgan said. ``But I don't agree. He's not a bad guy, but deep down he knows what he's doing. He wants to be the most powerful man in college basketball. I want to be a businessman. I don't want to be a hustler with a trench coat on.
Vaccaro, an admitted former problem gambler who said he beat the habit when he moved from Las Vegas to California, scoffs at charges of influence peddling. How, he asks, could he steer a top recruit to one school with 59 others on the Nike payroll?
``Of all the accusations, that's the dumbest one,'' Vaccaro said. ``The reason I've been able to stay friends with all the coaches is that I've been able to stay neutral in recruiting. In 27 years, no player I've had contact with has said I pushed him toward a school.''
``Sonny has nothing to do with my recruiting, nothing to do with my basketball program,'' said Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun, whose team wears Nike.
Bob Gibbons, a national recruiting analyst based in North Carolina, also defended Vaccaro.
``Nike schools are going to get the top kids anyway,'' he said. ``Look at who the Nike schools are. Take Ed O'Bannon. If Sonny steered him to UNLV, how does he get away with that with his best friend (Southern Cal Coach) George Raveling? They were best men at each other's weddings. What does he tell Jim Boeheim?''
Indeed, O'Bannon, a top recruit from California, visited Syracuse and USC before committing to UNLV. But after the Rebels were banned from the 1990 NCAA tournament, O'Bannon said he would enroll at UCLA, where coach Jim Harrick is affiliated with Converse.
``Sonny's going to know players,'' Holland said. ``It's a fact of life. It's the way business is done today. But (summer league and high school) coaches have to maintain a neutral enough stance to satisfy a varied constituency. They may have favorites and may show them in subtle ways. But there's so much pressure, you can't show your hand.
``If you're a coach and you're hurting me as the Virginia coach, I'll get your ass fired. I'll agitate as long as possible because I can't survive.''
Swenson: ``More and more summer league coaches are on the take, in it for themselves instead of the kids.''
``Some coaches aren't totally motivated by money,'' Converse's Morningstar said. ``I'm quite certain Krzyzewski was offered more money by two companies, and he chose to stay with Adidas. But most coaches are awfully good businessmen. The money's out there, and it's fair game.''
``It's a cold business,'' Swenson said. ``You're only as good as your last win. Of course, it's sleazy. But it doesn't start in college. It starts at the summer league and high school level. Those kids shouldn't be affected by shoes. But that's happening, and not just with one brand of shoe.''
COACHES WITH TOP SHOE DEALS
Many top basketball coaches earn more from she endorsement contracts than from their college jobs.
COACHES SCHOOL SHOE COMPANY CONTRACT ;
Dale Brown Louisiana state LA Gear $300,000 ;
Mike Krzyzewski Duke Adidas $260,000 ;
Bob Knight Indiana Adidas _$200,000 ;
John Thompson Georgetown Nike $200,000 ;
Dean Smith North Carolina Converse $150,000 ;
Jim Boeheim Syracuse Nike $150,000 ;
Lute Olson Arizona Nike $150,000 ;
Jerry Tarkanian Nevada-Las Vegas Nike $150,000 ;
Bobby Cremins Georgia Tech Nike $100,000 ;
Salaries are estimates from industry sources and published reports.
_ Recently signed a new contract with Adidas for an undisclosed amount.
Source: Newport News (Va.) Daily Press research.
WHO WEARS WHAT
Nike and Converse have most of America's top coaches under contract.
Jim Calhoun Connecticut ;
P.J. Carlesimo Seton Hall ;
Lou Carnesecca St. John's ;
Tom Davis Iowa ;
Bill Frieder Ariz. State ;
Steve Fisher Michigan ;
Gene Keady Purdue ;
Rick Barnes Providence ;
Denny Crum Louisville ;
Jim Harrick UCLA ;
Jud Heathcote Mich. State ;
Lou Henson Illinois ;
Rick Pitino Kentucky ;
Nolan Richardson Arkansas ;
Billy Tubbs Oklahoma ;
Roy Williams Kansas ;
Rollie Massimino Villanova ;
Digger Phelps Notre Dame ;
Norm Stewart Missouri ;
Lou Campanelli California ;
Paul Evans Pittsburgh ;
SOURCE: Newport News Daily Press.