The College Admissions Scandal: What Were Coaches Thinking?
22 Mar 2019
by Brendan Ryan of Golf Placement Services

With March Madness upon us, as we watch college basketball coaches prowl the sidelines under the glare of TV primetime, a group of college coaches from more obscure sports, including tennis and rowing, have also been making news. These coaches have been accused of selling spots on teams at elite colleges to wealthy families of non-athletes through a middleman named William Rick Singer.

The news of the scandal hit close to home -- I currently operate a business which helps provide analytics to junior golfers and their families who wish to pursue college golf and am a former college coach at the University of Kentucky. Between being in the college consulting business and coaching, I understood the motivation of the families at the heart of the Singer scandal: they wanted their kids to get into top-notch colleges that they simply weren’t qualified for. And, let’s face it, these parents aren’t that different from other wealthy folk who use money to influence the admissions process. The difference is that instead of paying the university through a donation, they paid the coach, and that is a big no-no.


The harder question is: why did the coaches do it? What were they thinking? The easiest answer is greed. They saw a chance to make a lot of money quickly, and thought they could get away with it. Who wouldn’t want an extra six or seven figures on their bank balance? That answer, though, becomes more complex when one looks more closely at the lives of coaches.

While the success of a coach is ultimately measured by win-loss record (which ultimately determines salary), there’s also another very potent factor at play – particularly for those who oversee lesser-known sports. Power and influence can be an intoxicating lure.

Sure, winning is paramount. Coaches who win games and beat rivals keep their jobs. To do that they need knowledge, players,and assistants. But unless the coaches in this case used their bribe money on knowledge, players, or coaches, then this scandal appears to have nothing to do directly with winning.

Perception of influence is a squishy area, but one that I would suggest was likely the key motivation for the coaches at the core of this scandal. Very simply put, it’s the ability to make things happen. In the context of college sports, it frequently forms the backdrop to winning -- it’s the gateway to all the other stuff a coach must do to win. Who can convince a major conference school to hire them? Who can sign a major blue-chip recruit? Who can find the funds to build the world-class practice facilities and stadiums?


All of this happens within a complex network of money and power. When doing this other part of the job, the coach of a non-revenue producing sport is likely the least powerful person in the room by a long shot. College football coaches at name brand schools are often highly paid; crew and tennis coaches are not. So in the case of the coaches in the scandal, we have a group of not highly paid / not powerful professionals whose job is to influence a group of highly paid / powerful people, including athletic administrators,donors, alumni, admissions and elite players (who, even when they don’t have wealth, still have power over the coach). 

William Singer (Brian Snyder/Reuters photo)
Although it is impossible to say exactly what happened, if I were Singer and wished to perpetrate this crime on me, a former coach of a non-revenue producing sport, I’d start small, maybe with a lunch. Then I’d move on to introductions with influential people with financial resources to burn in a setting where the coach feels rewards, say a fancy dinner. Slowly as the trust builds, I would introduce the concept of helping potential students while brushing off any collateral damage. In the world of college athletics, these types of situations and conversations happen regularly between college coaches and anyone from high school coaches to agents to recruits to donors, so it would not be unusual. However, it does not answer the REAL question: Why would the coach accept a prospective student athlete who doesn’t help the team?

The answer is back to that more intangible factor: influence. The coach needs to make things happen to keep their job and wants to show their new “friends” they too can make things happen. So oddly, taking these bribes for these coaches probably didn’t even feel like a crime, and for some may not even be one. It was just an extension of the realm of influence that goes way beyond these cases. Other than the fact that the money went into the pocket of the coach to pay for whatever rather than the pocket of the university to build a new stadium or whatever, the two aren’t even really all that different. Rich guy writes a check in exchange for something he wants, and the other guy also gets what he wants.

Unfortunately, this is where the entire transaction gets complicated because the ultimate decision is not the coach’s alone. Instead it involves others like admissions and administrators. As the coach navigates these relationships they ask for more supporting documentation like SAT scores, and soon the scheme is too big not to fail.


Since the scandal broke, my phone has been blowing up with calls from colleagues who currently work as coaches, wanting to discuss the topic and share their ideas. While no one agrees with Singer’s tactics, I have not heard from one person who is surprised, nor sure that the problem is bound to go away any time soon.

The scandal is compelling because it provides insight into the social norms of one of the most sacred American institutions, the university.  It now appears that not only are students subject to shady moral judgments but so are the administrators. This erodes the concept of “a land of opportunity” as the foundation of the American dream and leaves us wondering: what is this all about?

Brendan Ryan, a former college athlete and coach, now owns and operates a boutique business called Golf Placement Services helps families navigate the college search process through a unique combination of analytics, experience and relationships.

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