MANHATTAN (CN) – A former coach from the University of Southern California pleaded guilty Wednesday to raking in $4,100 as part of a much larger bribery conspiracy that rattled college basketball last year.
“I knowingly and willfully conspired with others to commit federal funds bribery, an offense against the United States of America,” Tony Bland said.
Reading from a prepared statement, Bland described his July 29, 2017, meeting in a Las Vegas hotel room with Christian Dawkins, a sports-marketing professional known as a runner, along with a confidential witness and an FBI undercover agent.
As described in a criminal complaint last year, “Dawkins confirmed [at the meeting], in the presence of Bland, that the undercover FBI agent had $13,000 with him intended for Bland.
“Thereafter, Dawkins took an envelope containing $13,000 from the undercover FBI agent and left the hotel room with Bland,” the complaint continued.
Bland originally faced up to 80 years imprisonment for six charges, but his plea to a single count carries a maximum sentence of just five years. The former coach will likely receive a lighter sentence under the federal guidelines and will forfeit his relatively small bribery gains.
“I knew that my conduct was wrong,” Bland said.
The plea deal makes Bland the first of four indicted college basketball coaches to fall in a 2017 National Collegiate Athletic Association corruption crackdown.
NCAA coaches are barred from receiving compensation from outside sources, and prosecutors allege that Dawkins received a return on that investment in the form of young players aboard an exploitative college basketball gravy train.
“I definitely can get the players,” Bland is quoted in the complaint as having said. “And I can definitely mold the players and put them in the lap of you guys.”
Along with former Adidas executive James Gatto and former amateur league coach Merl Code Jr., Dawkins was one of the three men a federal jury convicted following a three-week trial in October.
Bland’s attorney Jeffrey Lichtman called his client’s guilty plea today a “very tragic, sad ending” to a promising career.
“It’s a tragic, tragic day, but we’re dealing the hand that we’re dealt,” Lichtman told reporters outside the courtroom.
Blasting the NCAA’s “antiquated system,” Lichtman called his client a “gentlemen and decent guy” who cared about his players and had their best interests at heart.
“It doesn’t suggest that what Tony did wasn’t wrong and illegal,” Lichtman said. “The way that he went about it was wrong.”
Bland’s sentencing has been scheduled for April 2.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman emphasized in a statement this afternoon that Bland "abused his position as a mentor and coach to student athletes and aspiring professionals."
“He treated his players not as young men to counsel and guide, but as opportunities to enrich himself," Berman added.
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