Steve Vest was at home when the phone rang. It was a mid-February morning in 1994, and Vest, the sports editor at the Myrtle Beach Sun News, still had a few hours before he had to go into work. He was surprised to hear the head coach of the Coastal Carolina University men's basketball team, Russ Bergman, on the other end of the line. The two weren't friends. They had at most a professional relationship, speaking only during the normal course of game coverage and press conferences. Certainly, Bergman never called Vest at home.
Vest had just written a column about the recently released movie Blue Chips, starring Nick Nolte and a young Shaquille O'Neal. The movie centers on a big-time college basketball coach who follows all the rules—until his team starts losing. In order to turn around his program, he violates NCAA rules and looks the other way as his star players do the same. After beating a Bobby Knight–coached squad in the film's climactic game, Nolte's character is so overwhelmed with guilt at his ill-gotten victories that he confesses his wrongdoing during a postgame press conference, quits his job, and is last seen teaching kids on a playground court as the credits roll.
The movie struck a chord with Bergman, and now he wanted to talk.
Bergman had taken over the Coastal Carolina program in 1975, a year after its inaugural season. In his dual role as athletic director and head basketball coach, he brought the program up from NAIA to Division II, worked to form the Big South Conference, and finally jumped to Division I in 1986. In 1991, the program made its first NCAA tournament, a massive achievement relative to the program's meager resources, and one due largely to Bergman's recruiting efforts. Looking to move up the coaching ladder, he narrowly lost out on the South Carolina job that off-season. He turned down offers from Toledo, Northern Illinois, and Murray State, and decided to hold out for better opportunities, thinking his success would continue.
But after a losing season in 1992, Bergman knew he needed to return to the tournament to get more job offers. "I was battling like crazy for a job at a major," he told the Myrtle Beach Sun News in a 2004 profile, "and I got impatient."
If this sounds like the plot of a certain movie released around that time, well, Vest thought so, too. His column was about Nolte's character, the well-meaning coach corrupted by an unjust system that forced someone to choose between his soul and his wins. Vest wrote that he hoped Bergman wouldn't turn out the same way, a victim portrayed as a villain.
The night before the call, Bergman took his team to see Blue Chips while on a road trip in Virginia. As Vest remembers being told, Bergman's wife had read Vest's column aloud to the coach over the phone.
It's unclear whether the column or the movie motivated the coach more—several attempts by VICE Sports to reach Bergman at his home in Myrtle Beach and through former employers were unsuccessful—but when Vest answered the phone, Bergman told him to get a paper and pen. He was ready to confess. He wanted to tell the truth.
Over the next 45 minutes, Bergman aired his dirty laundry. He told Vest that since the 1992 season, the program—and he, personally—committed several NCAA violations. And, Bergman made a point to say, he was telling Vest because he had just been to the movies.
Bergman confessed to paying for a plane ticket for his star player, Mohammed Acha, from New York to Myrtle Beach. Acha, returning from his home in Nigeria, was originally scheduled to fly into Indiana and then drive back to school with a teammate, only to be held up due to visa issues. If he continued on to Indiana, he would have been stranded there. So Bergman paid for his flight from New York's LaGuardia Airport back to school. In another violation, a different player couldn't afford to go home to Cincinnati to be with his family for Christmas, so Bergman paid his way.
Bergman told Vest that he knew these purchases were against NCAA regulations forbidding improper benefits to players, but he felt like they were the only humane things to do. How could he leave his players stranded? What kind of a leader would he be? What kind of a person would he be?
At the end of the call, Bergman thanked Vest for listening to him, and Vest thanked him for calling. At the time, Vest believed the coach's story. He wanted to. It was a good story.
Bergman resigned at the end of the season without any press conferences or fanfare. The 19 years he spent building the program meant little. As a result of the violations, Bergman was banned from the NCAA for five years. The school had to forfeit every game Acha played and was put on probation for four years. Coastal Carolina also couldn't compete in the 1994-95 postseason or appear in any televised games. Bergman left the school in disgrace.
If this was a simple case of life imitating art, Bergman would have found a high school team to coach. But life, of course, is not so simple.
"I'm not a big fan of the NCAA," writer and director Ron Shelton, who wrote Blue Chips, told me over the phone recently. "Let's put it that way."
Shelton spent much of the 20 minutes we spoke railing against arbitrary and nonsensical NCAA rules that disproportionately harm young, impoverished men. He relayed a story a coach he knew had told him about not being able to buy a winter coat for an athlete making his first trip to a cold-weather climate. Regardless of that specific story's veracity, it illustrates the well-documented binds college coaches sometimes find themselves in, having to choose between a player's well-being or abiding by arcane NCAA rules.
These were the types of stories that motivated Shelton to write Blue Chips the way he did, making the coach the protagonist trying to run a clean and competitive program. This moral was not lost on Bergman, who told Vest during the fateful phone call that "if you went into the 300 or so Division I schools, you'd find violations similar to ours in 295 of them. There are coaches every year—and will continue to be coaches every year—who are pressured into cheating."
Despite Bergman's Blue Chips-inspired confession getting picked up by the New York and Los Angeles Times, Shelton had never heard of the story until I reached out to him. He had no idea his fiction inspired truth, so I had to tell him the story. "Well, I don't want a guy to lose his job for reporting violations that shouldn't be violations for starters," Shelton said. "At the same time, I'm glad I wrote a movie that caused a guy to at least look in the mirror."
This, I told Shelton, was a nice story, just like Blue Chips. But it wasn't the full Russ Bergman story. So I told him that one, too.
The NCAA began investigating Coastal Carolina's basketball program in September 1993—five months before Bergman called Vest—after an informant reached out to the NCAA enforcement staff. It was later revealed that the NCAA's source was a disgruntled former assistant coach, Chris Kristich; the Coastal Carolina basketball staff nicknamed him "Chris Kri-snitch." By January 5, 1994, the NCAA had gathered enough evidence to send a letter of preliminary inquiry to Coastal Carolina, according to the NCAA's final report.
In other words, by the time Bergman went to see Blue Chips, the writing for his program was on the wall. He told the Sun News in 2004, "I knew they [the NCAA] were going to find out anyway."
But it wasn't just the flights for poor, stranded college athletes. Kristich told the NCAA that Bergman made sure Acha was academically eligible to play by enrolling him in two independent-study courses so he could later transfer to Coastal Carolina. Somehow, Acha completed the courses while he was in Nigeria. Kristich also alleged that his wife wrote at least one school paper for Acha to help him pass the courses, without which he would not have been eligible to compete. The NCAA found Kristich's claims credible, in part because whoever wrote the paper misspelled Acha's name.
Neither Kristich nor Acha could comment on these allegations for the 2004 Sun News profile or this article because they are both dead—Kristich of a heart attack in 1998, and Acha of a stroke in 2002. In the 2004 profile, Bergman expressed his belief that the NCAA never proved the academic fraud allegations, which would be the most damaging to his personal Blue Chips narrative. The paper may have been typed by someone else but was originally written by Acha, he said, and the NCAA's "proof" that Acha couldn't remember the color of his textbook was irrelevant. "How many people remember what color a textbook was from a year before?" Bergman argued.
Aside from the flights and the academic fraud, Bergman also paid for $1,300 of Acha's tuition, for recruiting visits beyond what the NCAA permitted, and for accommodations for players' families. Most of those would be considered acts of charity outside the NCAA rulebook, not major violations; the only one that truly broke from accepted human morality, of course, was the academic fraud.
Bergman admitted to Vest that he made "mistakes," but added that many of the NCAA violations happened without his knowledge. Whether true or not, the NCAA ultimately ruled that Coastal Carolina had a "lack of institutional control," which fell squarely on the athletic director and coach's shoulders. In this case, they were the same person.
When I told Shelton this fuller, more complete version of the story, he chuckled. "That might be a slight omission!" he said about Bergman not mentioning the academic fraud to Vest. As for the half-confession, he likened it to "the guilty husband who leaves the shirt with lipstick on the collar around because he wants to be outed."
But that's not the way I read Bergman's half-confession. I think he knew he was caught, and he wanted the ending Nolte's character got, not the one that was coming for him. He liked the Hollywood ending. He wanted the sunset and the rolling credits.
Regardless of his intentions, Bergman's attempt to win sympathy with a preemptive media strike backfired. When Bergman implicated other people in the program, Vest called around to get their sides of the story. Since Bergman had opened the door, the others started talking as well, which broke open the Sun News's reporting on the scandal. Bergman was no longer just the good guy looking out for a few kids. He was the coach willing to do anything to win.
Of course, both versions of Bergman can be true. He was willing to do anything to win precisely because he was operating in a morally ambiguous landscape where the rules didn't correlate with broader principles. Shelton referred to Bergman's story as "Dostoyevskian."
"I bet he was confused, morally confused," Shelton said. "I would say it's an area of deep moral confusion for many otherwise honorable people. It's not a black and white area. Everybody says, even the best coaches, that you live in a world of gray."
Shelton did his best to write a movie about this grayness, but he had to write some of it out. Fiction has to have a certain structure: give the audience a protagonist with whom they can sympathize, put an obstacle in the protagonist's way, make him enter a moral quandary about how to solve it. Then, redeem him.
Bergman never got his redemption in the Hollywood sense. He coached in the Continental Basketball Association (a professional league that has since folded) for a few years before entering real estate and moonlighting as a scout for the Utah Jazz. In the 2004 profile, he said he had been "blackballed" by the NCAA and found it impossible to get a new job after his ban was over. He spent the better part of the last decade coaching in Russia, but returned to the United States in 2014.
Given everything Shelton said about college coaches operating in a gray area, I was particularly curious why he gave Nolte's character in Blue Chips a clean redemption. I sensed that he had never really thought about this question because nobody had been stupid enough to ask. "Well," he told me, "because you couldn't get away with a movie in which somebody didn't have his redemption." In an ideal world, Shelton added, he would have preferred to give Blue Chips a more Bergman-like ending, but "movies with morally ambiguous endings generally don't get made."
Still, redemption can take many forms. About six months after Bergman left to coach the CBA team in Oklahoma City, someone left a message for Vest at his office. He doesn't know for sure who it was, but the person claimed to be Bergman. The message, as Vest remembers, was short. "I'm doing well," the person said, "and I just wanted you to know: I'm paying all of my players now."
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