Illini basketball

NCAA’s 30-mile rule: Why?

Over the past four years, Patrick Smith attended more Illini games than many parents. Most of the time, he didn’t pay for tickets.

Apart from an executive position at Ameren, Smith was the coach of the Southwest Illinois Jets AAU basketball team. His prized pupil was Malcolm Hill.  Malcolm’s mother Machanda came to all the games. Malcolm Sr. attended a good number. A couple of uncles made it now and then. But most of the time, one of Malcolm’s NCAA-allotted four complimentary admissions went to Smith.

Smith was eligible to receive a free pass directly from the school, too. And that was useful during the recruiting process, because only active roster players get the four freebies.

But curiously, free admission is available only within 30 miles of campus. So in December 2012, when Smith accepted free admission to watch Braggin’ Rights with high school senior Malcolm Hill, he unknowingly triggered a secondary infraction.

Jason Heggemeyer

Jason Heggemeyer is the guy responsible for the violation, and also the person who reported it.  Heggemeyer is the Illinois Associate Director of Athletics for Ticketing, Sales & Customer Service. He travels with the basketball team, sets up a table or a booth in the bowels of various stadia, and keeps the list of admittees (usually family) who attend away games. But Braggin’ Rights isn’t considered an “away game.” In even-numbered years, it’s considered an Illini “home game.” In odd-numbered years, it’s a Mizzou “home game.” That’s why you hear of Illini recruits only in even-numbered years.

In 2012, Heggemeyer simply didn’t know the rule. In 2013, his counterpart at Mizzou explained it to him while they jointly prepared for that year’s game.

It’s not clear when Heggemeyer’s initial report was filed. The case documentation says it was December 22, 2012, which was actually the day the violation occurred.

But the bulk of the action took place in February of 2014, just as Malcolm Hill was starting to earn some tick. (He was averaging 12 minutes and 3.8 points per game as of February 19). As the investigation unfolded, Hill was declared ineligible to play. He would not be reinstated until Patrick Smith reimbursed the school for the “impermissible gift.”

Malcolm Hill and some familiar faces at the 2012 Braggin’ Rights game.


So on February 21, 2014 Smith cut a check for $105. Fortunately, he can afford it. Malcolm was reinstated in time for the Nebraska game on the 26th, and he scored 10 points.

The long-running adage about AAU coaches is that they receive money from college programs. Scurrilous bagmen distribute cash in exchange for access to recruits. That’s how the story goes, anyhow. You never hear about schools demanding money from AAU coaches.

Why 30 miles you ask? Because it’s the NCAA! Arbitrary rules are their specialty.

Patrick Smith is an amiable man. But you can imagine how an AAU coach might react to the news that a school was reneging on its offer of free admission.  If such a demand for payment came before his star player signed a National Letter of Intent, it would be in his financial interest to steer that recruit away from that school.

The 30-mile rule presents a recruiting disadvantage to schools located outside major metropolitan areas. In the Big Ten, that’s most schools. Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio State, Northwestern and Maryland are the exceptions.

Illinois plays at least one game every year in St. Louis and Chicago because that’s where all the people live, including basketball players and their coaches.  Northwestern needn’t worry about the 30-mile rule for Chicago-based events. SLU is safe in St. Louis. But neither Illinois nor Mizzou can ever provide the same hospitality to AAU or high school coaches in the metro areas where most of them live.

Travis Ford can foist the Vatican’s limitless hospitality budget toward gladhanding the myriad coaches who live within easy driving distance of the Billikens campus. Brad Underwood can offer free admission, but Metro East coaches must drive five hours  to receive it.

So to the extent that buttering AAU and high school coaches helps with recruiting, schools in big cities hold an advantage. East Coast Bias may be real. Rural discrimination certainly is.