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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

A Fine Balance

Josh of the Double A Zone, the NCAA's in-house blog, has posted on what attracts athletes to colleges, the hope that a coach stays with the school for four years and the right to transfer. He had a great experience at a DIII school, in part because his coach stayed for four years. Many student-athletes can't make that claim, and then the question arises why they chose the school in the first place.

It's naive to think (and by no means has Josh suggested this) that even kids who go to DIII schools to play sports don't do so in some part because of the coach with whom they'll spend a bunch of time for four years. These kids don't get athletic scholarships, and some of the schools charge Ivy-like money to go there. For example, Williams College, one of the best colleges in the entire country, has an excellent men's basketball program. Its coach, Dave Paulsen, was a finalist for the Dartmouth job a few years ago before he took his name out of the running. My guess is that many of the kids who opt for Williams over other schools (including lower-end DI Ivies where they might get into the rotation but, if so, be at the end of it) do so because of Coach Paulsen and the excellence he has continued with the Williams basketball program. I also surmise that were Coach Paulsen to have gotten the Dartmouth job, no Williams kids would have transferred, Williams would have hired an acceptable successor, because kids who go to Williams go there for many reasons that transcend athletics. They don't have much of an expectation, if any, to play at the next level.

At the other end of the spectrum are the elite athletes who might well play at the next level and who opt for a college because of its excellent program and facilities, a big-name coach and that coach's track record for advancing kids to the next level. Those kids are out there too, and I am sure that among them are kids who have very little interest in academics. It's not that they're bad kids, it's just that they're kids, and they're so focused on becoming the star athlete -- and they've been so hyped and coddled -- that for them college is a finishing school. An athletic finishing school. For those kids, the coach is everything.

Then a coach is fired or leaves for another job, or the school gets put on probation for nothing that had to do with a particular kid. Which means that the kid did nothing wrong, but all of a sudden the main reason why he chose his college is gone. This particular athlete might even want to get a degree to put it in his back pocket, but he's primed for the NFL or playing pro hoops in the NBA or Europe, and the coach they bring in is a stark contrast to the coach that recruited the kid. A dropback quarterback finds himself with an option coach. A shooting guard in an up-tempo offense finds himself with a half-court coach who favors big men. What happens next?

Kids don't get their scholarships renewed. Kids transfer, jumping before they're pushed or buried on depth charts. Kids get false promises that the coach will adapt the system to the talent, and then find themselves on the bench. Kids stay and don't fulfill their potential because of the change in coaching style. Lots of stuff can happen.

The best solution may be for the kids to transfer to a school that better suits their talents. That's easier said than done for a freshman or sophomore than an upperclassmen, because some schools are funky about letting credits transfer along with the kid. And there's no guarantee that the school to which a kid transfers won't undergo a coaching change in the near future either.

That the kids have to sit out a year could be inequitable too. After all, the coaches don't have to sit out a year. They get right back in the saddle and coach their new teams. Is that really fair? Many think that it is not. Of course, the NCAA wouldn't want the coach who has moved to raid the program he left, taking say 35 players with him and leaving his former school bereft. But there's an easy solution to that problem. Let the players transfer to any school but the school to which his former head coach or coordinators went to as a head coach and play right away, and if they want to follow a former head coach or coordinator, then they have to sit out for a year. That would seem to be an equitable solution.

My strong guess is that most NCAA student-athletes look at their athletic program as only a part of their education. Most will not play professional sports, as there aren't pro leagues that pay great money for every sport and as pro leagues themselves are well-populated and the competition is fierce. Some kids get hurt, some burn out, some think that it's time to move on. Which means, in the end, that many kids will stay put precisely because they are living a college life in balance, they've put down their first set of roots, they've made some friends, they've gotten familiar with their schools and they like their coursework. That's the way it should be, regardless of who the coach is.

Not everyone thinks that way, however. For kids bent on playing professionally, the stakes of who is coaching him are much, much higher. Which raises the question of whether some of these guys should be in school in the first place, if they're really picking the school solely because who the coach is. After all, they don't get to pick their coaches in the pro leagues -- the teams pick them and can trade their contracts. And that could mean that enduring a coaching change in college -- even for the most elite athlete -- is good preparation for the professional level too.

So the question remains -- how important is the coach to the student-athletes overall well being at a college or university? I'm sure the answer is "very" to most kids, but we all should remember that the reason for going to college transcends the playing fields, and that balance should be sought at every opportunity.

Play your best all the time, yes, but get meaningful degrees and become a better person in all facets of life in the progress. For most student athletes, one without the other would give the college experience a lot less meaning than it should have.


Anonymous The Sports Curmudgeon said...


I suspect that the majority - maybe even the vast majority - of scholar-athlete initiated transfers at the Division I level happen because the putative scholar-athlete is not getting the playing time he thinks he is entitled to. That is a far less noble basis than any of the scenarios you emphasize in your essay. Those scholar-athlete transfers ought to be made to sit out a year if only to give them an outside chance to identify with the "mainstream purpose" for attending an institution of higher learning.

At the lower levels of basketball competition, your scenarios may become more prevalent, but that rule was written to cover the big-time programs, not Willliams College or the Ivies or Oberlin...

7:01 PM  
Anonymous Keri said...

I work as an intern at the NCAA in membership services. I would have to agree that most student-athletes look at their athletic program as only part of their education, but even though they look at it this way, they still want to have a good athletic experience. I played four years of soccer at the University of Kentucky, but not every aspect of my experience was perfect. It wasn’t because my coach left or because I didn’t get any playing time, but because I tore my ACL twice, cutting my senior year short after only five games. Unfortunately, injuries are unpredictable and most of the time cannot be prevented, but these injuries made me not have the best athletic experience I could have had.

I would have given anything to not have had those injuries in order for me to have had a great athletic experience, but I didn’t have that option. However, other student-athletes have the option to make their athletic experience a little better by transferring to a different school. Just like Josh and SportsProf, I think that allowing student-athletes to transfer is a great thing, but student-athletes do abuse this privilege which is why the NCAA has so many bylaws about transferring. I work on student-athlete reinstatement cases and progress-toward-degree waivers, and many times transferring is the reason the student-athlete cannot obtain an extension waiver or why they have problems meeting the progress-toward-degree requirements. I have seen student-athletes transfer way too much, going from a two-year college to a four-year college and to another four-year college. This is not an exaggeration, seeing a 2-4-4 transfer is not as uncommon as you may think.

I think that transferring can sometimes get a little out of control for some student-athletes. And many times these transfers are Division I-A football or Division I men’s or women’s basketball student-athletes. For this reason, the members of the NCAA had to create at least a few regulations. I don’t think that having these student-athlete sit out one year is unreasonable at all. At least this regulation might make student-athletes think twice about transferring. Also, you have to remember that every student-athlete must be in good academic standing, meet all progress-toward-degree requirements and receive a transfer release from their institution in order to play right away at the next institution. I do not think any of these bylaws are unreasonable or inequitable at all, considering the main focus is to have student-athletes graduate and get a degree, not to transfer from institution to institution and abuse this privilege the NCAA gives its student-athletes.

10:42 PM  

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