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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Oklahoma Hoops Recruits Should be Released from Their Letters of Intent

It's an old refrain, really. Coach recruits incoming freshmen, coach leaves for another school after the letters of intent have been signed, recruits want to be released from their commitments. Are the players picking coaches or schools? What was the material inducement to get the kids to go to a school -- the school itself, the extracurricular activity or the person who heads up the extracurricular activity? Making this analysis a bit more complicated is that the particular extracurricular activity is a revenue-generating sport that demands a lot of the potential student-athlete's time.

Three Oklahoma hoops recruits have asked to be released from their commitments to the Sooners. Kelvin Sampson opted for Indiana, OU replaced him with Jeff Capel, who came from VCU, and now the recruits want to go elsewhere. OU, by the way, has no obligation to release the recruits. While they have the upper hand, the kids can go there for a year, be somewhat unhappy, and then transfer. Does that give them some leverage? Perhaps. Clearly, though, no one wins if that will prove to be the end result. OU will have a roster crisis, and the kids who transfer will have to sit out a year at their new schools.

Is the NCAA's current rule the right one? That once the kids sign the letters of intent they're committed to stay with the school, even if the coaches who recruit them have no similar obligation and can bolt for other, and perhaps more prestigious and greener, pastures? Are the kids' best interests being put first? Or, rather, is the NCAA's rule designed to prevent a coach who opts to leave from plundering his now-former program by inducing the kids he recruited for his now-former school to go to his new school -- without any penalties attached either to the careers of the kids or to the coach's new employer?

In a vaccuum, it seems that the current rule is unfair and that the kids get shafted. After all, they're young and impressionable, and while they're supposed to put academics first, well, they're kids, very talented at hoops too, and who their coach will be is a very important part of their decisionmaking process. Sure, some kids have always wanted to play for Duke or Carolina, but to most folks the laundry isn't as important as the person who's running the team, at least to a degree. Better to play for a genius at a less well-known school than a butcher of a coach at a big-name program. At least that's the way many kids think.

So, if the analysis ends there, the kids should be released from their commitments because a material reason -- and perhaps the material reason -- why they chose the school in the first place is not true anymore. The coach is gone, and, therefore, uncertainty lingers. What's the new coach's style? How will he be to play for? Can he adapt from his mid-major conference to one of the top 6 conferences? Will we fit his style of play? We know we fit the now-former coach's style of play? Will he bury us ultimately in favor of his own recruits who come in next year and the year after? All are fair questions. After all, there have been many instances where the new coach runs off the former coach's players or relegates them to the bench because they don't fit his style. Moreover, the kids have gotten to know a coaching staff during the recruiting process, and they know very little about the new one.

That analysis certainly protects the kids and, perhaps, protects them in a way that few other college students would be protected. If Harvard were to jettison the Harvard Lampoon, would kids transfer to a school with the next best humor magazine? If Cal-Berkeley were to jettison three club sports, would students there automatically transfer to the UC school that maintained those club programs? If Wake Forest were to eliminate a choral group, would that group transfer somewhere else? The analysis differs for academic departments. If Syracuse eliminated its school of communications or Rochester eliminated its school of music, you would see that sort of mass exodus, but, again, the extracurriculars aren't the primary reason kids go to a school. The availability of a good amount of extracurricular activities is a major attraction, but the elimination of a single one shouldn't cause a mass exit.

Unless, perhaps, it's varsity football or varsity basketball, and, in certain places where these sports generate revenue, ice hockey, baseball and lacrosse.

Then what?

Look at the school that just saw its coach leave -- and not because he was terminated, but because he opted to go to another school. Typically, these coaches have rolling five-year contracts that are quite lucrative, and the reason that the contracts run for five years is so that a coach can say to a recruit, "I'll be here when you're a senior because I have a five-year contract." But most of them don't have stiff penalties if a coach were to leave (some do have to buy out their contracts, though), and in most, if not all instances, coaches are permitted to take other jobs even if they have a five-year deal with their current school. The coach that leaves to go to a different job might want to take his recruits with him, assuming, of course, that the level of competition is comparable and that the recruited players could step up and play at the coach's new school. In the case of Kelvin Sampson, leaving Oklahoma and the Big 12 for Indiana and the Big Ten is a lateral move, so it could well be that OU recruits can make the grade at IU. In contrast, I doubt that Jeff Capel's recruits at VCU would want to/could follow Capel to OU -- he's coaching on a higher plane now.

So who should get protected? The coach's former school from getting plundered or the student-athletes from trying to adapt to a situation that suddenly becomes unfamiliar to them? Should it be the case that the kids can get released if a coach gets fired, resigns and takes a job at a school that is a significant drop down in the RPI ratings (i.e., going from a high major to a mid-major) or if they agree that they won't immediatelly matriculate at the new school of the coach who recruited them but will sit out a year or if they go to a school other than the new school of the coach who recruited them (where they can play right away)?

I think that both should get protected, and here's how:

1. The kids should get released from their letters of intent.

2. They can matriculate at any school and be immediately eligible, except they will have to sit out a year if they matriculate at the new school of the coach who signed them to the letter of intent. The school where they signed the letter of intent might want to extend this rule to the entire conference, the way some conferences have rules that if a scholar-athlete wants to transfer within the conference, he/she actually has to sit out two years. In that fashion, the now former school doesn't get hurt twice -- by losing the kids and then seeing them show up to play for their archrivals. Meanwhile, that would still leave about 300 DI schools for these particular players to play their college basketball at.

3. I'd prefer not to inject any subjective rating system into the mix, whereby the kids would only get released if the now-former coach took a certain type of job. That would be too iffy, for certain recruits might want to follow the coach regardless of whether the competition is a step up or a step down. Better to abide by the first and second rules and see how everything works out for a few years before injecting anything more complicated into the system.

So, Oklahoma A.D. Joe Castiglione and new coach Jeff Capel, release these players from their commitments. It's the right thing to do. Your program will rebound in due time, but these kids only get one shot at their careers, and that fact alone should trump the shorter-term interest of your own program.


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