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Patrick Hruby

When the Going Gets Tough, the Coach Gets Going

A modest proposal to solve college basketball's - ahem - "transfer epidemic"

Sports on Earth

Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski is right. So are South Carolina’s Frank Martin and Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan. Once upon a time, college sports were a place for loyalty and commitment, working hard and paying your dues, staying put and waiting your turn. No longer. Today, impatience and instant gratification rule. Get mine is the guiding philosophy. Everyone is looking for a better deal, ready to jump ship at a moment’s notice, teammates and program be damned. Yes, campus sports have a serious problem — an “epidemic,” according to Marshall’s Tom Herrion — and the only cure for what Alabama coach Anthony Grant calls an “alarming trend” is to do something drastic, as a sport, to limit the never-ending game of me-first musical chairs.

Oh, wait — all these coaches are gnashing their teeth over player transfers?

Oops. My bad. I thought they were talking about coaching movement. It’s easy to get confused. I heard Martin refer to people preferring the “quick fix” to learning how to “stay the course” and “work and improve” and figured he was talking about UCLA’s Steve Alford, who bolted sun-baked New Mexico for sunny Los Angeles just days after signing a contract extension. I listened to Southern Illinois’ Barry Hinson complain about the “poaching” of standout on-campus talent by bigger, more prestigious institutions and assumed he was referring to Brad Stevens unexpectedly jilting Butler to take a job with the Boston Celtics. While reading reading Slate writer Josh Levin’s blistering takedown of NCAA athlete transfer rules, I saw Ryan proclaim that all of the shuffling “isn’t what college athletics was meant to be. How about the guy leaving his teammates and the coaching staff that developed him?” and was certain he was castigating himself, given that in 1999 he signed a five-year deal at Wisconsin–Milwaukee, then left for Wisconsin after two seasons — a move, Levin notes, that first school’s athletic director said felt “like a divorce” to the players he left behind. Over the last year, I’ve read article after article in which men-molding paragons of old-fashioned values such as Kansas’ Bill Self and Notre Dame’s Mike Brey have lamented the sheer, unprincipled mercenariness of their sport. Hinson went so far as to pin the blame on society as a whole, stating “we are no longer comfortable making our children uncomfortable.” But it turns out that not one of them was grousing about their peers habitually switching schools for better opportunities and more coaching time.

Heck, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say that college coaches aren’t very self-aware.

Thing is, I do know better. I know that coaches get it. I know they realize that the entire “transfer epidemic” narrative is as real as the ongoing War on Christmas — after all, the transfer rate in men’s basketball has jumped an estimated two percent in recent seasons, from 10 percent to 12 percent, and remains far lower than the 30 percent transfer rate among regular students. More than that, I’m totally confident that college coaches aren’t a pack of self-serving hypocrites whose public moralizing on all matters involving athlete welfare that does not help them win games should forever be graded on an inverse scale of volume-to-sincerity – akin to the inverse televangelist scale of on-screen-piety-to-off-screen-calf-worshipping – because I truly believe that Martin et al understand that the bulk of the self-centered gig-hopping they decry involves people in suits and shoe company lapel pins. (About 12 and 15 percent in the last two seasons, if you’re wondering).

Yep, I have faith that college coaches understand the real gun-for-hire problem in their sport. Even if they’re not directly talking about it just yet. Moreover, I have faith that they want to do something about it — just like they reportedly want to draft and enact new rules that would discourage players from switching schools just because, you know, it’s a better deal for them and their families or something, and seriously, aren’t these kids ungrateful, entitled little brats? Deep down in their principled bones, coaches know the truth: today, it’s Stevens and Alford lighting out instead of sticking things out and growing as men; tomorrow, it’s literally any coach in what used to be John Wooden’s America packing up the moving van just because there’s something in it for them.

The good news? There are ways to stop this. Ways to encourage and reward the right kind of values, the ones that make college sports decent and pure. All that’s needed is to adopt the following guidelines:

1. Coaches who switch schools must sit out an entire year before returning to the sideline. They will be allowed to attend team practice and take notes, but otherwise should focus on adjusting to their new academic evironment.

2. Coaches who seek to switch schools must obtain a written release from the athletes on their current team, who can refuse to grant a release to a particular school for any reason.

2a. Coaches who do not obtain an athlete release can still sign on at a new school, but must forfeit a year’s salary and sit out for the same amount of time.

3. Coaches who seek to switch schools within the same athletic conference may be subject to additional restrictions, because as Michigan basketball coach John Beilein explains, “we don’t want a young man to take our playbook and go to the next school. It just doesn’t make sense.

4. Coaches who switch schools to pursue a graduate degree in a subject not offered by their current school are eligible to coach immediately, because, you know, education.

If all of the above looks familiar, it should. Substitute athletes for coaches and scholarship for salary, and my suggested rules are essentially copies of the ones that currently govern player transfers — restrictions that exist to discourage the wanton, character-sapping, every-man-for-himself free agency that keeps Herrion and Grant up at night. A few months ago, the National Collegiate Athletic Association considered liberalizing player transfers, the better to allow athletes in good academic standing to switch schools free of playing time penalties and without receiving a coach’s permission. The horror. The horror. Thankfully, the association came to its senses — or, to be precise, Beilein’s kind of sense, the kind that ought to be as good for coaches as it is for athletes, if only Ryan and company would get behind the necessary reforms and start walking their talk. After all, isn’t being comfortable with making our children uncomfortable — including the red-faced older ones strutting right over the sideline while screaming for another timeout — what college athletics was meant to be?

Read the original article at Sports on Earth