Coaches They Go Round and Round

April 11, 2007

Observers of big-time college sports often lament the one-year-and-out athlete for whom higher education is a pit stop on the way to guaranteed riches. It’s an easy critique: The player makes promises -- four great years ahead! -- and reaps the benefits of a name-brand jersey and national television exposure before leaving teammates and coaches behind.

But what about the short-timer coach for whom promises of “being part of the university family” or “making this my career destination” turn out to be nothing but a farce? In these cases, which seem to be growing, it’s often the athletes who are burned.

Such is the case at Kansas State University, where Bob Huggins left the men's basketball team after one year to accept another head coaching position at his alma mater, West Virginia University, a job he had turned down several years earlier.  

In his short tenure at Kansas State, Huggins recruited what is widely considered to be one of next year's best incoming freshman classes. These high school seniors agreed to enroll with the understanding that Huggins would be their coach. Thus far, none of the players has asked for a release from the university. One of the top recruits, Michael Beasley, told SportsIllustrated.com that "I'm committed to the school, not the coach.... I gave my word that I would play for Kansas State.''

But in the era of the well-traveled coach -- most evident in men's college basketball -- does the recruiter have an ethical obligation to stick with the recruit? Should an athlete have any qualms with changing colleges when the coach does? And should players who seek a transfer have to sit out a year of competition, unlike the coach, who cashes in right away?

J. Douglas Toma, an associate professor at the University of Georgia's Institute of Higher Education, said he is surprised that relatively few spurned athletes actually transfer, given how much often changes within an athletics program when a new coach arrives. And because coaches are fired these days for one underperforming season, Toma said he isn't surprised to see them leave for more money whenever the chance arises. (This spring, men's basketball coaches at the University of Kentucky and the University of Iowa left their jobs for similar ones at colleges with far less tradition but with a higher likelihood of keeping them long-term.) 

"Why should we expect loyalty here -- at least to institutions?," Toma asked. "Is Billy Gillespie really going to turn down one of the handful of premier jobs in his field, the basketball coaching job at Kentucky, to remain at Texas A&M, which has a limited tradition? It is the equivalent of asking a faculty member to turn down a position at Harvard or Stanford to stay at a lower-tier flagship state university in the interest of the doctoral students who came there to work with him or her."

Toma noted a key difference between the so-called "coaching carousel," in which one high-profile departure sets off a chain of other moves, and the "star faculty carousel." Doctoral students often attend a given program based primarily on the opportunity to work with a given professor, just as an athlete chooses a program to play under a coach. But while a dissertation adviser will often continue to help the student after leaving the institution, a coach who remains too involved in a former player's life is seen as a traitor.

When the coaching carousel begins, it's disruptive on many fronts. Coaches at other universities come after recruits who have given only a verbal commitment. Athletics directors worry that their recent hires might leave. Even coaches who are staying have to recommit to players and their families. The cycle doesn't stop until someone hires an assistant from within, as in the case of Kansas State.

Last spring, questions surrounded the hiring of Huggins, who was forced out as coach at the University of Cincinnati after a drunken driving conviction and a history of low graduation rates. Pundits were generally unsurprised by Huggins's decision to bolt. Phil Hughes, Kansas State's associate athletic director for student services, said it's natural for athletes to be upset when a coach leaves abruptly.

"If the coach is any good, he has formed relationships, bonds and loyalties amongst members of a team," Hughes said. "When that is broken, and often times it’s done callously and without closure, it's a disruptive time. We have seniors who will go through their third coach in three years who are probably shaking their heads."

While Huggins's tenure at Kansas State was particularly short, his situation is far from unusual. Entering next season, head coaches in the Big 12 athletic conference will have an average of 2.3 years' experience at their current institution.

Robert E. Frederick, a past chair of the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Committee on Sportsmanship and Ethical Conduct, said the coaching carousel is nothing new, although it might be spinning with some greater frequency.

Frederick said his committee didn't deal directly with the issue of coaches who sign recruits and then leave because "we weren't going to be the judge of unethical conduct." He added that many coaches are up front with recruits about their career ambitions.

"The situation seems unfair at times, but I don't know what the answer is," said Frederick, interim chair and an assistant professor in the department of health, sport and exercise sciences at the University of Kansas. "I've always held the belief that students should get a financial aid agreement without signing the letter of intent."

The latter agreement, administered through the Collegiate Commissioners Association, binds an athlete to an institution for one academic year in exchange for a guaranteed one-year scholarship package, provided that the applicant is admitted to the institution and is academically eligible under NCAA rules. (After signing, other coaches are supposed to stop their recruitment of the student.)

Athletes who sign the letter but do not attend a given institution often lose one year of eligibility and have to spend a year in residence at the next college before playing a sport. The penalty can be waived if the institution grants a complete release from the letter of intent or if the National Letter of Intent Steering Committee finds that the situation is an "extenuating circumstance."

The Division-I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee advocates the transfer rights of students but hasn't gotten involved in this particular issue, said Anna Chappell, chair of the committee, which represents the interests of NCAA athletes.

Chappell, a former women's basketball player at the University of Arizona, said she went through four assistant coaches in four years and understands the effect that personnel moves have on students.

"In the midst of final exams, when you are looking at a new coach and are thinking about impressing another person and keeping your scholarship, that can be pressure," she said.

Another student advocacy group, the Collegiate Athletes Coalition, started by a group of college football players, has listed among its goals to ensure that athletes are granted release from their university if they seek a transfer -- and can do so without punishment. Both groups support an expansion of the NCAA's one-time transfer exception, which says, among other things, that if an athlete hasn't transferred previously from a four-year college and is in good academic standing, she can immediately become eligible at another four-year college, so long as it isn't in the same season and the athlete isn't playing Division I basketball or football.

The CAC has vocally opposed the football and basketball exemption, but the NCAA has argued in the past that allowing students to transfer without sitting out a year would create a free agent culture in big-time college athletics.

Then there are the concerns of athletics directors. Jean Lenti Ponsetto, who runs DePaul University's sports program, said the most unforgiving side of the coaching carousel is that when coaches leave and students transfer or decide to leave the university, an institution's  Academic Progress Rate score drops, which can lead to NCAA penalties.

In 2005, DePaul lost Dave Leitao, its men's basketball coach, to the University of Virginia. One player transferred as a result, and Ponsetto said she would have granted other requests. When Leitao left, DePaul assigned two associate athletic directors to work along with the academic advising staff to monitor players' academic work. That job would usually fall to the head coach, Ponsetto said.

When a coach leaves, she makes a point of meeting with athletes individually and contacting recruits.

"Coaches have a right to make a best-interest decision, but I do think there is an effect on students who remain in the program," said Ponsetto, who has sat on several NCAA amateurism and eligibility committees. "I had one athlete say, 'What happened to family loyalty and commitment?' I have a relationship with [the athletes]. I think they needed to hear from me."

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