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Posted: Wednesday June 24, 2009 1:28PM; Updated: Wednesday June 24, 2009 2:51PM
Seth Davis Seth Davis >

Thomas, Calipari hurting players in scholarship game (cont.)

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It may surprise you to learn the NCAA has a rule mandating scholarship agreements between players and universities last for a maximum of one year. This is where the inequities between the rights of a player and those of a university begin. If a player wants out of his commitment to the school so he can transfer, he has to ask for his release from the school and then sit out a year. If a coach wants that same player to leave, however, he can simply refuse to renew his one-year scholarship and replace him immediately. This is what is commonly referred to as "running off" a player. Most coaches insist runoffs don't happen often, but there is plenty of evidence it is more common than they admit -- especially when a new coach takes over a program.

The term "running off a player" is often used but hard to define. When a coach flat-out refuses to extend a scholarship to a player who wants to stay based purely on that player's ability (or lack thereof), that is an obvious case of a runoff. However, if a coach tells a player he will not get playing time in the future and strongly suggests he would be better off transferring, most of the time that player will take his advice. Does that rise to the definition of a runoff? Maybe, maybe not. But the effect is much the same.

"A lot of times it's in the player's best interest to transfer," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "I try to be honest with my guys. If they're not going to play, they deserve to know that so they can make the best decision for themselves. That's not running a player off, that's helping him get an opportunity."

Adds Michigan coach John Beilein, "I think [runoffs] do happen in certain situations, but that's not the norm. Most of the time, young men who want to transfer do it for the right reasons."

The problem of player runoffs was enough of a concern for the NCAA that in 1999 the organization passed what was known as the 5/8 rule, which limited coaches to awarding five scholarships in any one year and eight during any two-year span. Given that teams are limited to a maximum of 13 scholarships at a time, and given that most programs only use up 10 or 11 in any given season, the 5/8 rule still left coaches with ample opportunity to replenish their rosters.

Yet, the caterwaul of complaint from coaches was so loud that NCAA president Myles Brand saw fit to lead the effort to rescind the 5/8 rule in 2004. Brand acquiesced partly because he was preparing a major initiative to develop a similar accountability system based on academic performance. That led to the creation of the Academic Progress Rate, which has been in place since 2004. "The 5/8 rule was created to stop runoffs, but it was a very blunt instrument," Brand said. Brand calls the APR "a far more nuanced and subtle approach," but he also concedes that if a player leaves school with his academic eligibility intact, the school is not penalized under the APR. As instruments go, the APR is not blunt enough to stop runoffs.

It's one thing to give coaches an unlimited opportunity to run players off. It's quite another to give the schools the additional lever of being able to decide whether to release students who request a transfer, even in the wake of a coaching change. Brand's defense of this double standard? "Kids sign up with schools and not coaches. Your commitment is to the university."

That assertion is hogwash. "Kids come and go to programs in most cases because of the coach," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "We can say that's not the case and they're supposed to sign at the school, but let's be real. They want to play for the coach. When you have coaching changes, it's not easy on any of the kids involved."

Calipari took the art of running off players to new heights this spring. Shortly after taking over for Billy Gillispie, Calipari brought in three of the nation's top unsigned high school seniors: guards John Wall and Eric Bledsoe, and power forward DeMarcus Cousins. Calipari also got some good news when 6-9 junior forward Patrick Patterson decided to withdraw from the NBA draft and return to school.

Problem was, that left Calipari with four more players than he had scholarships to give -- and he would have been five over the limit if senior guard Jodie Meeks had not decided to remain in the NBA draft. Calipari had an opportunity to watch the players he inherited go through a half-dozen workouts in Lexington before deciding how he was going to whittle his roster. In late May, the school announced that three scholarship players, who just happened to be end-of-the-bench reserves, would not be returning next season. No decision has been made yet who will be the fourth player to forfeit his scholarship.

"There wasn't any secret. All the players knew we were over on scholarships and that people were going to have to leave when [Calipari] came in," said junior forward A.J. Stewart, who is one of the three players leaving the team. "Those workouts were like a tryout. If you wanted to stay on the team, you'd better play well. If he gave me the option to stay, I would have taken it, because I'm confident I could take somebody's spot. I didn't want to go anywhere."

To be sure, Stewart deeply hurt his cause by skipping so many classes as a sophomore that the university suspended him for the first 10 games next season. Then again, players return from such suspensions all the time -- if they're good enough.

I asked Stewart what he thought his situation would be if had scored 20 points per game last season instead of 2.0. He laughed and replied, "I think I'd still be wearing blue. But I can't really be upset about it. It's a business. This kind of thing happens all the time."


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