New coaches Thomas, Calipari hurting players in scholarship game
Running players off and refusing to grant releases are common practices
Contrary to popular belief, scholarships are up for renewal -- or not -- yearly
At Kentucky, new coach John Calipari had to get rid of four scholarship players
Florida International University hired Isiah Thomas to win games, not make friends. So shortly after Thomas was named FIU's coach April 14, he did what many coaches do upon taking a new job: He began upgrading the program's talent. As is often the case, that upgrade came at the expense of some players Thomas inherited from his predecessor, Sergio Ruoco, who was fired following his fifth straight losing season.
Thomas told one high school senior who had committed to FIU that he would not be offering the scholarship that Ruoco had promised. Thomas told two other recruits who had already signed a National Letter of Intent that they could come to school if they wanted, but Thomas could not guarantee they would remain on scholarship past their freshman year. They naturally asked to be released from their letters (which they were). Two players already in the program had asked for transfers before Thomas was hired and were granted releases, while another player, 6-foot sophomore guard Josue Soto, who was the team's third-leading scorer last season, withdrew from school and is currently playing professionally in his native Puerto Rico.
Freddy Asprilla, however, is a different story. A 6-10 center from Colombia, Asprilla had been named the Sun Belt Conference's Freshman of the Year last season after averaging 13.7 points and 9.2 rebounds. He's the kind of player a coach wants to have around. Unfortunately for FIU, Asprilla told Thomas he also wants to transfer so he can try to play in a power conference.
Given the moves that Thomas has made, and given that the school released two other players who wanted to transfer, it only seems only fair that FIU would grant Asprilla his release as well. Yet, athletic director Pete Garcia is refusing Asprilla's request. Without his release, Asprilla cannot accept a scholarship at another NCAA school next season. If he wants to play college basketball he'll either have to pay his own way at another Division I school or enroll at a junior college.
The only thing more galling than Garcia's refusal to grant Asprilla his release is his assertion that his stance has little to do with Asprilla's playing ability. "I feel FIU is the best place for Freddy, and I'm not even talking about basketball," Garcia said. "We have invested resources in Freddy, and to his credit he has done very well here academically. I feel very strongly that he has been getting some bad advice."
As a former player, Thomas sympathizes with Asprilla's predicament, but he is not trying to convince Garcia to change his position. "I understand Freddy had a personal relationship with the previous coach. I tried to point out to him that even if you transfer, you're still going to be playing for a new coach," Thomas said. "I think Pete genuinely cares about Freddy, and he is really concerned if Freddy's making the right decision."
Asprilla has reason to believe he can play for a major program. He originally signed with Miami out of high school, but he had to go to prep school to qualify academically. In reality, though, it shouldn't matter why Asprilla wants to transfer, or whether he is getting good or bad advice. The NCAA already requires a player who transfers to sit out a year before playing again. That is plenty of incentive to stay put. Why should a school also have the option of denying a player his release -- or releasing him only to specific schools, which frequently happens with transfer requests?
Asprilla's case, coupled with the other roster maneuverings at FIU, is a stark illustration of how the current scholarship system is unfairly tilted toward coaches and universities. That imbalance is especially glaring when a coaching change is made. Asprilla, who is waiting out the situation in his native Colombia, is learning the hard way what a lot of American players already know: College basketball is big business. When push comes to shove, the schools have the leverage, and the players are their commodities. "I don't understand why they gave a release to other players and they're not giving a release to me," Asprilla told me by phone. "I did everything for FIU. I got good grades, I did my job on the court. I think it's unfair."
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