UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
More Sports

New coaches Thomas, Calipari hurting players in scholarship game

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."

*****

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."

*****

Not surprisingly, Calipari takes umbrage at the suggestion that he is running off players at Kentucky. "There are guys here who are just not going to be able to play the way we play, and they're better suited to go somewhere else," Calipari said. "I don't want a kid who thinks he can be a professional not playing in February and looking at me like I'm screwing him. If you know kids are not going to play, you tell them."

To be fair, sometimes players' scholarships are withdrawn because of academic reasons or failed drug tests, but because of federal privacy guidelines a school is not allowed to disclose that information. And let's face it, the reason Gillispie was fired in the first place was because his players weren't good enough. Calipari also points out that he has never refused to grant a release to a player who requested a transfer. "I would never hold a kid back who wanted to leave," he said. "If a kid doesn't choose to play for me, I'm fine with that."

Still, by bringing in more players than he had scholarships -- "oversigning," as the practice is often called -- Calipari is taking roster management to an extreme. The problem is certainly not limited to basketball. After Ole Miss football coach Houston Nutt signed 37 players to scholarships in February (the maximum allowed per year is 25), the SEC passed a rule limiting its schools to signing 28 players in any given year. The Big Ten recently passed a rule limiting its basketball coaches to having 14 players on scholarship at a time (leaving a little room for reasonable attrition).

The issue of oversigning is something the National Association of Basketball Coaches' recently announced ethics committee, which is being chaired by Beilein, will hopefully address in the coming months. "Awarding scholarships when you don't have them is not the direction I think most coaches go in," Beilein said. "I think we have to take a long look at that. It's one thing if a kid leaves and you sign somebody else. I think we have a whole different issue when you sign people and people haven't left yet. That sends a bad message."

Brand also expressed a willingness to reconsider the rule requiring schools to keep scholarship agreements to one year. Scholarship agreements used to be for four years, but that was changed in 1972. (When I asked a veteran basketball coach why that rule was changed, he said, "Because football coaches wanted to run more players off.") "There's something to be said for the argument that we should have longer scholarships," Brand said. "That issue keeps coming up and we keep putting it under review, but maybe it's time to look at it again."

It is also long past time to scrap the National Letter of Intent program that unfairly binds high school seniors to their schools but not vice versa. The NLI is not produced by the NCAA but rather the Conference Commissioners Association, and though there is no rule requiring players to sign it, thousands of student-athletes do so every year. They're getting a raw deal: The NLI explicitly states a coaching change is not a reason for a player to be released from his obligation. Yes, schools often release players anyway when those situations arise, but why should they even have that option in the first place?

As for Freddy Asprilla, if FIU athletic director Pete Garcia continues to refuse to grant Asprilla his release, then Asprilla will appeal his case to a university committee. Should he lose that appeal, Asprilla insists he won't return to FIU. "I'm definitely transferring," he said. "I came to FIU because of coach Ruoco. Now that he got fired, I don't see the point of staying there."

SI.com

Drag this icon to your bookmark bar.
Then delete your old SI.com bookmark.

SI.com

Click the share icon to bookmark us.