Bo Ryan uproar sheds light on NCAA's faulty transfer process
The prevailing assumption holds that Bo Ryan bowed to public pressure. Not true.
When I asked the Wisconsin basketball coach over the phone Thursday night what he thought about the media firestorm he had unwittingly ignited by attempting to severely restrict where one of his players could transfer, he scoffed. "I don't even know about a firestorm. I don't know what you're saying now," Ryan told me. "People are asking me, hey Bo, did you see this? I tell them, no, tell me about it. I've never been on Facebook. I don't know what a tweet is, or whatever it's called. I have no idea about any of that because I try to control the things I have control over. When I want to find out what people are saying, I go down to the local mall, walk around and talk to people."
Ryan may not have been wired to it, but the firestorm got hotter throughout the week, thanks partly to his disastrous interview Thursday morning on ESPN Radio's Mike and Mike in the Morning show. As has been well-chronicled by now, later in the day Wisconsin decided to lift Ryan's restrictions on the player, a 6-foot-8 freshman forward named Jarrod Uthoff. The school said Uthoff could transfer to any school outside the Big Ten.
So, then: Does Ryan have any regrets or second thought about what he did? "Absolutely not," he said. "I've heard from a lot of coaches. What I did is very common. You guys must have a slow news day."
It only took four days for the story to flame out, but it blazed quite a path. The case was first reported on Monday by a statewide outlet called the Metro Sports Report. The site revealed that not only had Ryan blocked Uthoff from transferring within the Big Ten -- which is standard procedure in college basketball -- but from 15 other schools as well. The blocked list included the 12 teams in the ACC, plus Marquette, Iowa State and Florida.
Ryan admitted he placed the block because he did not want to allow even the possibility that his team would have to play against Uthoff someday. That's why he included the entire ACC. As a member of the Big Ten, Wisconsin plays in the annual ACC/Big Ten challenge. Since Ryan does not yet know who his opponents will be over the next few years, the only way to ensure that he would not have to face Uthoff in the challenge was to block him from transferring to any ACC school.
The coach included Marquette on the blocked list because Wisconsin plays Marquette every year. He included Iowa State because it's a big school that resides in a neighboring state. And he included Florida because he recently agreed to a home-and-home series with the Gators beginning next season. Of course, as a transfer Uthoff would have to sit out next season under NCAA rules, so that means Ryan attempted to block Uthoff from attending the school of his choice because of a single game that will take place two years out.
But to hear Bo Ryan explain himself, avoiding the possibility of competing against Uthoff was never his motivation. All he wanted, he said, was to force the player to go through an appeal process that would require him to sit down with Wisconsin administrators and explain precisely why he wants to transfer, and why he wants to go to the schools he wants to go to. "I went by the process," Ryan said, "and the process worked pretty well."
There are, however, a couple of problems with Ryan's version. First of all, if he just wanted Uthoff to go through the process, why did he select those specific schools to put on the blocked list? Ryan could have simply denied Uthoff his release across the board until he took his appeal to administrators, which in this case turned out to be the school's athletic director, Barry Alvarez, and associate AD Justin Doherty.
Besides, what would have happened if Uthoff had lost his appeal? It's reasonable to surmise that that's what would have happened if it weren't for the Twitter-fueled blowback the school was facing. Why else would Alvarez have seen fit to get involved? Surely he had bigger things on his plate. Ryan admitted to me that this was a possibility.
"Are there absolutes in life? Of course an appeal can be turned down," he said. "What I did was so typical. I've got coaches calling me laughing and going, 'What rock did these people come out of not knowing this is the way it's done?'"
In the end, Ryan has it half-right: The problem isn't him. The problem is the process. Schools have far too much control over athletes who should be able to transfer to whichever school they please, so long as they are willing to sit out one season as mandated by NCAA rules. When Michigan sophomore forward Evan Smotrycz said last month that he wanted to transfer, his coach, John Beilein, refused to release him to any school that appears on Michigan's schedule during the next two years -- a restriction that was considerably more extensive than the one Wisconsin ended up placing on Uthoff. Tulsa recently fired its coach, Doug Wojcik, and replaced him with Danny Manning, but the school's athletic director is refusing to release 6-4 sophomore guard Jordan Clarkson to five of the eight schools he requested permission to talk to. (None of those five are in Conference USA.) The University of South Carolina fired Darrin Horn and replaced him with Frank Martin, but it won't allow its starting center, Damontre Harris, to transfer to N.C. State because a former assistant, Orlando Early, is currently on N.C. State's staff.
There is no doubt that transferring has become an epidemic in college basketball. Some 40 percent of Division I players will change schools by the end of their sophomore seasons. So it's hard to blame Ryan or any other coach for feeling miffed after they spend several years and thousands of dollars recruiting a player and giving him a scholarship, only to see him bolt to another school whose coach has made it clear (often through back channels) that he would love to have him. Tampering is, of course, against NCAA rules, but it is so difficult to prove that it's easier for the school to refuse to release a player if it suspects another school of tampering.
"There's a reason for [not releasing in] conferences, there's a reason for opponents you're going to play, there's reasons for geography," Ryan said. "The kids have been abused by third parties trying to get them to do things, and if they go to a certain area it's not a good situation for all parties involved."
The process has been unfair because in the past, scholarships have only been one-year agreements. That gave coaches the choice to renew or not renew those agreements on an annual basis. If a coach decided a player was no longer worth that scholarship (usually because he's not good enough), the player had to find another school. Yet, if that same player decided he wanted to transfer, he was at the mercy of the coach to release him.
The NCAA finally passed legislation this winter that gives schools the option of issuing multiyear scholarships. The new policy doesn't require anything. It just gives schools the option of committing to players for more than one year.
Now it's time to take the next step: The NCAA should eliminate the requirement for players to get releases from their schools if they want to play somewhere else on scholarship. That includes transfers inside the same conference. Coaches are very well-compensated for what they do. They can deal with having to face a former player on the court once or twice a year if that's what the youngster wants.
Ryan sounded surprisingly open to that idea. "If people are going to push for that, then we have to re-evaluate everything," he said. "A scholarship is basically a contract. So if that's what you're talking about, then everything should be revisited. But certainly the way to do that isn't by taking one school and making statements before people are educated about the process."
Indeed, if there is one good thing that came out of all of this, it's that people are becoming more educated about the process. Mostly, they're learning it stinks. To think, all this happened because a college freshman wanted to change schools. Here's hoping the NCAA does the right thing and changes a bad rule.