Damarcus Harrison found himself in the middle of a nightmare in August.
Harrison is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- he's a Mormon -- and his plan, like so many Mormon students, was to enroll in college for a year before spending two years on a mission. But unfortunately for Harrison, a former top 100 wing who averaged 3.2 points in nine minutes per game for BYU last season, the bishop of his church back in South Carolina wouldn't issue the paperwork for his mission as originally planned.
The decision put Harrison's season in jeopardy. BYU head coach Dave Rose, expecting Harrison to be away for two years, had already given his scholarship to someone else. That's not a knock on Rose; it's a reality he has to deal with. "It's a real challenge for us to plan for scholarships," Rose said. "Right now, we actually have a scholarship committed to a player who is verbally committed to us who is here through the 2019-20 season. The spreadsheet is quite complicated."
What that meant for Harrison was that if he wanted to play basketball for the Cougars this season, he was going to have to pay his own way and walk onto the team. BYU is cheaper than many colleges, but it still costs about $15,000 for an LDS member to go to school there, and the Harrisons couldn't afford that. It left Damarcus with just one option: transfer.
Luckily for him, despite the late date, the school that was runner-up in his recruitment -- Clemson -- had a scholarship available and a need for wing players. And the NCAA gave Harrison a waiver to play immediately. He'll spend his sophomore season as a Tiger and return to Clemson in 2015-16 to finish up his final two years of eligibility.
Harrison caught a break in a tough situation, but the good news is that it's a situation that will become exceedingly less likely for LDS recruits in the future. Last Saturday, Thomas S. Monson, the current President of the LDS Church, announced that missionary age requirements had been reduced. Previously, a male member of the church had to be 19 years old to go on a mission. Now, as long as they are a high school graduate, men can leave for their missions at 18.
While the rule change will make it significantly less likely that a school recruiting an LDS player intent on going on a mission will see an immediate impact from him, it's actually a change that will be beneficial to the programs.
"It's actually what we would prefer," said Stew Morrill, the coach at Utah State, a program that he estimates has between three and five missionaries on scholarship every season. "What we've always done is if a kid's old enough, if he's got a birthday that makes him 19 before he would enter college, about half the time that's the case, than we encourage them to go right away."
Morrill has had plenty of experience with players spending a year on campus before going on their mission, and the biggest problem with that, he says, is that the players almost require two redshirt years. They're not ready to be a major contributor as freshmen, and after spending two years away from the game, they often need a redshirt season when they get back. In a sense, the missionaries end up being two-year players that you have to wait four years to get the maximum benefit from. The rule change will delay the amount of time that it takes for a player to get onto campus, but it will also give them four (or five) consecutive years in the program.
The biggest challenge either program will face will come during the transition period over the next two or three years.
"We have already made commitments and players have already made decisions of when they're going to serve their mission," Rose said. "If those decisions change, it will really change trying to fit everybody into those 13 scholarships. That's probably the biggest challenge we have right now. If it gets to a year or two from now and we see that the majority of these players all decided that they would like to serve at 18 rather than 19, then you can kind of get into that pattern and it will go a lot smoother later on. Right now, in this transition period, it will be quite a challenge."
Take, for example, BYU commits Eric Mika and Nick Emery. Emery turns 19 next September, so his plan was always to leave on his mission before enrolling at BYU. The new church rule allows him to begin his missionary work as soon as he graduates high school. Having a summer back in Utah to work his way into shape may prevent the top 75 recruit from needing a redshirt season when he returns. The situation is different for Mika, who doesn't turn 18 until this February. Rose was expecting him to be available to play in 2013-14, which could have helped with the graduation of Brandon Davies, before leaving on his mission. Now that decision is up in the air, and it could leave the Cougars with some holes in their front line.
And BYU basketball only has 13 scholarships available. Imagine what this change must be like for the football coaches.
From a national perspective, however, there are two bigger questions at play. First and foremost, the top recruit in the Class of 2013 is Jabari Parker, who is Mormon. His father told ESPN.com on Monday that he has yet to decide whether or not he plans on going on a mission, but the change in the age-requirement puts a potential collegiate season for Parker in jeopardy. To enter the NBA draft, the only requirement is that the player be at least a year removed from high school; it says nothing about what they have to spend that year doing. Going on a Mormon mission and entering the NBA draft is just as valid an option as spending a year playing basketball at BYU, or any other school in the country.
There is some debate, however, over whether or not high-profile athletes serve the purpose of a mission simply by being in the public's eye. Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young and, more recently, 2011 National Player of the Year Jimmer Fredette are both Mormon and neither served a mission.
The other question is whether or not this change will open the door for programs that do not typically pursue LDS athletes to begin recruiting them. Neither Rose nor Morrill is too concerned about that.
"Unless you're dealing with it and you're planning that far down the road," Morrill said. "it's kind of hard to recruit a kid based on thre years from now."