As system changes, coaches and ADs must adjust to fewer rules

Wednesday May 28th, 2014

SEC commissioner Mike Slive wants a system in which power conferences are granted more autonomy.
Butch Dill/AP

DESTIN, Fla. -- James Franklin has left the SEC, but he hasn't stopped finding ways to needle the league's coaches. The Penn State coach, who spent the previous three seasons at Vanderbilt, has arranged a deal that will allow his coaches to work Georgia State's football camp in Atlanta on June 10 and Stetson's camp in DeLand, Fla., on June 11. This is brilliant move by Franklin, whose assistants can personally evaluate high school players in two of the nation's most talent-rich areas. Meanwhile, those Georgia and Florida players can get a feel for the way Herb Hand -- whose episode of Chopped appears on the Food Network on June 10 -- coaches the offensive line, or the way Ricky Rahne coaches quarterbacks. Those camps might cause a few quality prospects to consider Penn State without the significant expense of an unofficial visit to State College. It might allow a Big Ten school to raid SEC country for some talent.

Why don't Georgia coaches strike back and set up a deal with FCS school Duquesne that allows the Bulldogs' staff to work a camp in Pittsburgh? They can't. While the NCAA allows this practice, the SEC does not. Oklahoma State and New Mexico coaches can team with the staff at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor to work camps in talent-rich Texas. LSU coaches, who would also love quality on-field time with athletes in Houston, San Antonio and the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, can't make a similar arrangement.

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"It's that kind of thing that gets us to think about our rules," SEC commissioner Mike Slive said during the league's spring business meetings.

How the SEC handles this incursion into its territory should offer a glimpse at how the next few years might go across the country. Will the SEC encourage a nationwide ban on the practice of working camps for other schools, or will it change its rule to allow its coaches more freedom? The attitude that has ruled NCAA schools for decades would suggest banning anything that might give one school a perceived advantage over another. Yet the attitude that Slive and his colleagues in the other wealthy conferences are pushing for with their autonomy plan would suggest a more laissez-faire approach.

So, can the nation's coaches and athletic directors, most of whom have spent their entire professional lives as part of a system in which the solution to any problem is to make more rules, handle a system that treats them like adults and expects them to act accordingly? The SEC's reaction to the Franklin conundrum suggests those groups aren't quite ready to handle the freedom they're about to receive.

On Wednesday, SEC football coaches filtered out of their briefing with the league's ADs and explained that northern aggression cannot stand. "Everybody's just looking to tidy up some loopholes in that rule," Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. The coaches would like the SEC's athletic directors and presidents to propose NCAA legislation that would create a nationwide ban on coaches teaming up with other staffs to run camps. A nationwide ban is highly unlikely because other power leagues have no incentive to change. The Big Ten needs to push into the South. Every staff in the league should do what Franklin and his staff are doing. The six schools outside Texas in the Big 12 should appreciate the option to spend more time in the Lone Star State. The eight schools outside California in the Pac-12 should welcome the chance to work camps in the nation's most populous state.

The lack of a rule in other leagues also helps discourage a popular form of cheating across the country. Most coaches won't extend a committable scholarship offer until they've seen a player in person -- usually in camp. The NCAA doesn't allow paid-by-the-school official visits until a prospect's senior year of high school. By then, schools have filled most of their recruiting classes. So, how do poor players get to faraway schools to be personally evaluated? Either they don't, which denies them potential scholarship opportunities, or colleges pay under-the-table cash to handlers -- sometimes high school coaches; often not -- to drive vanloads of recruits to their campuses. If the college coaches can come to the players, it eliminates a revenue stream for the handlers and allows a greater number of players to be seen by a greater number of schools.

Obviously, SEC coaches enjoy the advantage of having the highest geographic concentration of talented high school football players in the nation. It makes sense to try to protect that. But since a national rule seems so unlikely, SEC coaches should have tried to play to their advantage. Why not ask their ADs and presidents to repeal the SEC rule and bring some of college football's most powerful brands into other regions? At worst, it's a wash. At best, SEC schools swipe some players away from power programs in other leagues.

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But coaches and college sports administrators are hardwired to make ever more restrictive rules. That's all they've ever known. It's their first instinct. This mentality is how a seemingly innocuous 2008 ACC proposal to allow schools to provide athletes with fruits, nuts and bagels turned into an NCAA ban on cream cheese. It's also why schools are now trying to grapple with the recent decision to allow schools to provide unlimited food to athletes. (This is a little more complicated than fans probably think, as most schools cut athletes a check for the value of some meals and will have to determine how the rule affects that practice. Still, it probably isn't as complicated as the coaches and ADs believe. If Alabama wants to serve steak every meal, it will serve steak every meal. And that will be OK.)

"That's what everybody has to figure out. That's the hard part," Ole Miss AD Ross Bjork said on Wednesday. "For years, we've been governed by that rulebook. If we loosen it up, what does that mean? If somebody goes astray, do you layer back in 10 more rules to fix one problem? I don't think anyone knows. There's no crystal ball."

The commissioners of the five wealthiest conferences are pushing for a plan that will allow schools in those leagues to spend money more freely on athletes if they so choose. Schools in the less wealthy leagues could conceivably do the same -- if they have the money. This autonomy plan -- which the cynical among us might view as a framework for a complete break from the NCAA when this current round of TV contracts expires -- is going to happen no matter how much Boise State president Bob Kustra complains. The cash-flush commissioners are presenting this as a magnanimous gesture to offer more support to student-athletes, but the truth is they've been trying for years to get ahead of several lawsuits working their way through various stages of the federal court system. They hope more money for the players will dry up the plaintiff pool without significantly altering the business model.

That may not happen. The O'Bannon v. the NCAA case scheduled for trial June 9 in Oakland, Calif., could result in the entire business model of college sports being declared illegal, and a suit brought by players represented by attorney Jeffrey Kessler -- who helped bring free agency to the NFL -- takes direct aim at the five power conferences. The autonomy plan also frees up the wealthy leagues to goose the rules in case they need to alter them to settle those cases.

There will still be rules no matter what happens in the courthouses. Open bidding on players certainly won't be allowed. But the rules won't be as restrictive. Slive and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany have worked for years to loosen the rules regarding contact between agents and players. They're finally going to win that fight. Transfer rules will be altered to make it easier for players to move between schools, but tougher for them to play at a new school immediately if they haven't already graduated. Recruiting contact rules in football will likely be changed to allow for common sense and the way teenagers communicate today.

Coaches and athletic directors will have to get used to this. Remember, it was only a year ago that football coaches freaked out when the NCAA tried to loosen their contact rules to allow more phone calls and lift a ban on text messages that made sense when users paid for each text but makes no sense now that everyone has unlimited texting. Never mind that the NCAA had already loosened the rules in basketball. Football coaches, many of whom want to make rules to ban ideas Alabama coach Nick Saban hasn't even thought of yet, feared call centers in Mumbai texting "Roll Tide" to top recruits 100 times a day. Other coaches feared they would lose the ability to turn in their rivals to their conference or the NCAA for butt-dialing a four-star defensive tackle prospect.

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What coaches and administrators need to understand is that loosening the rules won't alter the fundamental fairness -- or unfairness -- of the system. Parity can't be legislated. Alabama, Ohio State and Texas will always enjoy certain advantages over other schools. Those other schools will always try to lessen that advantage. Franklin hit upon a fine way to combat the demographic issues he now faces by co-opting an idea Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy previously used to get his coaches in front of the players they wanted to recruit. Franklin and Gundy found creative, intelligent solutions to problems within the rules. That sort of ingenuity should be combated with more ingenuity -- not a ham-fisted ban that, in practice, would encourage the breaking of different rules.

The five major conferences are about to get the opportunity to hit the reset button on the NCAA's bloated rulebook. They have a chance to come up with a sensible, workable system that allows coaches and ADs to keep raking in cash while giving athletes more and avoiding more federal court cases. But to do that, coaches and administrators must eliminate the attitude the SEC football coaches defaulted to this week. It only works if they get out of their own way, and so far they haven't proven themselves ready to do that.

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