In spite of the turmoil swirling around him, Xavier Henry could smile on the afternoon of March 31. The 6-foot-6 shooting guard from Oklahoma City would learn in a few hours that John Calipari, the coach Henry had signed to play for at Memphis, had officially taken the Kentucky job. Though Henry's signature on the National Letter of Intent in November constituted a promise that he would attend Memphis for at least one year, Henry knew he had an escape clause.
Henry and fellow signee Nolan Dennis each had a letter from Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson promising that if for any reason Calipari no longer coached at Memphis, they would be entitled to a release from their letter of intent. Johnson said he has offered such letters to high-caliber recruits in football and men's and women's basketball since forward Rodney Carney signed to play for the Tigers prior to the 2002-03 season. "I don't like it, but that's what you have to do if you want to get those top recruits," Johnson said. "Honestly, you'd like to think the student-athlete is coming because of the university itself. ... The coach is such a big part of it."
Henry, for his part, is grateful Johnson made the deal. "It's the best thing that could have happened, because I didn't expect this to happen," Henry said that afternoon last month. "I'm so glad I got it."
Henry has since received his release, and he'll visit Kentucky next weekend. His new list of finalists also includes Kansas and Memphis. Meanwhile, the athletic directors at the nation's best football schools are watching Henry's situation from afar and breathing deep sighs of relief.
While the text of the NLI explicitly states that players sign with a school and not a coach and that the athlete's signature on the NLI "nullifies any agreements, oral or otherwise, which would release me from the conditions stated within this NLI," a situation similar to the one at Memphis could have wreaked havoc had conferences approved an early signing period in football. In January, football coaches overwhelmingly approved a signing period in the first week of December, but conference leaders shot down the plan. The Memphis basketball program's predicament offers the best explanation why.
With some schools willing to cut deals that would release players if the coach they signed with left, athletic directors would have had a devil of a time firing football coaches. Just consider the domino effect caused by Henry's release. Star recruit Lance Stephenson was supposed to announce his college choice (probably Kansas) on March 31. He didn't, because with Henry -- whose parents both played basketball in Lawrence -- once again a free agent, the Jayhawks needed to hold their only remaining scholarship in case Henry wanted it. The delay in Stephenson's decision also affected players being recruited by Maryland and St. John's, his other finalists.
Now, imagine what might happen if there was a Dec. 2 signing day in football and this completely-hypothetical-yet-entirely-plausible scenario took place. After a season deemed unfit by Notre Dame standards, Fighting Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick fires coach Charlie Weis on Nov. 30. While Notre Dame's 10 committed players examine their options two days before signing day, Notre Dame immediately targets Florida coach Urban Meyer, causing Florida's 17 committed players to freak out. After Meyer issues a hasty statement Tuesday confirming that he will remain in Gainesville, those players sign the following day. Meanwhile, Swarbrick moves on to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, the rising star and ace recruiter who, in his first season, led the Tigers to an ACC Atlantic Division title. There's only one problem. Swarbrick can't talk to Swinney until after the ACC title game on Dec. 5, three days after signing day.
So after Clemson loses to Virginia Tech in the title game, Swinney, after a day of intense deliberation, takes the Notre Dame job on Dec. 7. That leaves Clemson's 12 signees in flux. Now, let's assume six of those signees always dreamed of playing for Clemson. They choose to stay. The other six immediately request releases.
Now, Clemson needs a coach. Athletic director Terry Don Phillips throws $3 million a year at Utah's KyleWhittingham. Whittingham decides sweet tea is his new favorite beverage. That move causes 10 of the Utes' 13 signees to request releases.
You see where this is going -- and that's just the ripple effect from one high-profile firing.
The support for an early signing period from college and high school coaches and from players suggests that sooner or later, the measure will get approved. When that happens, schools and the NCAA will have to examine side deals such as the one Henry received, because nearly every top-flight football prospect will want one.
Susan Peal, the NCAA's NLI director, said an NLI issues committee discussed addendums such as the one Henry received in the fall. In the final analysis, she said, the number of deals was so small relative to the number of annual signees (more than 35,000 in all sports) that extra legislation seemed unnecessary.
Peal said prospects also must consider the fact that the NCAA will not hold the school to the terms of the side deal because it essentially is nullified by the prospect's signature on the NLI. "Even with that, the prospect still has to go through the formal release process," Peal said. "It could still be denied. ... Anything else you've agreed upon isn't binding. Just having that addendum doesn't allow the student-athlete to walk away."
That may be true, but a court of law might not feel the same way. Besides, Memphis' Johnson pointed out, the court of public opinion is far more important. Johnson would rather honor the deal and lose a player than earn a reputation as someone who reneges on his word and harm recruiting in the future.
Memphis isn't the only school to offer such deals. When Ohio State signed a basketball class that included Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. prior to the 2006-07 season, the signees were given letters signed by coach Thad Matta, athletic director Gene Smith and then-President Karen Holbrook promising that the signees would be released from their NLIs if the NCAA slapped the Buckeyes with an NCAA tournament ban for violations committed under previous coach Jim O'Brien.
Star recruit DeMarcus Cousinsasked for a similar promise last fall from Alabama-Birmingham in case coach Mike Davis left for another job. UAB refused to make such a promise, and Cousins wound up committing to --but not signing with -- Memphis. Earlier this week, Cousins signed to play for Calipari at Kentucky. During the Cousins-UAB negotiations, Joshua Wright, a law professor at George Mason and a visiting professor at Texas, wrote a fascinating blog post that argued such deals could represent a much needed recruiting advantage for mid-major schools such as UAB. "One might think," Wright wrote, "that mid-majors would be net importers of players seeking releases from top programs under a rule that allowed top players to negotiate releases without having to sit out."
That's precisely why Johnson -- who said he knows Memphis isn't looked at "like a Notre Dame or a UCLA" -- agreed to offer the addendums. The peace of mind they provided allowed Calipari to offer something schools with better facilities, tradition and prestige either could not or would not offer. "In an ideal world, I'd love to have them locked in," said Johnson, who will offer the same option to new coach Josh Pastner. "But we don't live in an ideal world."
If an early signing period ever comes to football, expect schools in the non-BCS leagues to follow the example set by Memphis basketball. If that becomes a significant recruiting advantage, expect the big boys to follow suit. Then wait for the first domino to fall. "They have to realize," Peal said, "that they would be facing the same situation as basketball."