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Rick Pitino deserted Providence, and so his players suffer

Around Providence College these days there is sadness, anger, disappointment, frustration—and for the time being no basketball coach. On May 1, Providence coach Rick Pitino, who had been in the running for the New York Knicks head coaching job, declared he was no longer a candidate for that position and a month later signed a new five-year contract with the Friars. On July 13 he walked out on his new contract to take over the Knicks job after all, proving once again that it ain't over till it's over.

The Pitino case is, of course, not unique. At the University of Wyoming this past year, for example, football coach Dennis Erickson and basketball coach Jim Brandenburg both broke contracts to accept other jobs. When football coach David McWilliams abandoned Texas Tech for Texas last December after one year of his five-year contract, he was exercising a provision that left him free to do so after any season. Some contract, eh?

It is the players and incoming recruits who are most affected when a coach abruptly takes a powder. At Providence the latter group consists of four young men, Cal Foster, Chris Watts, Kevin Gaskins and Eric Murdock. All had been impressed by the Pitino magic, and all had signed a document called the National Letter of Intent to attend Providence. The letter ends the strain of the recruiting process for the athlete and permits the institution to get an accurate accounting of its talent roundup.

It sounds nice. But what happens when circumstances suddenly change at the university, as was the case at Providence? Not only did Pitino leave, but he also took with him his top assistant, Stu Jackson, the man who had schmoozed with the recruits and sipped coffee in the living room with Mom and Dad.

The recruit may sign at another school, but he must sit out two calendar years, a lifetime to an 18-year-old. A "mutual release" clause permits the recruit to leave if both he and the institution agree—though the player still loses one year of eligibility. But that clause is useless when it is too late for the athlete to find a school that still wants him or one that could still sign him without disrupting its own recruiting master plan. Certainly this was true when Pitino didn't resign until mid-July.

The letter of intent is based on the assumption, purely theoretical, that a recruit signs with an institution, not a coach or a sport. "The letter of intent protects the institution," says Lewis Cryer, president of the Collegiate Commissioner's Association, which administers the document.

But what protects the athlete, whose love affair with a university evolves—let's be realistic here—in no small part because of his relationship with the coaching staff? Nothing. Watts, one of those left at the altar, estimates that Pitino and his coaches "had 70 percent to do with my decision [to attend Providence], and the atmosphere and campus about 30 percent." And what protects the players already at the school? Again, nothing. They can transfer, of course, but then they must sit out a minimum NCAA-mandated one year.

Watts's response to Pitino's departure was typical and entirely understandable: "I was pretty upset when I found out he was leaving. But he told me that coaching the Knicks was one of his dreams, and I don't blame him." Of course he doesn't. But what if Watts isn't so taken with Pitino's successor? What if the new coach isn't guard-oriented? That would mean less playing time for somebody, because three of the four recruits are guards on a team with three proven backcourtmen returning.

Pitino says he felt torn about leaving, and he is undoubtedly sincere. But the events at Providence crystallize a situation that has gone on for too long. Some changes are in order:

Excuse the recruit from his letter of intent if the coach for whom he signed to play leaves the school. If you order chicken and get beef, you're not obliged to eat it. And you certainly don't have to wait a year to get it returned to the kitchen. Waive the one-year rule for players who want to transfer because of a coaching change. Pitino does not have to sit out for breaking his contract at Providence—he is free to start collecting on his lucrative multiyear Knick contract immediately. "My personal feeling is that the recruits should have the right to go," Pitino has said.

And start making it tough for coaches who break contracts. The man Wyoming hired to replace Brandenburg, Benny Dees, has a liquidation clause in his contract, which means he would have to pay the school an agreed-upon amount should he leave prematurely; athletic director Paul Roach made it clear that the school will exercise that option if Dees moves on.

That's a great idea. A better one, admittedly idealistic, is that coaches start honoring their contracts.