Here's an easy thing to forget this time of year: College sports are supposed to be about the players. It's easy to forget this because coaches tend to hog the headlines. And the players: Well, they tend to get lost in the shuffle.
Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly abandoned his undefeated team 22 days before its Sugar Bowl game—a week after leading many of his players to believe he would stay—to become coach at Notre Dame. You couldn't exactly blame Kelly for taking one of the most prestigious college football jobs, and you couldn't blame his players for feeling betrayed. But you wanted to blame somebody for something.
"You can't just let coaches leave their players before bowl games!" people across the country shouted. Trouble was, nobody seemed entirely sure how the NCAA or the AFCA or the CIA or any other configuration of letters could stop them, and anyway, in the fast-moving world of big-time coaches, there was no chance that Kelly would stay at the top of the news for long.
No, Pete Carroll—after what he called the nine best coaching years of his life—jumped from USC to the NFL. (Carroll said the Seattle Seahawks' offer "came out of nowhere.") More screams. But, of course, days later Carroll was old news. That's because Lane Kiffin, after only 14 turbulent months, jumped from Tennessee to take Carroll's USC job.
Then again, it isn't only about coaches abandoning schools. Bobby Bowden got shoved out at Florida State. Notre Dame paid Charlie Weis a staggering buyout to make him leave. Mike Leach (Texas Tech), Jim Leavitt (South Florida) and Mark Mangino (Kansas) were forced out after internal investigations. It's mayhem out there.*
*In contrasting coaches' news, Texas raised Mack Brown's salary to $5.1 million per year, leading the Faculty Council in Austin to call a meeting to discuss the "unseemly and inappropriate" pay raise in a time of educational cutbacks.
But to the big question: What about the players? What are their rights when their coach moves on? New recruits can ask out of their National Letter of Intent (and appeal if they do not get their release), but players at a school are pretty well stuck.
Oh, they can opt to go elsewhere, but in college football (and baseball, basketball and ice hockey) they will have to sit out a year and, if not released from their Letter of Intent, give up a year of eligibility. That doesn't seem right, does it?
Why doesn't the NCAA allow a one-time transfer exception for college athletes who, for whatever reason, lose the coach who recruited them? Well, as tempting as it is to bash the NCAA, there are viable reasons for the transfer penalty. One is to cut down on underhanded recruiting—nobody wants a feeding frenzy every time a coach leaves or gets fired. Another is to maintain some stability. Yet another is to prevent coaches from trying to take the best players with them. "That would just not be right," says Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione.
Castiglione is one of America's best athletic directors. And he has had to deal with this directly. When Sooners basketball coach Kelvin Sampson left for Indiana, several big-time recruits wanted out. Among them were Scottie Reynolds and Damion James. Castiglione and Oklahoma granted their release. James and Reynolds are now the leading scorers at Texas and Villanova, respectively. For his generosity Castiglione took a lot of hits. From a philosophical standpoint, he knew it was the right thing to do. "At the end of the day, you're not going to be successful holding someone against his will," he says.
There is also the matter of the bond that coaches develop with athletes. "Good leaders—and good coaches are good leaders—build unity," he says. "The kids love their coach. You can't just ignore that."
So I ask him if players already at schools should have the right to transfer without giving up a year of eligibility. Castiglione says he isn't sure. "There can be unforeseen consequences," he says. "A coach leaving is a very emotional thing, and I don't know if you would want to make it too easy for student-athletes to make emotional decisions."
In the end Castiglione says common sense should prevail. I think that's right. I don't think players should be allowed to follow coaches to their new schools; that could lead to shady package deals. And I don't think players should be allowed to transfer immediately after a coaching change, when emotions are running hottest.
But if after a fair period of time—maybe 30 days after a new coach gets hired—it becomes clear that any player (of any class) in good academic standing does not fit with the new coach and no longer believes the situation is right, well, he or she should be allowed a one-time transfer without penalty. College sports, even big-time college sports, are supposed to be about the players. At least that's what we want to believe.
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For more commentary from Joe Posnanski, go to si.com/posnanski
You wouldn't want to make it too easy, says Castiglione, for athletes to make "EMOTIONAL DECISIONS."
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW