With Many Coaches Changes in College Basketball We Need to Start Thinking of Athletes

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Coaching changes in college basketball are expected every offseason.  Despite recruiting as a major factor in people’s offseason college basketball interest, the coaching carousal garners the most attention.  Andy Enfield, Brad Stevens, and Steve Alford have been the big names to run for greener pastures this year, but every year we see prominent names either make the switch to other programs or the NBA.  So far there have been forty-two changes for the 2013-2014 season.  The year before fifty coaching changes were made.  While there is no malice in a coaches’ decision to take opportunities that are more suited for their personal success, there is still something to be said about honoring your contract.

Three of the hottest coaching candidates from mid-majors, Steve Alford, Andy Enfield, and Brad Stevens left their positions for what they deemed better opportunities.  To be perfectly honest they are better situations.  Enfield went from Florida Gulf Coast, a team that just made the full transition to Division I in 2011, to the University of Southern California.  Florida Gulf Coast was the Cinderella story this year. His team that no one had even heard about, the Eagles, made it to the Sweet Sixteen knocking off #2 seed Georgetown.  Enfield will go from making $157,000 a year to well over one million dollars at USC.  On July 3rd, Brad Stevens left Butler to take over the rebuilding of the Boston Celtics.  Stevens, who turned down the UCLA job, took the Celtics job saying that it was a tough decision but he is excited at the new opportunity and the challenges the NBA will give him.  Then there is Steve Alford.  A couple of days after agreeing to a 10-year extension with New Mexico, Alford agreed to become the head coach at UCLA.  He received a seven-year, $18.2 million contract.

While these moves can be justified for the coaches, the schools and their players need assurances that their coach cannot walk out at any moment.  Unfortunately, the cold reality right now is they can.  Every off-season college coaches are constantly free agents.  Imagine if LeBron James could walk out of his contract whenever he wanted and just go to another team.  It would be madness.  Coaching contracts in college basketball do not have noncompetes, which allows this type of flexibility. But is this fair to the schools and their programs? As Andy Katz wrote, there are ways to make it harder for college coaches to leave.  This is through putting in hefty buyouts when a coach wants to leave the program.  At the very least it causes courts to settle the issue.  Some Athletic Directors, like Debbie Yow from North Carolina State, have been able to add heavy buyouts to prevent the poaching.  Schools like West Virginia have been vigilant about coaches paying for leaving.  When the West Virginia football coach, Rich Rodriguez, left to take the Michigan job he was ordered to pay $4 million for breaking his contract.  This year when Alford left New Mexico his net buyout was $625,000, with $300,000 coming in hard cash.  Making coaches pay out of their own pocket to leave is a productive way for them to be held accountable for honoring their contracts. 

Looking at the overall picture, how can we expect players to honor their commitment when the coach can leave at any time?  Some like Barry Hinson, head coach at Southern Illinois, want stricter rules on transfers.  When a player transfers they have to sit out one year unless they get a waiver.  Furthermore, the school and coach have the ability to block a player from going to a particular college.  An athlete can go to a college where he has been blocked, but he cannot receive a scholarship for one year.  Therefore, transferring in college basketball is frowned upon because coaches feel that once you sign the letter of intent you commit yourself to that program for four years.  But what happens when a player is unhappy at the school they have selected?  According to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, 33% of college students will transfer at some point.  That is a high number that shows the decision to choose the right college is hard when you’re a 17 year old.  So, what if the coach that a student committed to ditches the school before their four years are up?  They would be stuck and if they transferred they would still have to sit out a year.  The NCAA and supporters of this rule state that they want the player to be acclimated to their new college for one year before they can play.  They say this is done just as much for academic reasons as athletic ones.  But let’s get something straight; being a Division I athlete is a job.  On average a Division I basketball player spends 40 hours a week on this job during the season.  If a player is not getting along with their new coach it might affect their academic performance as well.  Not to mention a previous coach could have promised certain things in terms of playing time that a new coach would not guarantee.       

My point in bringing up college basketball transfers is that a coach has so much power in where a students life could lead, yet the coach could bolt out of the door at any moment.  It is the nature of the business, a word that the NCAA dreads to hear.  Bill Dwyre in the Los Angeles Times wrote about how in an interview John Wooden said he felt uncomfortable because he was making more money than a history professor he knew.  As Dwyre says, Wooden’s frame of reference was other teachers, not John Calipari.  Today coaches look at other coaching contracts and in turn the market for how much they are worth.  There is nothing wrong with that, after all this is America, but maybe its time that we do start looking at the NCAA as a big business.  In a time when there are multi-million dollar contracts being handed out to coaches and big TV deals for colleges, we need to look at the growing needs of the athlete.  Paying college athletes is a taboo topic now, but we can start with things as simple as letting them transfer where they want to go, and allowing them to do this without penalty when the coach bolts out the door for millions of dollars.  Putting buyout clauses might make coaches stay, but competing schools will just pay the coaches more money to cover those costs.  In a time of swirling coaching carousals, maybe, just maybe we can cut the athlete a small break and let them change programs when they want without heavy penalties.