- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 7, 2007

The corner booth at the Waffle House is filling up fast. Alternately glancing at the menu and sipping their first cup of joe are Dana Altman, Gregg Marshall and Rick Majerus. Billy Donovan, who just pulled into the parking lot, will be joining them as soon as he can find a space.

Maybe Billy has Bobby Cremins with him; if so, Bobby should be forced to pick up the tab for this coffee klatch. After all, he was the first of the wafflers in ‘93, the first college basketball coach to take a job — and then back out of it a short time later.

Ordinarily when college hoops coaches get together, they spend a good deal of time swapping Horror Stories From the Recruiting Trail. “These kids today,” one of them will grumble, “say one thing and do another. They don’t seem to understand what a letter of intent is — that it’s a commitment, that it’s binding. You’ve gotta watch ‘em like a hawk until they enroll, just to make sure another school doesn’t hire their AAU coach and try to steal ‘em.”

But the aforementioned five coaches, well, they don’t have much grounds for complaint anymore — not after the stunts they pulled. In fact, if they had a conscience, they’d issue a joint statement at the next NCAA convention that said, “College athletes shouldn’t be held to a higher standard than coaches. If a kid signs a letter of intent and changes his mind, even at the last minute, he shouldn’t be punished for it — any more than we were when we reneged. If these are difficult decisions for grown-ups like us, imagine how complicated they can get for 18- and 19-year-olds, with all the directions they can be pulled in by family, friends and other Persons of Influence.”

Fat chance of that ever happening, though. That’s why college basketball is a coach’s game — because a coach can be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars, millions even, to basically tell his players, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Because Dana Altman can agree to a deal with Arkansas, have serious second thoughts, then call the university and ask whether it would be OK if he stayed at Creighton … and suffer little more than embarrassment. Because Marshall (Winthrop/College of Charleston/Winthrop), Majerus (Utah/ESPN/Southern Cal/ESPN) and Cremins (Georgia Tech/South Carolina/Georgia Tech) can do a similar two-step without being required to sit out a season or work where they don’t want to.

Raise your hand if you think this is either (a) Slightly Crazy, or (b) Totally Insane.

Donovan’s about-face is the one currently being obsessed about. After leading Florida to consecutive NCAA championships, Billy caught a lot of folks off guard when he accepted a five-year, $27.5 million offer from the Orlando Magic. He caught even more folks off guard, though, when he announced three days later that he had reconsidered, that his ties to Gainesville were simply too strong.

So Donovan will remove the For Sale sign from his front lawn and coach the Gators next season. The Magic, meanwhile, will rummage around for a replacement — and life will go on. No harm, no foul.

Too bad it can’t be like that for athletes. Too bad a recruit can’t say, as Majerus did to SC, “I made a mistake. I was blinded by this opportunity.” (Translation: Somebody just reminded Rick what he looked like in a bathing suit.)

Too bad a recruit can’t say, as Altman did to Arkansas, “This is something I’m doing for my family. I wish I would have come to that decision earlier.”

A player tried that with the Nebraska basketball program not long ago. Will Harris, a 6-6 swingman, signed with the Huskers, but then his mother developed health problems and he asked to be released from his letter of intent. It made more sense, he felt, to go to school closer to home.

No dice, Nebraska said. So Harris had to play prep ball for a year to regain his freedom. He’s now at Virginia, which is quite a bit closer to his New York City roots than Lincoln. (He’d be even closer than that — at Connecticut, reportedly — if the Huskies hadn’t cooled on him after he committed and recommended that he go elsewhere.)

But, hey, we can’t have players changing their minds like that. College hoops would descend into anarchy. Only coaches should be given such license — along with unlimited refills on their coffee at the Waffle House.