- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 12, 2011

They do it so routinely each year, we don’t even blink as they jilt one campus and bolt for the next. We’ve turned it into a spectator sport, predicting which college coaches will fill which openings during the annual game of musical chairs. The incoming recruits and returning players left behind or waiting ahead? They’re just collateral damage. Nothing to see here, move along.

But imagine the confusion they feel when the coach who wooed them and pursued them is no longer part of the equation. Imagine the uncertainty when the one who coaxed, cajoled and convinced, pops up at another school for his introductory news conference. Of course players might want to reconsider their commitment, seeing how their coach walked away from his.

This isn’t to pick on new Maryland men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon — who merely played the game in time-honored fashion — but let’s use him as an example. He left Wichita State for Texas A&M in 2007, signing a five-year contract. Oregon expressed interest after his third season with the Aggies, which led to a raise and contract extension through 2018.

Only 13 months after signing that extension, Turgeon sat at a podium with Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson. Forget about the sweetened deal; Turgeon didn’t even stick through his original A&M contract.

“The hardest part for me was telling my players I wasn’t coming back,” he said at Wednesday’s news conference. A few minutes later, he spoke about Gary Williams’ legacy at Maryland. “Hopefully, 15 years from now or 20 years from now or however long this lasts,” he said, “they’ll say Mark Turgeon is Maryland basketball.”

I guess unless he gets a call from his alma mater, Kansas, which unlike Maryland isn’t subject to debates about its place in college hoops’ hierarchy.

Anderson said Turgeon’s contract “will probably be longer than [five years].” I say: “What’s the point?” Again, this isn’t to single out Turgeon but to highlight the hypocrisy of signatures in college sports.

Coaches sign contracts and athletes sign scholarship offers.

Guess which party gets the stinky end of the stick.

A few weeks after then-Connecticut football coach Randy Edsall sat in the home of recruit Michael Nebrich and made promises, Edsall left for Maryland. “I don’t want to say it made me feel betrayed, because he had to do what he had to do for his family,” Nebrich told The Washington Post. “Just with everything he was saying to me and assuring me he was going to be there, it was a weird feeling.”

But it’s perfectly normal for coaches to depart for better opportunities, regardless of their contracts or pledges to incoming recruits. However, a school isn’t obligated to release incoming recruits with second thoughts — or returning players who want to transfer — once the coach leaves.

It’s unrealistic to suggest the coach doesn’t matter when players choose a school. The coach is a factor for blue-chippers as well as under-the-radar players who attract multiple suitors. There’s only so much disparity between accredited institutions of higher learning, and they aren’t nearly as different as the Princeton offense and “40 minutes of hell.”

If the NCAA really cared about players more than profits, coaches wouldn’t be alone in their freedom to roam. Some players would stick around regardless of a new coach. But they should have the opportunity to re-evaluate their decisions and act accordingly.

After all, each school has the annual opportunity to re-evaluate its scholarship decisions and either renew them or revoke them — another lopsided arrangement that needs addressing.

As it is, I wonder how some coaches keep a straight face while talking to recruits each year. I seriously doubt that Butler’s Brad Stevens tells players he’s only sticking around until the Indiana job comes open. Not that I’d blame him for jumping to the Hoosiers. With so much money at stake nowadays, coaches break contracts faster than teams break huddles.

I don’t know why they’re allowed to do so, but great. They’re looking out for No. 1, capitalizing on opportunity, living the American way, etc.

But without a similar option to break their “contracts” (letters-of-intent and scholarships), players are virtually indentured servants. They need permission to leave without penalty, but they’re subject to being dropped each year at the school’s discretion.

That’s something the NCAA should work on changing.

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