College Basketball Nation: Walter Pitchford

D.J. Newbill lands on his feet

July, 20, 2010
This is the summer of our NLI discontent.

Cases involving players wanting out of their national letters of intent -- and the schools intent on keeping them, or restricting their movements to other schools -- have abounded. There was Walter Pitchford and DePaul. Alabama and Justin Knox. Ole Miss and Murphy Holloway. The Providence vs. Joseph Young standoff continues to worsen. Taken in total, it's enough to make you question whether the national letter of intent is even a good idea anymore.

One story we didn't get to when it originally broke has a slightly different look, but relates to the inequality inherent in the NLI system all the same. That's the story of former Marquette recruit D.J. Newbill, whose scholarship offer was rescinded by Buzz Williams and his staff on July 1. The 6-foot-4 combo guard signed a letter of intent with Marquette April. Then, 6-foot-7 Oregon forward Jamil Wilson decided to transfer to the Golden Eagles. For the crime of being not quite as talented as Wilson, Newbill's offer was soon rescinded. (Williams told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Newbill's release was based on "a culmination of things." Which is basically true, I guess.)

Good news, though: Newbill has landed on his feet. He'll be playing his college hoops for Southern Mississippi this fall, and he'll be doing so alongside former Strawberry Mansion High School teammate Dwayne Davis. (It's at this point that I'd just like to say that I wish I went to a high school named "Strawberry Mansion High." It sounds like a Sgt. Pepper's-era Beatles b-side, and it is awesome.)

Stan Laws, Newbill's former high school coach, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Newbill and his family remain hurt by their Marquette experience, but that Newbill had plenty of offers once he re-opened his recruitment, so he's not merely making a fallback choice. Good for him. Marquette pulled the rug out from under Newbill's feet. College basketball coaches' power to release and run-off less talented scholarship players remains ironic, given that schools also have the power to force those players to stay in their NLIs when seeking a release. It is laughably unfair.

But until that inequality is balanced, this is just how the cookie crumbles. Hopefully Newbill's new school is as excited to have him as Newbill is to attend.

(Hat tip: BIAH)
DePaul's battle with recruit Walter Pitchford, Jr. ended earlier this week when the school granted Pitchford a release from his National Letter of Intent. Pitchford originally signed with former coach Jerry Wainwright, and blamed the coaching transition for his decision to leave; DePaul delayed the decision over concerns that Pitchford had been tampered with by other schools after his commitment. According to a DePaul spokesman, one school went so far as to call DePaul's compliance office about Pitchford's eligibility.

So, yes, DePaul had its reasons to try to hold on to Pitchford. By the end of the saga, though, the school made the right decision. Pitchford didn't want DePaul. Tampering concerns or no, Pitchford needed to go. Unsavory but simple. It was the only way.

The Blue Demons aren't the only rebuilding Big East program dealing with an NLI standoff, though. In early June, Providence recruit Joseph Young asked for a release from his letter of intent, citing his desire to stay home in Houston and tend to his aunt, who is awaiting a heart transplant. Friars coach Keno Davis denied that request, saying he and his staff "expect [Young] will honor that commitment." This displeased the Young family, and understandably so.

In the six weeks since, things have gotten worse. Michael Young, Joseph's father, told the Providence Journal's Kevin McNamara that his son isn't planning to enroll at Providence at all. The family has filed an appeal to the school, and could file an appeal to the NLI committee next:
“Right now, Joe doesn’t even want to discuss school. My sister is what’s important to him. The kid is in shambles,” Michael Young said. [...] “Coach Keno is a bright guy and I understand how the coaching game works, but with what Joe is going through I would never hold a kid back,” Michael Young said. “The way the kid trusted him and believed in him, and now he doesn’t even want to talk about school.”

According to McNamara, Davis isn't budging from his earlier comments. The reason? The situation is a bit more complicated than a sick family member:
One school of thought has Young pledging to PC last summer when the Friars were the best offer on the table. At the time, it was clear that then-Houston coach Tom Penders was considering retirement and would not be around for Joseph’s college career. Sure enough, Penders did retire after leading the Cougars to an NCAA Tournament berth. He was replaced by James Dickey, who quickly chose to rehire Michael Young as the program’s director of operations and performance enhancement. Dickey’s hiring certainly makes staying home and playing in Houston a better option for local prospects such as Joseph Young.

In other words, Davis is concerned -- much as DePaul was -- that his recruit's reasons for leaving are less than transparent. His father is newly hired at a hometown school. No one around the Young family would ever say so, but the concern is valid. No coach wants to lose a recruit; signing players is a long slog that requires countless hours and resources, and losing one after the barn door is already shut has to feel like a kick in the stomach. That goes double for programs like DePaul and Providence, which need every recruit they can get.

In the end, though, Providence almost has to make the same decision as DePaul. The reasons don't matter. Young doesn't want to play for Providence. He doesn't plan to enroll. Forcing him to do so -- or forcing him to incur the wrath of his NLI, which means a loss of one season of competition -- seems overly harsh, even if the prospect has been openly tampered with. The Dagger's Jeff Eisenberg hits the nail on the head:
If Young wants to be closer to his ailing aunt, Providence should release him. If Young is concerned about the direction of the program under Davis, Providence should release him. And if Young simply wants to play for Dickey and his father at Houston, Providence has made its point about the potential tampering and it should still release him. It's a complicated story, but the solution is simple.

Exactly. Providence has made its point. There's nothing to be gained from continuing the standoff. Young is already unlikely to enroll at Providence. But there is something greater at stake here: Davis' reputation among prospects. No coach or program wants to be seen as a punitive, unfriendly leader. That doesn't help anybody, and even if you're in the most dire, talent-related straights, the opportunity cost of that perception is much greater than losing a player like Joseph Young.

The Friars' hands are tied. They have to release Young. They may not like it, but it's the only way this saga can end.
The story of recruit Walter Pitchford Jr.'s relationship with DePaul has mercifully ended. Given the way the story managed to paint pretty much everyone involved in a negative light, that's a major relief.

The recap: Pitchford is a middling forward prospect from Grand Rapids, Mich., who committed to play for former DePaul coach Jerry Wainwright. Pitchford's father, Walter Sr., claimed that his son wanted to change programs after former coach Jerry Wainwright left the school and Oliver Purnell took over. DePaul refused that request.

The father also blamed Purnell for not visiting Pitchford in Grand Rapids when he took the new job. As of last Tuesday, the Pitchfords claimed they were appealing the National Letter of Intent, as DePaul had failed to let Pitchford out of his request. According to Walter, Sr., DePaul decided this weekend to end the rift and allow Pitchford out of his NLI.

For most of the process, Pitchford's side of the story was the prevailing one. Last week, after being criticized here and in other corners of the college hoopsosphere, DePaul began to reach out to media about Pitchford's situation.

Last week, a spokesman for the program told me Pitchford's earlier claims that Purnell hadn't visited him were false. In fact, the Pitchfords had visited campus and had a good series of conversations with Purnell. Then, suddenly, in a few days' time the Pitchfords seemed to turn on the coach, leading to questions of tampering, with one school even going so far as to call DePaul's compliance office inquiring about Pitchford's status. Purnell told ESPNChicago's Scott Powers much the same:
"The bottom line of the difference here is Walter Pitchford signed with DePaul, and when I got to DePaul in conversations with he and his dad, he re-committed to DePaul. And then mysteriously, within a couple days of tremendous meetings on campus and within days of schools starting to call us about releases and so on and so forth, among a lot of other concerns that we had during that process, they wanted a release. We had some concerns about that. We simply want that process to play out, so we can have our concerns mediated."

Naturally, those concerns are what led DePaul to prevent Pitchford from immediately receiving his release. This is a notorious hot-zone for schools dealing with transfers and NLI releases; typically, most schools grant those releases, but the minute potential tampering crops up, the school becomes hypersensitive about releasing that player. It's understandable. Most schools would have proceeded as DePaul did.

Still, the bottom line remained: If DePaul had continued to deny Pitchford his release, the school would have essentially been forcing a player to play basketball for an organization against his will. Forget all the other extemporaneous stuff; forget the visits or lack thereof; forget even the potential tampering, which is very uncool, no matter how you slice it. Pitchford didn't want to play. Tampering or no, forcing this thing further down the road would have only made it worse -- for Purnell, for his other players, and for the Pitchford family itself. It just wasn't worth it.

Instead, Pitchford will go somewhere else. Purnell will build on what he has right now. The situation won't drag on into the new season. Both sides can go their separate ways. This was the only possible ending. It just took us a little while to get there.
A month ago, we discussed the story of DePaul recruit Walter Pitchford, Jr. It's a frustrating one: The 6-foot-10 recruit from Grand Rapids, Mich., committed to DePaul under former coach Jerry Wainwright, who was later fired and replaced by former Clemson coach Oliver Purnell.

Given the coaching change, Pitchford, Jr. asked to be released from his national letter of intent that binds him to the school, a reasonable request given the massive changes in the program since Pitchford signed on. Naturally, DePaul denied that request.

There are extenuating circumstances surrounding the situation: Pitchford's father, Walter Sr., claims he was told by school administrators prior to Purnell's hiring that his son would be released from the NLI. The Pitchfords are also apparently citing violence in the Chicago area as a reason for the request.

But none of that really matters. First of all, it's another example of how one-sided the letter of intent agreement can be and how little power players have over their careers once they sign it. When people complain about college basketball being an exploitative system, this is what they mean.

More than that, though, it makes DePaul look desperate and petty. Most schools facing similar circumstances hope their new coach can effectively recruit previous commitments. If he can't, those schools typically allow those players to go a different way. DePaul's decision to blatantly flaunt that custom simply because it can is just, well, wrong. Let the kid go, you know?

Anyway, that's the back story. The news here is that Pitchford, Jr. has decided to appeal the NCAA in the hopes the organization will allow him his release. Pitchford Sr. told Adam Zagoria that he hasn't heard from the school since it released its decision on the matter June 2. He seems especially perturbed at Purnell himself:
“If the two of them [DePaul athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto and school president Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider] have said that they would release Walter, then it obviously falls on Coach Purnell at this point,” Pitchford Sr. said. “And that’s even more disturbing because I don’t understand how Coach Purnell got hired and he didn’t even come to see Walter. He went to visit all the recruits and didn’t come to see Walter. That’s not right, especially because we live closest to DePaul. We’re only 200 miles away. He could’ve drove here, like Coach [Jerry] Wainwright did.”

It's a bad situation. Neither Walter Jr. or Walter Sr. seem especially interested in a relationship with DePaul's new coach. The appeal could fail. Either way, the determination will take at least 30 days, meaning Pitchford won't know his future until early August. Most recruits are already on campus taking summer school and preparing in workouts with their teams in late June.

It looks increasingly likely that Purnell will be welcoming Pitchford to campus in a month. The only problem, of course, is that Pitchford has zero interest in going to DePaul or playing for Oliver Purnell. Put another way, it appears Purnell will soon be forcing a player to play for the Blue Demons against his will.

Forget the surrounding nonsense. Forget, for a moment, the ethical issues at stake. Why would you want to do that? Why introduce that kind of chaos into your team? Why detract from the first year of a rebuilding process with a potentially high-profile NCAA appeals office? Why make life so difficult for yourself? For what? For the No. 63-ranked power forward in the class of 2010? Really?

Throw in the ethical stakes -- again, DePaul is keeping a player after a coaching change against that player's will -- and an already ugly situation looks even worse. If Purnell is successful at DePaul, it won't be because he kept Pitchford. It will be in spite of it.