Commentary

Coaching changes are inevitable

Updated: February 23, 2011, 2:12 PM ET
By Mark Lewis | HoopGurlz

Years ago, before college athletics had evolved into the big business it is today, the consensus was that new coaches should never completely unpack and that their termination letters were already written; the school just hadn't inserted the date yet. No doubt it is a volatile profession, but it's not quite that tenuous and there are multiple examples of coaches in women's basketball who have enjoyed successful and lengthy stays with one school.

At the same time, the increased commitment of resources to programs over the years has led to higher expectations and a greater willingness on the part of administrators to make a leadership change. The bigger salaries are now there and multiple-year contracts are the norm, but the one thing that has decreased is the tolerance for mediocrity and underachievement.

Carousel
AP Photo/ Louis LanzanoThe coaching carousel can really complicate a prospect's recruiting process.

The current season is now in the homestretch, and it's inevitable that nameplates on some office doors are destined to read differently in the very near future. In an environment as fragile as college coaching, it's simply not realistic to think that there aren't going to be job changes each year. When they do come, the impact extends beyond the head coach to the staff, to the current players and ultimately to the athletes who have been and are being recruited by the program.

As athletes and their parents consider each school and what it has to offer, they do so through the filter of the head coach. It's way too idealistic to think that the person who heads up the program is going to be anything less than one of, if not the, most important factor in a prospect's decision. If you change the person, philosophy and approach at the top, the entire dynamic of that particular option changes for a recruit.

For athletes who are still in the process of evaluating programs, it's good to continue looking at a school in the midst of a coaching change. But it's smart to put the brakes on unofficial visits or any type of commitment until the new staff is in place. Often current assistant coaches will continue to recruit throughout the hiring process in hopes of landing a spot on the new coach's staff and, on occasion, the administration has allowed them to extend offers. Believe it or not, some players have actually committed to a program not knowing who the new head coach will be. It's hard to imagine taking that kind of risk unless there's fear of no other offers coming your way.

Players who may have made a verbal commitment to the outgoing staff may want to reopen their recruitment as soon as possible. It may sound noble to hold to your word, but in the ultra-competitive environment that surrounds the limited opportunities available, it's important not to have your hands tied by the pace and process of a school's candidate search. While you wait, your best option and fit may disappear with another athlete's commitment. Just be sure to handle it appropriately and notify the athletic administration that you're going to be exploring additional options.

I'm not saying you completely rule out your current choice or that you make a quick jump to grab another offer. However, verbal commitments are not binding and there's no guarantee how the new staff might view you and your future in their own plans. Most athletic directors have been good about upholding any offers that have been accepted by underclassmen, but they are under no obligation to do so. Often, new coaches don't like having the previous staff's recruits forced upon them. Once a hire is made, if your interest still lies with the same school, make contact with the new coach as soon as possible to see where you stand. Be proactive and show you want to be there. Don't wait for them to open communication.

In contrast to a verbal commitment, as a signee, your scholarship is guaranteed, assuming you meet all other NCAA and institutional standards. The decision to reopen your recruiting should be carefully and thoroughly considered. While naïve in its sentiment, the National Letter of Intent has always emphasized that you are signing with the institution, not a particular coach. The reality is that you are bound by your NLI and, without a complete release, must attend at least one academic year at the school with which you signed to avoid a penalty. Releases used to be virtually unheard of, but now are more commonplace, particularly when the coaching change is the decision of the institution rather than that of the coach. A school has the prerogative to deny a release, but there is an appeal process in place for the athlete to potentially pursue it further. A complete release basically frees you up from any obligation and essentially makes you a recruitable student-athlete once again.

In these situations, however, athletic directors are more likely to withhold any release until a new coach is on board and has had a chance to meet with current signees and explore the landscape. The difficult part of that scenario is the timing for a senior who might be looking to head in a different direction. By the time a new coach is in place and the decision to go separate ways comes about, options may be limited. With most recruiting slots filled in the fall signing period and the increasing number of transfers trolling the waters in the spring, there may not be two in the bush for every bird in hand.

Not all coaching changes are the result of someone being shown the door. Often successful coaches leave to take a position at another school, retire, or just look at a career change. Those situations warrant close examination by all recruits as well. but it's very likely that the administration is going to be looking to find a replacement who can keep the program on course.

Occasionally that replacement will be an assistant on the previous staff. That can be a positive in the sense that a recruit will already have some familiarity with that individual and be able to count on a lot of things remaining the same. At the same time you have to take close look at the new head coach's resume and experience. Whether they come from the same staff or another program, just sliding down one seat on the bench doesn't automatically make an assistant coach someone you'll want to play for. The role they've played in the past is completely different than the new one they're taking on, and it's important to reevaluate them as you would have any other head coach in your recruiting process.

From signees to active recruits and even the younger players who may have only received a questionnaire, the perspective on a program has changed. A good option may no longer be an ideal fit, a bad one may now be a much better choice, and one that wasn't even in the picture might move front and center. When you consider the number of programs out there on the recruiting trail, the number of changes each year is not that extensive, but the impact on recruits involved is considerable. How student-athletes evaluate those changes can help make sure they're not making changes of their own down the road.

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Mark Lewis | email

Women's College Basketball Recruiting
Mark Lewis is a columnist and national evaluator for ESPN HoopGurlz. Twice ranked as one of the top 25 assistant coaches in the game by the Womenís Basketball Coaches Association, he has more than 20 years of college coaching experience at Memphis State, Cincinnati, Arizona State, Western Kentucky and, most recently, Washington State.