New rule a mixed bag for coaches
Coaches adapt, react to limited access to recruits during month of April
A new NCAA rule prevents college coaches from evaluating prospective recruits in the month of April if the players are not on a high school, prep school or junior college campus. Consequently, hundreds upon hundreds of prospects are playing in tournaments across the country every weekend this month without Division I college coaches in attendance.
Despite a number of coaches' complaining this month about the lack of access to evaluate high school sophomores and juniors who are playing in high-profile events in Pittsburgh, Arkansas, Houston and Las Vegas, there is no substantial movement to change the legislation in the foreseeable future.
"If we back this then what kind of message are we sending?" said Army athletic director Kevin Anderson, who chairs the issues committee. "If we allow this and other things then we should remove 'student' off the 'student-athlete' and just call them athletes who are sometimes students."
Anderson said members of his conference in the Patriot League told him that missing out on the April events hurt their evaluation opportunities, but he wouldn't budge.
"Until we see the data change or the academic climate change," he said, "I can't see any change [in the rule]."
The committee will meet again in June, but the academic mission won't be slighted. Steve Mallonee, the NCAA's managing director for membership services, said it was the coaches who clamored for the rule in the first place.
"[They] came to the committee and said, 'These tournaments are holding us hostage, charging us all sorts of money and we have to do something about it.'"
According to Reggie Minton, who is the deputy executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches and sits on the issues committee, coaches were surveyed to see whether they were in favor of the rule change.
"We sent out two surveys and they were overwhelmingly in favor of the rule as it is now," Minton said. "These assistant coaches who wanted change didn't tell their head coaches."
Arizona State coach Herb Sendek was one of the head coaches on the issues committee, which consists of a few head coaches, a scholarship player (who Minton said was Purdue's Robbie Hummel) and administrators like Anderson. Sendek agreed with Minton's assessment that there wasn't a strong voice to change the rule once it was adopted, despite the complaints voiced by assistant and head coaches this month to one another as well as to members of the media.
"Once the vote was passed down the tracks, that's when a number of coaches did an about-face," Sendek said. "The presidents and governing committee said, 'You guys voted to get rid of it.' That was the kind of juxtaposition we were in."
Sendek said the head coaches all agreed that getting on the road to recruit during the season is nearly impossible. Seeing high school underclassmen in person during the season rarely occurs unless it involves a local player. That's why the underclassmen evaluations in April were valued.
"But the need to see guys play was offset by kids' missing so much school by leaving Thursday and sometimes not returning until Monday," Sendek said. "As a result, the committee felt like we couldn't stand beside something in principle where kids were missing school even though the events were going on anyway without our presence. It's difficult as a representative of higher education to stand by. We desperately need to see them play but there is a principle."
Once the vote was passed down the tracks, that's when a number of coaches did an about-face. The presidents and governing committee said, 'You guys voted to get rid of it.' That was the kind of juxtaposition we were in.
Sendek reiterated that high school players don't stop playing in April. He said they continue to play through May and into June, months when college coaches still can't evaluate them. Coaches are allowed to watch players during the July observation period.
Rob Kennedy runs the Hoop Group Jam Fest in Pittsburgh, which concluded last weekend and has a similar event this weekend in Providence. He said no one stood up at the NCAA convention in January to voice displeasure with the rule, despite his and others' lobbying efforts. Kennedy said his event was up 30 teams from a year ago to 240 and he expects 290 teams in Providence.
"There's clearly a pop in the building when college coaches are there," Kennedy said. "I'm not denying that. It affects the unsigned seniors who are scrambling [to get a scholarship]."
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim thinks the concern regarding the rule change is overblown.
"Ninety percent of the recruiting for this season is already done [by April]," Boeheim said. "Yeah, it helps to see kids all in one place. But we're not really going to lose that much.
"We'll see the same kids in the summer," he said, referring to the July observation period.
Tulsa coach Doug Wojcik said that the AAU coaches get cast under a broad net but not everyone is a bad guy, despite the NCAA's attempt to make the recruiting process go solely through the high schools. The counter argument is that high school coaches can't or may not want to open their gyms on the weekends for their players to be seen and evaluated by college coaches this month.
College coaches spent the first three days this week on the road, bouncing from one high school to another to make up for missing events over the weekend. Saturday and Sunday were live recruiting days, but with few players home, the weekend was considered a waste.
"I was a big proponent of being able to go out [on the weekend to the events] but I know a lot of coaches were against it for their own reasons," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "I don't understand how the smaller schools voted against it, too."
The reason the April evaluation period appealed to smaller schools was because it enabled them to save money and evaluate a large pool of players in one place. That's something Wojcik said he would do when he was at the Naval Academy.
Davidson coach Bob McKillop said he was going to be in three different states Monday to Wednesday to make up for the lost opportunities on the weekend.
"We want the high schools to be the place to see the players and we want the high school coaches to be the guys to control but we don't have the high schools on the same page and until we can wrestle that and solve that problem then someone is going to fill that void," McKillop said.
Mallonee said college coaches have to remember the April events were new to the scene. It was only a few years ago when there were September events that were ultimately phased out and replaced by ones in April. Coaches adjusted then and they can adjust now, Mallonee said.
"Eventually the kids stopped coming [to the fall events]," Mallonee said. "The April period came out of the expanded contact period for juniors, to gain greater access."
According to some coaches, there has already been a positive effect of the rule change. Since they are essentially being indirectly forced to stay home over the weekend rather than going to tournaments, they are spending more time with their current players. Wojcik said he has already been at more individual workouts with his players this month than in previous Aprils.
And the notion that new coaches are hurt by this legislation isn't entirely accurate. It might be the case that they could be a bit behind on evaluating underclassmen, but they are ahead in spending time with the team they will coach next season. That's the case with Memphis' Josh Pastner, who had to quickly assert himself as the head coach after he was bumped up from assistant to replace John Calipari when he left for Kentucky.
"I've had more time to be with the current guys and that's good," Pastner said. "That has been very positive for me."
Anderson is standing firm on his stance. He said he can't forget a story about a player who was ridiculed by his teammates and coach for spending the weekend doing homework while at a tournament. He said the player was told that wasn't why they were on the trip. They were there to play basketball.
Clearly, that is one isolated incident, one story, but it still resonates with Anderson.
"Coaches always come up with ways to be innovative and resourceful and I'm sure they will this time as well," Anderson said. "We'll just have to find different ways with summer programs and more summer access."
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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