Thursday, May 8, 1997
Promises don't count in college

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Rick Pitino may have believed what he said. When he told recruits last month he had "no more interest" in pro basketball, he was probably sincere.

The University of Kentucky basketball coach surely did not deliberately deceive players in order to get their signatures on letters-of-intent. It just worked out that way. The Boston Celtics made him an offer he did not refuse, and there was nothing to stand in Pitino's way except honor. promises they make to prospective players, no more than weathermen are accountable for flawed forecasts. They are free to make commitments they can't keep, and then leave recruits no recourse when a chosen mentor chooses another job. Pitino has left Kentucky of his own accord, but the players he has signed this spring remain bound to the school.

In business, this is known as a bait-and-switch. In college athletics, it is known as business as usual. The one standard the NCAA consistently observes in regard to student-athletes is a double standard. Coaches who have negotiated long-term contracts are more mobile than high school athletes who have signed a letter-of-intent. There is one forgiving set of rules for coaches, and another unyielding set for athletes.

It is an outrage. It is a scandal. It is also standard operating procedure.

When Jimmy Johnson was coaching football at the University of Miami, he signed All-American Darren Krein on the assurance he would not be leaving for the Dallas Cowboys. Then he left.

Krein understandably wanted to play elsewhere, but Miami officials insisted he fulfill his commitment to them or lose up to two years of eligibility. Miami then replaced Johnson with Dennis Erickson, who left Washington State with three years left on his contract.

The schools justify their hypocrisy by insisting the players commit to an institution, not an individual. "This is the University of Kentucky," UK Athletics Director C.M. Newton said Tuesday. "Not the University of Pitino."

This is, at best, disingenuous. Kentucky hired Pitino in part for his name, his NBA background, and the appeal that would have to high-profile high school players. Many of the top prep players view college more as an apprenticeship than an education. They want to learn their trade from someone who will help them reach the next level.

When Myron Anthony of Jacksonville's Fletcher High School signed with Kentucky this spring, it was on the understanding that Pitino would be around to polish him for the pros.

"I told him when he was signing that it was with the school and not the coach," Fletcher coach Dave Rhodin told the Louisville Courier-Journal. "But like most high school kids they go to school because of the coach. All I know is that he is very upset Coach Pitino left."

So, sources said, is David Bradley of Worcester, Mass. Bradley's 6-foot-10 son, Mike, committed to Kentucky after repeated promises from Pitino.

"He looked me right in the eye," David Bradley said last month. "He told us exactly, 'I have no interest in the pros. We did that once, and we're not going to do it again.'

"When a guy is two feet away from you, when he's looking you right in the eye, man to man (saying), 'We will be here at Kentucky next year,' I'm going to take it as being his firm word."

When Pitino's firm word turned flimsy Tuesday, David Bradley read a prepared statement rather than field questions from reporters.

"The Bradley family considers Rick Pitino the best coach in the country, pro or college, and wishes him well with the Celtics," David Bradley said. "Mike remains totally committed to the University of Kentucky basketball program and looks forward to having a successful four years with a new coach."

Bradley said he might say more at a later date. Privately, he is said to be seething.

Intentionally or not, the Bradleys have been misled. Now, they will be misused. Mike Bradley cannot play at another school for two years unless Kentucky releases him from his commitment.

That would be the right thing to do, but the wrong way to bet.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.