Tuesday, April 22, 2003

NCAA should change player transfer rules

The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News

Kyle Wilson is transferring from Illinois to a school in Kansas for sound and noble reasons. Wilson is big on family, and he has roots and relatives all around Wichita State. The 6-8 forward also missed two weeks of his freshman season while suffering from panic-anxiety attacks, inspiring him to decide that limited playing time wasn't the only fact of Big Ten life pointing him home sweet home.

NCAA rules forbid Wilson from suiting up for Wichita State during the 2003-04 season. His transferring coach, Bill Self? He'll be free to charm all of Kansas with those anchorman looks, that neighborly demeanor, and a talent for winning games that should make spoiled fans forget his predecessor faster than Roy Williams crushed his athletic director-turned-sacrificial dove, Al Bohl, when, like the song says, Williams was already goin' to Carolina in his mind.

"Why can't players have the same options as coaches?" Wilson asked Monday by phone. "A lot of guys have good reasons for going from one school to another, and they shouldn't be punished and forced to sit out a year. Why can't they play right away if that's what they want?"

Wilson doesn't necessarily want to play next season. He's overcome the panic-anxiety attacks he initially assumed were routine feelings of homesickness and figures a year away from major-college competition will serve his ultimate goal. "I want to be a great player," Wilson said.

And his former Illinois coach doesn't fit the Division I stereotype of the job-offer junkie, even if he has the perfect name for the part. Self, as in college coaches rarely thinking about anything but. Bill Self apparently has a conscience. In his profession, that's headline news.

"I love Coach Self," Wilson said. "When I was away from the team and dealing with a problem he didn't know much about, he couldn't do enough for me."

This story shouldn't have to come packaged with a sermon on higher education's answer to restraint of trade. The NCAA should've changed its player transfer rules when TV began turning coaches into rock stars and the big money encouraged them to jump from one campus to the next, like frogs hopping across lily pads. That's when the system started looking as hypocritical and absurd as it looks today, when a ballplayer who wants out of a one-year renewable scholarship is, in effect, suspended for a season, while a coach who walks out on a new 72-year contract extension can immediately sell the virtues of "loyalty" and "trust" to his new "family."

"We were counseled to pick the school and not the coach," said Wilson's father, Steve. "That's good counseling, but it's not reality. Kids base their decisions on the ambassadors of those schools."

When's the last time a recruit's family opened its front door and found a dean of student affairs? A physics professor? The chair of the English department?

"Either players should have more flexibility in transferring," Steve Wilson said, "or tighter restrictions should be put on coaches trying to get out of contracts."

Or both. In December, Self scored a five-year, $5 million extension. Any university president who grants this guarantee, complete with a buyout clause that any desperate big-conference raider would eat, should have his or her own SAT scores checked.

If buyout clauses are genies that can't get stuffed back inside their bottles, the NCAA should consider this rule to even the score: Coaches who leave for greener campus grass have to sit out a year, too. You think Roy Williams would've reconsidered if he had to run practice while watching the un-retired Bill Guthridge rip off a Final Four season on an interim basis?

Until Williams sprints a mile in his players' shoes, the brand-name sneakers designed to stuff coaches' pockets, his Kansas players have every right to feel as cheated as Wayne Simien felt when he said, "I gave my right arm for that man." The college experience isn't supposed to be about coaches, deans and professors in the middle of 30-year careers, but the kids who have four or five years to be students and who should have the right to enjoy that experience - without penalty - wherever they want.

Defenders of the system warn that liberating athletes would lead to end-of-civilization consequences, with mass defections, illegal peddling, and deserted teams playing national TV games with Revenge of the Nerds-styled walk-ons. Yes, the potential for a little chaos is real. That potential shouldn't supersede any individual's rights.

"I would've loved to have played this year," said Jack Ingram, a 6-10 Illinois junior forced to sit out after transferring from Tulsa. "I think the team needed me."

Ingram was recruited to Tulsa by Self, who immediately left for Illinois. With his second attempt to play for Self crushed over the weekend, Ingram said he wouldn't let the one-way street that is big-time basketball ruin Wednesday, his 21st birthday.

"Both times Coach Self told me he had no intention of leaving," Ingram said, "but then opportunities came up. When I was 18, I was hurt. I didn't know any better. This time, I knew enough not to come to Illinois just for Coach Self. I'm an engineering major and this is a great engineering school."

It's also a Big Ten school now looking to steal someone else's Bill Self, Ben Howland or Roy Williams. Hey, it's a free country. Unless you happen to be a 19-year-old athlete who just watched your millionaire guidance counselor walk out the door.

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