When the Going Gets Tough, The Coach Gets Going

Brad Stevens had signed an extension with Butler in 2010 that went out the window with his six-year, $22 million Celtics contract.

Brad Stevens had signed an extension with Butler in 2010 that went out the window with his six-year, $22 million Celtics contract.

Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski is right. So are South Carolina’s Frank Martin and Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan. Once upon a time, college sports were a place for loyalty and commitment, working hard and paying your dues, staying put and waiting your turn. No longer. Today, impatience and instant gratification rule. Get mine is the guiding philosophy. Everyone is looking for a better deal, ready to jump ship at a moment’s notice, teammates and program be damned. Yes, campus sports have a serious problem — an “epidemic,” according to Marshall’s Tom Herrion — and the only cure for what Alabama coach Anthony Grant calls an “alarming trend” is to do something drastic, as a sport, to limit the never-ending game of me-first musical chairs.

Oh, wait — all these coaches are gnashing their teeth over player transfers?

Oops. My bad. I thought they were talking about coaching movement. It’s easy to get confused. I heard Martin refer to people preferring the “quick fix” to learning how to “stay the course” and “work and improve” and figured he was talking about UCLA’s Steve Alford, who bolted sun-baked New Mexico for sunny Los Angeles just days after signing a contract extension. I listened to Southern Illinois’ Barry Hinson complain about the “poaching” of standout on-campus talent by bigger, more prestigious institutions and assumed he was referring to Brad Stevens unexpectedly jilting Butler to take a job with the Boston Celtics. While reading reading Slate writer Josh Levin’s blistering takedown of NCAA athlete transfer rules, I saw Ryan proclaim that all of the shuffling “isn’t what college athletics was meant to be. How about the guy leaving his teammates and the coaching staff that developed him?” and was certain he was castigating himself, given that in 1999 he signed a five-year deal at Wisconsin–Milwaukee, then left for Wisconsin after two seasons — a move, Levin notes, that first school’s athletic director said felt “like a divorce” to the players he left behind. Over the last year, I’ve read article after article in which men-molding paragons of old-fashioned values such as Kansas’ Bill Self and Notre Dame’s Mike Brey have lamented the sheer, unprincipled mercenariness of their sport. Hinson went so far as to pin the blame on society as a whole, stating “we are no longer comfortable making our children uncomfortable.” But it turns out that not one of them was grousing about their peers habitually switching schools for better opportunities and more coaching time.

Heck, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say that college coaches aren’t very self-aware.

Thing is, I do know better. I know that coaches get it. I know they realize that the entire “transfer epidemic” narrative is as real as the ongoing War on Christmas — after all, the transfer rate in men’s basketball has jumped an estimated two percent in recent seasons, from 10 percent to 12 percent, and remains far lower than the 30 percent transfer rate among regular students. More than that, I’m totally confident that college coaches aren’t a pack of self-serving hypocrites whose public moralizing on all matters involving athlete welfare that does not help them win games should forever be graded on an inverse scale of volume-to-sincerity – akin to the inverse televangelist scale of on-screen-piety-to-off-screen-calf-worshipping – because I truly believe that Martin et al understand that the bulk of the self-centered gig-hopping they decry involves people in suits and shoe company lapel pins. (About 12 and 15 percent in the last two seasons, if you’re wondering).

Yep, I have faith that college coaches understand the real gun-for-hire problem in their sport. Even if they’re not directly talking about it just yet. Moreover, I have faith that they want to do something about it — just like they reportedly want to draft and enact new rules that would discourage players from switching schools just because, you know, it’s a better deal for them and their families or something, and seriously, aren’t these kids ungrateful, entitled little brats? Deep down in their principled bones, coaches know the truth: today, it’s Stevens and Alford lighting out instead of sticking things out and growing as men; tomorrow, it’s literally any coach in what used to be John Wooden’s America packing up the moving van just because there’s something in it for them. 

The good news? There are ways to stop this. Ways to encourage and reward the right kind of values, the ones that make college sports decent and pure. All that’s needed is to adopt the following guidelines:

1. Coaches who switch schools must sit out an entire year before returning to the sideline. They will be allowed to attend team practice and take notes, but otherwise should focus on adjusting to their new academic evironment.

2. Coaches who seek to switch schools must obtain a written release from the athletes on their current team, who can refuse to grant a release to a particular school for any reason.

2a. Coaches who do not obtain an athlete release can still sign on at a new school, but must forfeit a year’s salary and sit out for the same amount of time.

3. Coaches who seek to switch schools within the same athletic conference may be subject to additional restrictions, because as Michigan basketball coach John Beilein explains, “we don’t want a young man to take our playbook and go to the next school. It just doesn’t make sense.”

4. Coaches who switch schools to pursue a graduate degree in a subject not offered by their current school are eligible to coach immediately, because, you know, education.

If all of the above looks familiar, it should. Substitute athletes for coaches and scholarship for salary, and my suggested rules are essentially copies of the ones that currently govern player transfers — restrictions that exist to discourage the wanton, character-sapping, every-man-for-himself free agency that keeps Herrion and Grant up at night. A few months ago, the National Collegiate Athletic Association considered liberalizing player transfers, the better to allow athletes in good academic standing to switch schools free of playing time penalties and without receiving a coach’s permission. The horror. The horror. Thankfully, the association came to its senses — or, to be precise, Beilein’s kind of sense, the kind that ought to be as good for coaches as it is for athletes, if only Ryan and company would get behind the necessary reforms and start walking their talk. After all, isn’t being comfortable with making our children uncomfortable — including the red-faced older ones strutting right over the sideline while screaming for another timeout — what college athletics was meant to be?

14 thoughts on “When the Going Gets Tough, The Coach Gets Going

  1. It seems to me that kids who signed on with New Mexico actually signed on with the coach, Steve Alford. So when coach Alford left then the kids all probably wanted to go with him. Of course, the rules you mentioned prevented UNM from losing any of their “students”.

    Oh wait, Steve Alford’s kid was able to transfer with his Dad without any penalty.

    The system sucks and the slaves, sorry I meant unpaid students, who make people like Alford rich deserve better.

  2. If you grant only year to year scholarships,then you have no standing to complain about a transferring athlete. If you can cancel a scholarship after 1 year, then you have no standing to complain when an athlete leaves after 1 year. At least Coach K has stayed put; the others quoted are hypocritical mercenaries, hopping school to school when THEY get a better deal. Their lack of self awareness is that of the philandering politicians who judged President Clinton’s philandering. Glass houses are not durable, but they provide a great window in.

  3. @Patrick Hruby: Seriously? You are going to use Brad Stevens as your poster child for coaches that bolt when the going gets tough? The man has turned down several offers to leave Butler for more money, bigger recruiting budgets, and a higher profile. He could never have envisioned the opportunity with the Celtics. Nobody in their right mind can disparage Stevens for taking a chance on a once in very few lifetimes opportunity.

    Your general argument may be 100% accurate, but you lose credibility by making a poster boy of someone who more correctly should be used as an example of what remains right in college sports. Ironically, YOU took the easy way out.

    Now do something not so easy. Write and publish a public apology to Brad Stevens.

    • I totally agree with Brady. What an inappropriate photo to use at the top of this article. Brad Stevens? Really? You’re using him as an example to illustrate your point? Brad was one of the top young coaching talents in college basketball, and was highly sought after by more prestigious schools than Butler, yet he remained loyal and turned them down. But the Boston Celtics come along, and the game changes. You’ll be hard pressed to find any Butler fans in Indiana who begrudge Brad Stevens doing what’s right for his career and his family by accepting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to coach the most storied franchise in the NBA. It’s one thing to sign a long-term contract with a Division I university, then a few days later renege on that contract to go to another Div. I school. If you’d placed Steve Alford’s photo at the top of this article, you’d have had little pushback from your readers and would have made your point perfectly. But to use a photo of a young man of the highest integrity (apparently you know little to nothing about him) who didn’t swap schools, but essentially went from AA ball to the majors, makes no sense.

      Want to know what kind of guy Brad Stevens is? His star player in his two NCAA finals appearances, Matt Howard, is from my hometown of Connersville, Indiana. A year ago, Matt’s father contacted Brad Stevens and asked if he would consider riding in Connersville’s Bicentennial parade, which was just held last Saturday. Brad’s response was that the whole time Matt was at Butler, you never once asked me to do anything for you. Of course I’ll ride in the parade. Fast forward a year, and three days before the parade, Brad accepts the Celtics head coaching job. Flys to Boston for press conference. Flies back to Indiana Friday. Has to go to Orlando Sunday. What’s he do Saturday? He said there was never a doubt what he was going to do Saturday; he’d promised Stan Howard that he would ride in Connersville’s parade, and he did.

      I once worked for a university whose president had a philosophy that guided him and his administration on several occasions when personnel matters arose: “Institutions have more options than individuals.”

      Butler will survive and has already hired Brad’s replacement. Not only that, I doubt you’d hear a single bitter word about Brad Stevens if you went to the Butler campus right now. As disappointed as they all are to lose him, they all knew it was unlikely that someone as talented and desirable as Brad Stevens would stay at a mid-major his whole career. It’s not like he dumped Butler for a similar opportunity that just paid more money. Comparing Butler to the Celtics is like comparing a Boys Club team to Butler.

      I hope someday soon I come across an article about shoddy journalism. I know whose photo I expect to see at the top of the page.

  4. The author must not have any background in sports. This article is ignorant. Does he not realize that coaching is a profession? Coaches are responsible for supporting a family and making the best decision for themselves and those that rely on them. In today’s sports world coaches are getting fired based off of impossible standards. Who is the author to blame coaches for looking out for No. 1 in a profession without any job security.

    • There’s no problem with it…so long as the players, who are in a far more precarious position, have the same ability to transfer if and when a better situation presents itself.

  5. This reminds me of a high school essay turned in right before the deadline. Unrealistic solution to a matter that the author knows nothing about. Shame on you @patrickhruby

  6. “…narrative is as real as the ongoing War on Christmas”

    Why would the author use this particular analogy unless they are an anti-Christian hater? Sad that religious bigots are hired to write at sportsonearth.

    • Please — there IS no ongoing “war on Christmas,” which was made up by Fox Noise to keep folks like you outraged.

      • Rick: So the best you can do is contribute a snide and childish remark.

        My point remains; why did the author use that particular analogy? Why would Mr. Hruby go out of his was to come across as a religious bigot in a SPORTS article?

    • Yes, this country is as anti-Christian as you are excellent at missing the point.
      The point is the hypocracy of the coaches and the NCAA system, and you call someone a religious bigot because of a double digit word aside about the non-existent War on Christmas. If you are not what you accuse the writer of I hope you support the next religious Jew or Muslim politician in your district

      • “If you are not what you accuse the writer of I hope you support the next religious Jew or Muslim politician in your district”

        What are you talking about??? What does voting for a politician of a particular religion have to do with my point? I am not clever enough to understand the connection you are trying to make.

        I question the use of that particular analogy in a SPORTS article. Why would the author reach for those words unless he is afflicted with anti-Christian bigotry? Its a sports article.

  7. Stevens may be the wrong guy to hold up as another example of me-first-ism, but Hruby is right on the larger points and loses no credibility there. Student athletes are treated like property with restricted rights. Coaches with million-dollar salaries aren’t made the least “uncomfortable” – financially or otherwise – when they decide to break their contracts for better offers. To quote Brian Cashman, they should “Shut the f&ck up.”

  8. The problem I have with coaches transferring is they do not honor their contracts. School should hold them to contracts. If they are “fired” with time on their contracts, they should sit out for the rest of the contract and be paid by the school. It would cut the constant changing of coaches and produce a better sense of loyalty.