NCAA BK

Inside the NCAA transfer problems

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Dan Wolken

Before joining The Daily, Dan Wolken’s investigative work into the recruiting practices of Air Force football led to a Congressional audit. Wolken later became a leading national voice on college basketball, documenting the University of Memphis' rise to prominence and breaking important stories on the ensuing NCAA investigation.

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As big-time college sports have evolved, the traditional model of a coach recruiting a player with the expectation of seeing him to graduation has become almost obsolete. And the influence of early entries to the NBA and NFL is only a minor part of the issue.

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Transfers have increasingly become a fundamental part of the NCAA experience, so much so that coaches rarely escape a year without losing at least one underclassman looking for a fresh start. It’s such a prevalent part of building rosters now that some programs market themselves as a place for transfers to land, and those coaches focus their recruiting efforts on landing players the second time around.

Few in college athletics, however, believe this is a positive trend. Most transfers happen because a player is dissatisfied, an acknowledgement of failure on the part of the coach or player. And though football sees its share of players changing programs every year, the problem is becoming especially visible in college basketball, where more than 400 players — an average of more than one per Division I program — have already switched schools this offseason.

Ask any coach about the root of the problem, and they will quickly name any number of culprits, from AAU enablers to the general shift toward impatience brought on by the NBA’s one-and-done rule that leaves too many undeveloped players looking for a new start if they don’t make an impact right away.

Rarely, though, are coaches willing to point the finger at those who have been equally complicit.

Themselves.

College athletes transfer for all kinds of reasons. Some get homesick. Some go to a school and feel like they don’t fit in, either athletically or culturally. Others have spent their entire adolescence transferring high schools and switching AAU teams when they encounter the first sign of adversity and want to do the same when they get to college.

But in nearly all of these situations, the problem starts with a disconnect between what the athlete expects before arriving on campus and the reality encountered once there. And more often than not, the source of that disconnect is in the recruiting process, when coaches will literally say anything — no matter how grandiose or untrue — to get a player’s commitment.

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Have a look at the hirings, firings and job swaps in the college basketball coaching world.

“You have to treat everyone you’re recruiting like they’re going to be the next big thing on your campus,” said one high-level assistant coach, who spoke candidly in exchange for anonymity. “If you don’t, you’ve got no chance to get the kid. It’s hard sometimes to be real in recruiting.”

More often than not, coaches know whether the players they’re recruiting have a chance to make an impact right away. They know their strengths and weaknesses, they know how recruits stack up against their current players and they have a good feel for whether they’re recruiting someone to eventually be a starter or just to fill a role.

But none of that matters in the actual recruiting process because the stakes are so high and the business is so competitive. A coach can either be honest about where a player fits or sell an unrealistic vision and worry about keeping the kid happy later. Most simply gravitate toward the latter because they feel they have no other choice.

It’s Recruiting 101. If a prospect who can’t pass or handle the ball talks about wanting to play point guard, you nod your head and smile. If a big man with no business leaving the paint says he wants to play on the perimeter, you talk about how much freedom the bigs have in your offense. If there’s already someone else on campus at the recruit’s same position, you emphasize how your system allows for two point guards or two shooters or two of whatever the position happens to be.

Even if none of it is true.

“You can’t tell a kid, ‘We’re looking at you to be a role guy for us,’ ” said the assistant. “Look, you can only play five on the floor at one time. So you have to present things in a certain way maybe knowing in your heart and your head that isn’t an accurate portrayal of where the kid fits in your program.”

And we wonder why players are so quick to look for an escape hatch when things don’t go their way?

If you took a job tomorrow, showed up for work on Monday and didn’t get the office you were promised, had to work 60 hours instead of 40 and got paid half of what your bosses offered, how long would it take you to start looking for the next opportunity?

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Maybe that’s not a perfect analogy, but that’s the mindset — and not just for top prospects. Mediocre players also tend to fall into that trap because by the end of the recruiting process, there are enough desperate coaches with scholarships to fill to over-inflate their value. And like any other person in any other walk of life, if you say nice things to a recruit, they’re likely to believe it.

It’s especially bad this time of year, when the meat market for players hits a fever pitch as programs try to fill spots that opened up for a variety of reasons ranging from players transferring out to academic casualties to players leaving unexpectedly for the NBA.

It creates, in essence, a trickle-up effect. The Kentucky and Kansas-level programs need bodies, so they offer scholarships to players who otherwise wouldn’t be good enough to play there. That leaves dozens of high-major programs salivating over players who would normally end up at mid-majors and who have little chance to make a meaningful contribution in the Big East or Atlantic Coast Conference.

And yet, how can a mid-major coach who desperately needs that recruit tell him he’s not good enough play in those conferences? Any coach who does that is essentially undercutting his own recruiting pitch and degrading his program. Nobody successfully recruits a player by doing that.

“If you’re 6-10 and you want to play at the highest level now, just wait until the spring. You’ll end up playing one or two levels higher than you need to be,” said one mid-major assistant. “If there’s a famous coach you see on TV every week coming to your door and saying, ‘Hey, we believe in you,’ that’s where you’re going to go whether he’s being honest or not. If you get that reinforcement, especially from a big-time name, it’s almost a no-brainer for a kid. Then they transfer two years later and it goes right back to the beginning.”

This isn’t an easy problem to solve, by the way. Coaches’ multi-million dollar jobs depend on recruiting, an art that is predicated on the deception of teenagers. It’s not particularly pragmatic to expect them to be honest. But the next time one of them denies a transfer waiver or decries the culture of AAU, it’s worth asking when they last looked in the mirror.

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