The FBI investigation and arrests in college basketball have raised issues publicly that coaches have been coping with for years. Some complain, some cheat and some just bang their heads against the wall and try to keep going.
As a reaction to the recent scandal enveloping the sport -- a fraud scandal that led to the arrests of 10 people, including four assistant coaches and one high-level shoe company executive -- the NCAA has established a Commission on College Basketball that includes prominent people like former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, and former NBA stars David Robinson and Grant Hill.
Few, though, have been in college basketball's trenches, working and living in the sport. As someone who spent 23 years as a college basketball coach and the past 15 years working closely with the sport while at ESPN and as a coach in summer grassroots events, I have my own ideas.
I recognize that we are living in challenging times. Changing college basketball is way more difficult than solving a Rubik's Cube, but there are ways to improve it for both the players and the coaches. All it requires is a little common sense and flexibility.
Recruiting issues and ethics, the plethora of transfers, lack of development of young coaches, limited access to players and the NBA's "one-and-done" rule are, in many ways, interrelated. I believe that many of these problems can be dealt with at the same time.
There are problems across college sports, but the goal here and now is not to try to fix them all, but instead just to fix college basketball, which needs the help.
Stephen Covey, the famous businessman, educator and author, used to say, "Begin with the end in mind." In other words, what would we like for college basketball to look like in the end? And where do we start? So, here is my contribution to what college basketball could begin to look like in the new, post-FBI normal.
The NBA and its players' association have the responsibility for changing the "one-and-done" rule as part of the league's collective bargaining agreement (CBA). But, most college coaches I talk to feel that high school players who want to go directly to the NBA should be allowed to do so.
While this rule change would not eliminate the often-slimy trail of agents, financial advisers and runners surrounding these high-level high school stars, it would help eliminate those players who have little desire to be in college.
Here's an idea: When the NBA eliminates the one-and-done rule, NBA scouts, by necessity, will be back in high school gyms and at high school events, so they will have an excellent feel for the level of talent of high school players who want to go directly to the NBA. So, much like the NBA panel that advises NCAA underclassmen every spring on what their potential draft status is, there should be the same treatment for high school stars.
The elite high school stars would be evaluated and get one of four ratings:
Likely drafted 1-20
Likely drafted 21-40
Likely drafted 41-60
Then it would be up to the player and his family to make a decision based on unbiased expert opinions.
The vast majority of players who would jump to the NBA out of high school would not be ready to have any impact on their NBA team. So the G League, which now serves as the equivalent of AAA baseball in the NBA, is a perfect place to improve if they have no interest in being college students.
Allowing high school players to go directly to the pros will have a negligible negative effect on college basketball. It would be a small handful of players every year. And, while we would still have one-and-done players, they would likely be more committed to fitting into the college environment than those who believe they don't need college at all.
The recruiting calendar
Currently, schools have 130 recruiting days a year divided among the head coach and three assistant coaches -- but only during specific times of the year. Evaluation periods exist in April and July, and recruiting periods stretch from September through April. I would increase the number of recruiting days to 150, which means that each coach would spend a little over a month a year on the road recruiting. That is palatable.
Coaches must be out every single day during the evaluation periods. The window to see players is very small, and they must ensure that they see every prospect they're recruiting. They have no choice but to blanket as many recruiting events as possible using all four coaches. Plus, they can attend only "certified events" in July.
One of the ancillary problems with the current calendar is that when a coach's own players come back to campus -- for a summer semester or the beginning of the fall semester -- the coaching staff is away, on the road.
An incoming freshman who is trying to get acclimated to his new college environment may have his future teammates there to greet him, but the coaches who have recruited him for a year -- or two or three -- are nowhere on campus. If a head coach is a "recruiting animal," he can live on the road, but he does it at the peril of not being around his own players on campus.
A new calendar would not only give the coaching staff an additional 20 days but allow them to be used throughout the entire year. Let the coaches use them any way they want. Don't restrict what types of events they are allowed to attend. Allow recruiting at high schools and junior colleges throughout the year, including the summer. The idea of bringing a high school or junior college coach back into the recruiting picture is a good one.
Spreading the calendar out would allow each staff at different levels of Division I to create its own "recruiting philosophy," which often correlates directly to the size of a school's recruiting budget and its proximity to prospective recruits.
Some power conference schools recruit from coast to coast, often in private charter planes. They can get to a grassroots tournament in Las Vegas and be home for a summer workout that night. They have the budgets to do it.
When I coached at mid-major Manhattan College, I recruited in our backyard -- New York City and New Jersey. Since I preferred to see a recruit play with his high school team, I recruited mostly within an hour's drive of the campus. I could be at practice, take in a high school game locally during the season, and be home by 10:30 p.m. I was in the office the next morning, could be around my players, and it only cost my recruiting budget a few dollars in tolls.
No matter how the recruiting calendar changes, the elite players will end up at the best schools and the talent will filter down. As Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is fond of saying, "At the end of the day, we are going to get who we are supposed to get."
Access to players
Coaches can spend two years or more building relationships with a prospective player and his family. Then, when a player finally arrives on campus, coaches are on the road recruiting.
The kicker is that when coaches do come back to campus after the prescribed recruiting period, the current NCAA rules limit the amount of time they can spend with their players on the basketball court. For example, in the summer, players can have eight hours of athletically related activities per week but only two hours of basketball skill-related instruction with the coaching staff. Why the distinction between "athletically related activity" and "basketball skill-related instruction"?
Instead, allow the basketball staff to utilize the eight hours any way it wishes. If a coach wants to be a taskmaster in the summer, utilizing all eight hours for grueling team practices in the eight weeks allotted, in the age of social media, the word will get out. More likely, a coach will utilize much of the time to foster skill development and strength training to build a player's individual talents. It's a smarter use of the time in the summer.
Because the four members of the coaching staff are on the road, the NCAA should help develop young aspiring coaches by allowing the director of basketball operations, the video coordinator and graduate assistants to help coach in the summer. In most cases, they are in these positions as they wait to move up the staff's coaching ladder. These aspiring coaches not only would get teaching experience, they would get to develop closer relations with the players.
Or, if a veteran coach is in that DOBO or video coordinator position, his expertise can be utilized during the summer, as well. This offers a head coach the safety blanket of utilizing the staff's coaching experience during the hectic July recruiting period.
Either way, if retention of players by slowing the rate of transfers is the goal of the NCAA and its member institutions, access to the players as much as possible, both on the court and away from the court, seems to be a no-brainer.
Enhancing the student-athlete's experience
Common sense has not always been in the NCAA's lexicon. But, in recent years, it has tried to loosen the purse strings, especially in the revenue-producing sports like football and basketball. From student assistance funds for student-athletes with special financial needs to enhancing the full athletic scholarship by allowing schools to pay for "the cost of attendance" that includes transportation and personal expenses, the NCAA is making life easier for student-athletes.
Now, I am not a "pay the players" guy. But, I am in favor of continuing to make their lives easier while on campus.
One highly successful head coach told me recently that his school spends about $150,000 a year on each basketball player. This includes the usual room, board, tuition and books. It also factors in medical care, academic counseling, round-the-clock food and snack bars, life-skill training, professional coaching, strength and fitness training, travel, equipment and use of the facilities.
In addition, each player receives financial remunerations for the "cost of attendance" and, if he qualifies, the government-funded Pell Grant. At some schools, this can be up to $12,000 a school year. And, from my point of view, can schools do more and add more to the pot, if they have the resources? Sure.
So, the question becomes how can the "good guys" do legally for student-athletes what the "bad guys" have been doing for many years illegally? Will the "booster handshakes" be curtailed? Likely not, but the "good guys" will at least sleep better knowing that they can help their student-athletes without the stigma of rule-breaking.
Here are some logical ideas:
Pay for a student-athlete to fly to school and home twice every academic year. Currently, players have to pay their own way.
Pay for two family members to watch the student-athlete play once or twice a season. If a player lives within a 600-mile radius of the university, his family gets one trip. If he lives outside that radius, the family gets two trips
Pay for the families of players to go to the NCAA tournament each year.
Now, my friends at the low and mid-major schools will complain about the unfair advantage larger schools with bigger budgets will have in recruiting. Truthfully, they already have that advantage. More often than not, Toledo is not beating Michigan or Ohio State.
Another way to enhance the player experience is to allow players to go home for Christmas. Every school needs to have a five-day break from practices and games around the Christmas holiday. This would require help from conferences. If a team's final game before Christmas takes place on Dec. 21, it cannot resume practice until Dec. 26.
If this means starting the season a week earlier in November, it would be well worth it because, as it is, college basketball is cramming games into the schedule. If you think the season is too long, keep in mind that college hockey's season is a month longer than basketball's, starting in early October and ending a week after the Final Four.
National letter of intent
The national letter of intent is the binding agreement between a prospective player and the school he chooses. They are committed to each other. And, the NLI makes clear that the prospect is signing with the school and not the coach.
Common sense dictates that, while the letter looks to create certainty on behalf of both parties, it is one-sided in favor of the school. The prospect gives up his right to change his mind, yet the NLI does not guarantee admission. That means the school has an out.
So, what's a logical solution? My experience was that a prospect picked his school most often because of his relationship with the head coach or with other members of the coaching staff. Yet, it is plausible that even in the event of a coaching change that player would still choose to attend that school. At Indiana, Archie Miller came in and kept the entire recruiting class left behind by fired coach Tom Crean.
Still, it makes little sense to start any new relationship if both sides aren't committed to each other. However, the new coach feels the pressure to salvage the school's recruiting class and establish relationships on the fly.
So, here's my proposal: In the event of a coaching change, the incoming recruit is allowed to take a second official visit to the school that he signed with to spend time with the new coach, his staff and the players who are returning. Logically, he would know many of the players from his previous relationship with the school. The new coach could re-recruit him, not over the phone or in a quick meeting at the recruit's high school, but in the already familiar environment of the college campus.
The prospective recruit would then have a one-week window to decide whether to open up his recruiting or maintain his original commitment. This gives the new coach an opportunity to build a relationship. If not, the prospect is free to be re-recruited. And, in this "new normal," the new coach can decide whether or not to commit the scholarship to the prospect.
Saving a sport
The recent college basketball recruiting scandal will turn out to be a blessing. With the federal government's threat of serious punishment, coaches are more likely to operate within NCAA rules. At the very least, they will think twice, knowing that indictments, potential jail time and huge legal fees are on the table.
These common-sense ideas, many culled from conversations with coaches around the country, are a good first step. Hopefully, they will improve the state of college basketball not just for the players, but also for coaches who want to abide by NCAA rules.
Those of us who love college basketball know what it should look like at its best.