Freshman ineligibility would silence diploma mills

Back in the 1960s, when Terry Holland was a young college coach making his way, he remembers the winks and knowing nods. These were real high schools, with real teachers and real text books, and Holland would ask, "So, how are his grades?"

And sometimes, there would be a knowing nod, pursed lips and someone asking him, "Well, what does he need?"

Always, there will be abuses. Always have been, and always will be. Yet with freshman ineligibility in those days, there wasn't an industry of fixing grades, transcripts and test scores, as brazenly exists now, a shadowy world dragged into the light by the diligence of the New York Times' Pete Thamel.

So, NCAA officials insist the organization is going to go chasing these schools now. Still, they don't get it. They don't want to see the problems, don't want to address them and never do. These phony presidents don't want to do what's necessary to take big-time college sports back from the miscreants and characters, including those who get paid by the university to go find these players. In a lot of cases, the college coaching staffs are the worst offenders, because they know better than anyone how ill-prepared these kids are for university life.

Make no mistake: The system has never been so broken. It's never been so corrupt. And the NCAA has never been less interested in correcting the problem, because if it were, it would listen to Holland, the current athletic director at East Carolina who was an outstanding University of Virginia coach and who has been a longtime street fighter for genuine NCAA reform. He's been talking this forever, but no one listens. He's made his case to the Knight Commission, which acts like unregulated text messaging of high school kids is the 21st century scourge of college sports. He'll keep saying it, because it's never been needed more.

Until those NCAA bureaucrats picked up the Times over the weekend and Thamel told them all about it. Thamel had a long story on the fly-by-night high school eligibility factories run by sleazy coaches, middlemen and self-proclaimed men of God. From Michigan to Washington, Philadelphia to upstate New York, there's a network where kids go for fake grades in fraudulent classes, where F-student juniors have A-plus senior years to get themselves eligible for their freshman year of Division I basketball.

Thamel's report was a public service, waking the NCAA out of its ivory-tower crusades; the organization tries to sell the public on what it says are the real problems of college sports -- recruiters text messaging kids and wahoo mascots.

Once again, the NCAA has been embarrassed into promising that it will try to decertify these schools as feeders to Division I basketball programs. Trouble is, there will be a new crop to take their place. Or a whole new idea to circumvent freshman eligibility standards. The problem never changes, but the solution could.

Make it so no one needs to go to these lengths of abuses -- with fixed grades and pinch-hitters taking SAT and ACT tests -- and declare freshman ineligibility across the board. Make a kid prove he can do college work before he proves he can play on television. This is an easy one. It worked years ago, and it can work again.

"What they tell me is that there's no chance it will pass, so there's no reason to talk about it," Holland said by phone. "Well, if we talk about it now, maybe it will pass in 10 years. They say that we're going to penalize kids who are good students. I experienced it as a player and coach. It's OK. Most of the top coaches who are no longer worried about who's in their next freshman class, Dean Smith and C.M. Newton, have been saying, 'Please, make first-year players ineligible.'

"This is something that's going to happen as long as we let kids play before they've proven themselves at an institution. I don't see any way to stop it. Anytime we change our stance, they find another way to accomplish it. The [NCAA freshman] clearinghouse is well-intentioned, but it doesn't work. It flat-out doesn't work."

Holland has an idea that would take it all one step further. Whenever you start at a new school, you sit out a year. If you transfer, you sit out. And that's from one school to another, or from a junior college to a four-year school. If we have to give kids six years to complete four years of college eligibility, let's do it. If that means ESPN and CBS suffer because Greg Oden can't play as a freshman, everyone has to live with it.

If that means some kids will just run off to Europe, or sneaker companies will start traveling all-star teams for freshman until they can become eligible for the draft, we'll deal with it. This is for the kids who want to go to college, who want to get a degree. That's who college was always supposed to be for, and that's who it can be for again. It's time we stop making excuses for kids who have no interest in going to class or getting an education, and start giving a fighting chance to those who do.

"We can do this," Holland said. "[Let's] put eligibility back in the hands of the people on campus. Not only can we do this, we have to do this."

Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj10@aol.com. His new book, The Miracle Of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley And Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty, is available nationwide.