Hardship waivers causing headaches for college coaches

NEW YORK -- Will Harris, a forward from the University of Virginia, just found out he won't have to sit out the mandatory transfer year and is eligible to play at the University at Albany immediately.

Harris was granted a hardship waiver after Albany appealed on his behalf, arguing that Harris needed to move closer to his Queens home to help his mother, a single parent, and his three considerably younger siblings.

With the decision, which was supported by the University of Virginia, Harris is now caught smack in the eye of the latest storm brewing in the ever-churning pot of college basketball.

Last season, the NCAA granted immediate eligibility to Tyler Smith after he transferred from Iowa to Tennessee to be near his gravely ill father, who lived in Pulaski, Tenn.

The decision, invoking a hardship waiver that covers everything from injury to illness to financial hardship has been in place since 1991, was lauded by many as a student-friendly act on the part of the NCAA.

Like most paths paved with good intentions, this one has been trampled.

Players are coming out of the woodwork with ailing parents or other family members, begging to head back home … or at least in the extended geographic footprint of home.

It's got coaches piping mad on both sides of the tables, with some calling this just another example of savvy rule manipulation and circumvention, and others arguing it's an effort to do the right thing by a kid and, yes, perhaps by a program.

At Big East Media Day on Wednesday, Jim Boeheim and Bobby Gonzalez were separated by just a few tables but the two coaching peers may as well have walked 20 paces turned, and fired.

"To me the waiver makes absolutely no sense," said Boeheim, a National Association of Basketball Coaches board member who has been working with the NABC to convince the NCAA that the rule needs to be tossed. "It's the most ridiculous thing that's ever happened. If you need to come home to be with someone in your family who is sick, that's when you absolutely should sit out. How are you going to be with someone who is sick when you're playing basketball, going to practice and going to games?"

But Gonzalez, who has two players waiting in the wings, sees things a touch differently. Herb Pope, who came to Seton Hall from New Mexico State, is awaiting an appeal from the NCAA after his initial attempt at immediate eligibility was rejected, and Keon Lawrence, who transferred from Missouri to Seton Hall, is expected to file for a hardship waiver so he can play in the second semester.

Pope, from Pittsburgh, was shot four times while a senior in high school. He chose New Mexico State, Gonzalez said, to be far away from his hometown. But when coach Reggie Theus left for a job with the Sacramento Kings, Pope wanted to come home.

Pope's mother, Gonzalez said, has been in and out of prison; his father is in prison and the grandfather who raised him is ill.

Gonzalez said despite concerns about retaliation from the man he testified against, Pope tried to return to the Pittsburgh area. The University of Pittsburgh didn't offer him a scholarship and Robert Morris didn't have one to give.

Gonzalez said that Pope's appeal is based on additional information about his grandfather's health, as well as documents that explain how Pope, who was cited for DUI last season, struggled with his own health and academic issues because he had to commute back and forth for the DUI hearings and appearances.

"If Herb Pope isn't able to play until next year I'll be thrilled to have him next year," Gonzalez said. "But he's a kid, where going to school without basketball is going to be tough for him. He has a lot of things to deal with, some of which I can't tell you. If I could tell you everything that's happened to that kid, you'd be stunned he's not off selling drugs or shooting people or something. Basketball for him is a motivating force."

Look, the basketball world is different than any other. There are third parties that are currently negotiating ways to get a kid eligible if he just agrees to come back home. The door's been knocked ajar and now it's like a Pandora's box.

--Mike Brey

Told of Gonzalez's argument, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, who also was at media day and joined the NABC board this year, scoffed, "That's weak. We've got two transfers this year (Ben Hansbrough from Mississippi State and Scott Martin from Purdue) and we're feeling pretty good about that. And then it was, 'Well, hey, we got the transfers and they can play.' We're not saying take away the kid's scholarship. That $40,000- or $50,000-free year of education is still sitting there."

The truth is Pope, a one-time Parade All-American, and Lawrence, who led Missouri in scoring last year, would turn bottom-feeding Seton Hall into a bona-fide player in the crowded Big East. The Pirates were picked to finish 13th in the 16-team league.

Critics argue that's all Gonzalez cares about, that the cry to do good by the kids is nothing more than a smoke screen to do good by his program.

To which Gonzalez, who is nothing if not a coaching maverick, replies, "And?"

"People like to say that I'm taking advantage of the rules to get a kid eligible. That's what every coach in America is doing," Gonzalez said. "It's so easy for all these coaches on the NABC board to sit here and say all this stuff about how this is wrong. Let me tell you something: If they had a 6-8 All-American and some rule they could use to get him eligible, it would be like they all of a sudden found religion or found Jesus."

The fact is, since Smith was granted immediate eligibility it seems as though a lot of coaches suddenly have players claiming hardships. In the last two years, the NCAA has received 19 waiver requests in men's basketball. Ten were granted and four are still pending.

Alex Stephenson is awaiting permission to play at USC after leaving North Carolina; Kentucky applied for a hardship waiver for Matt Pilgrim, who transferred to UK from Hampton; and three of Kelvin Sampson's former players -- Jordan Crawford (now at Xavier), Armon Bassett (UAB) and Eli Holman (Detroit) -- are using the hardship waiver to seek immediate eligibility.

With Florida State's blessing, Julian Vaughn will be eligible at Georgetown this season after leaving Tallahassee for undisclosed personal reasons. Vaughn is from a Washington, D.C., suburb.

By opening the door, the NCAA now finds itself in the tricky position of judging suffering -- what constitutes a legitimate reason to be closer to home -- and siphoning the truth in a world in which honesty is a dirty word.

And while the NCAA contends that it gives each case more than a passing glance, looking for hard evidence of what NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson called, "extensive and extraordinary circumstances that are out of the control of the student-athlete," coaches believe that won't stop some clever and convenient fact-twisting.

"Look, the basketball world is different than any other," Brey said. "There are third parties that are currently negotiating ways to get a kid eligible if he just agrees to come back home. The door's been knocked ajar and now it's like a Pandora's box."

Brey and Boeheim said the NCAA has promised the NABC to treat each hardship case with more diligence.

Of course, the last might be something of a hard sell what with the precedent Harris' case is bound to set.

Boeheim hadn't heard of that one and raised his eyebrows when the case was spelled out for him.

"They told us they'd look at things more closely," he said, "but it sure doesn't sound like it."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.