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Committed to a coach, but signed to school

By Jay Bilas
Special to ESPN.com

When I signed a National Letter of Intent to attend Duke University in April, 1982, I didn't even read it. As an 18-year-old, I looked at the letter then very much the way I look at a rental car contract now.

Sign the contract, get a car.

Sign the Letter of Intent, get my scholarship.

But, while I understood I was signing with Duke, I felt that I was really signing with Mike Krzyzewski. The same rules apply today when any recruit signs a National Letter of Intent.

The bottom line is this: Players bind themselves to the institution, without regard to the coach who recruited them. The NLI actually spells this key point out in bold print, so there is no mistaking the stance of the NCAA or the College Commissioners Association:

    The student-athlete is binding himself to the school, not the coach.

However, the practical reality of the recruiting process is far different. Players don't commit to institutions, they commit to coaches.

The student-athlete views the institution through the eyes of the coach, and the athlete's happiness at the institution is heavily influenced by the coach. When I was being recruited and made my official visits, I knew no single person at any of the universities I considered to whom the coach did not introduce me. It was the coach who picked me up from the airport, showed me around, and sold me on the school. In truth, the coach was selling himself to me.

When I committed to Duke, I didn't tell the chancellor, the president or any of the professors. I told Coach Krzyzewski.

The National Letter of Intent was not presented to me by a school administrator, it was presented to me by Krzyzewski.

So, in that regard, it seems unfair that coaches can leave at any time, without penalty, but players who change their minds about attending an institution have to sit out a year. And today, seven high-profile recruits signed by Roy Williams and Bill Self while the coaches at Kansas and Illinois are facing a situation where they are bound to NLIs even though the coach who recruited them are now coaching elsewhere.

This is not just an issue at Kansas and Illinois. Coaches change jobs every year, as nearly 50 head coaching positions will change hands before the end of summer. Incoming freshmen and junior college transfers face similiar situations at Pittsburgh, UCLA, Georgia, South Florida, and several other institutions. It is even an issue at North Carolina, where Matt Doherty's recruits are now seeing where they fit into Williams' system.

The new coaches may play a different style, one that does not suit the player. The new coach may value the player's skills differently, and may have a different opinion of the player's ability or personality. Self met with the current Kansas players on Sunday, but is his the right fit for the four players arriving on campus? And the recruits now must make adjustments before they ever get the chance to adapt to college.

So, what are the players' options? Any player who signs a NLI must attend the schools with which they signed, or petition the College Commissioners Association for a waiver to transfer to another school without penalty. If a signed recruit breaks his NLI and transfers without a waiver, he must sit out a year because of the NCAA's transfer rule.

When I was a member of the NCAA Long Range Planning Committee, I raised the issue of releasing a player from his NLI and any obligation to the institution if the school's coach left prior to the player's arrival on campus. I felt then, and feel now, that it is unfair to bind a player to the institution when his entire relationship to the school changes radically before he ever sets foot on campus. Once a coach leaves or is fired, the entire relationship between the player and the institution changes dramatically. That player should be allowed to leave without penalty in such a situation. The institution he signed with could certainly try to re-recruit him, but the player should be free to go if he so chooses.

The distinction, however, must be made between a player who has not yet matriculated and a player who has completed at least his freshman year. I believe it is reasonable to draw a line somewhere, and once a player has enrolled and attended school, the player has invested in the institution and the institution has invested in the player. If players were allowed to leave at anytime after a coaching change -- whether they were freshmen or seniors -- there would be too much instability, which could negatively affect competitive balance. Players who have been at an institution for at least a year can still leave, but should be subject to current NCAA transfer rules.

Now, while it may seem a contradiction, it also does not feel right for incoming freshmen to be able to simply follow the coach to whom they signed their NLI with, to another institution without penalty.

For example, it seems inequitable for Williams to be able to take David Padgett, Omar Wilkes or J.R. Giddens to North Carolina with him, should they chose to follow him to Chapel Hill. In this situation, I feel recruits should be subject to the current transfer rule, but should still have five years to complete four years of eligibility after sitting out a season. Otherwise, the opportunity would be in place for coaches to recruit players to one school with another job in mind, knowing they could take the recruits with them to their new job. That seems inappropriate.

Many commentators have taken the rather cavalier approach that recruits should not sign a NLI, rather simply commit to an institution without signing. While that works in theory, and works well for the highest level recruits, most recruits have to sign or take the risk of losing out on a scholarship.

While the NLI is not binding on the institution, a coach can sign only so many players in a given year, so there is some commitment on the part of the school to the recruit. Except for precious few recruits, signing a NLI is a sensible and practical thing to do, especially since so many players are signing during the early fall period (November).

To me, the solution is simple: let recruits out of the National Letter of Intent if the coach who recruited them leaves or is fired before the player matriculates to the institution. The recruit should be free to select another school, as long as he does not simply follow the coach to his next job.

Jay Bilas is a college basketball analyst at ESPN and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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