Sports

An NCAA view of coach ploys

College coaches stride across the athletic landscape like giants. But their actions evoke a quotation from Henry David Thoreau: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."

Text-messaging teen-agers so often the NCAA bans the form of communication in recruiting.

Seeking and receiving commitments from ever-younger pseudo prospects, which leads the National Association of Basketball Coaches to ask its members to at least wait until the child enters the 10th grade.

And, most recently, finding a way to move Midnight Madness celebrations to this weekend, a week before the official start of pre-season practice. This prompts the NCAA to set in motion a process to prohibit schools from staging a Madness before practice begins in the future.

Coaches, including Billy Gillispie of Kentucky, say in defense of their clever tactics that administrators don't understand the cutthroat nature of big-time athletics.

David Berst, the NCAA Vice President for Division I, isn't buying it.

"It's not an unusual argument," he said of the you-don't-understand defense. "It's an expression of insecurity. ...

"The reality is you almost have to expect everyone to look for any possible advantage over anybody else. And that's why we have a thick rule book."

Berst expects fast action in banning Madness celebrations before the start of practice. The NCAA Board of Directors will take up the issue at its Oct. 29 meeting. Berst expects a ban in place, effective in 2009, by the next day. That's amazing speed for the NCAA, which usually grinds its way to justice at a painfully slow pace.

When asked why the Madness ban will proceed swiftly, Berst said, "Because it's one that can be treated before it gets too far out of control." Otherwise, the NCAA expects many more schools to follow UK, Illinois, West Virginia and Marshall through the Madness loophole.

A ban on early commitments eludes quick resolution. For a logical reason, Berst said. How could such a ban be enforced?

Meanwhile, the coaches' association has asked its members to stop offering scholarships to prospects who haven't entered the 10th grade.

"It'd be nice if coaches voluntarily would be helpful in that regard," Berst said before adding, "I just don't know if that is going to be enough."

If Berst is correct that insecurity dwells at the heart of text messaging, early commitments and Madness head starts, then Kentucky basketball must be college basketball's winningest program and a Nervous Nellie. UK has indulged itself in text messaging, a commitment from eighth-grader Michael Avery and the early Madness.

Of Kentucky basketball's fingerprints all over this year's reforms, Berst said, "They're looking for innovation. I doubt they are alone in that respect."

What's the big deal?

Since moving Madness up a week became an issue, several UK fans have e-mailed a core question: What's the big deal?

Berst explained it this way: It's a public relations problem to stage an early Madness when the NCAA is hoping to make academic achievement a priority.

An early Madness mocks the idea of coaches saying they want to spend more time with athletes in the off-season in order to benefit their players. That's why the NCAA allowed coaches two hours per week for team practices from Sept. 15 to Oct. 17 this year. And now the coaches' association seeks permission to spend time on the court with players in the summer.

When a few schools decided to use their two hours for Madness this weekend, it throws into question the motives of coaches.

"The cynical think they are just looking for new ways to promote their programs and control the time of student-athletes (to) spend all their time in practice," Berst said. "And that they don't have an interest in a student-athlete and their academic pursuits.

"While a couple coaches have thought about turning this into a big event, there are a bunch of other coaches working on additional ways to ensure the coach and student-athlete have a mentor and student-athlete relationship."

Berst said he does not consider himself a cynic. He said he believes that coaches can make a critical difference in the lives of young people. So he supports coaches and athletes spending more time together.

"At the same time, in about four weeks, I'll make a presentation to the faculty athletic representative association," Berst said. "And I would expect they will be among the cynical."

Pitino on recruiting

Next week we'll review the new book by Rick Pitino titled Rebound Rules: The Art of Success.

The book's theme is Pitino's advice on overcoming adversity.

But one snippet in a chapter called "The Formula for Chemistry" leaped off the page. It concerned Pitino's opinion of recruiting ever-younger prospects.

"As an aside: I also find the growing trend of securing verbal scholarship commitments from eighth-graders and ninth-graders to be a cynical practice," Pitino says in the book. "There is very little sincerity in it. Coaches and prospects are free to do as they wish, but I can assure you it's nothing more than a publicity stunt.

"A talented eighth-grader who is being wooed in this fashion stands a chance of losing perspective, losing his work ethic and developing one of those attitudes that kills team chemistry.

"The cynical part is the lack of any real commitment on either side. What validity does it have? It's like meeting someone at age 14 and saying, 'I'd like for us to get engaged and married at 21.' It may happen, but I don't like the odds."

Divine perspective

The father of high school prospect Jeremiah Davis credits God for his son's standing among the coveted players in the class of 2011. It's the family's way to put perspective in the recruiting process.

"It gets so hectic the way the process works," the father, also named Jeremiah Davis, said.

UK's Big Blue Madness complicated the process. Davis (the player) wanted to attend Friday's show. But his coach at Muncie (Ind.) Central High, Matt Fine, wanted Davis to be part of a group demonstrating plays at a clinic on Saturday.

Coincidentally, Minnesota Coach Tubby Smith (of course, the former UK coach) was the featured speaker at the clinic.

Because the family had decided to give the high school coach top priority during the school year, Davis had to turn down UK's invitation.

"He's kind of upset about it," said the father, who later added of players, "They try to do everything when, as a parent, we know we can only do so much. ...

"I try to put as many guidelines and boundaries as I can so I can protect him and the family. So it won't get out of control."

The elder Davis also puts boundaries on himself. He doesn't want to get carried away by his son's success, so he makes a point of crediting God.

"That's the thing that helps our family keep this in perspective," he said. "I think God has helped Jeremiah. I haven't done anything different (than other fathers who want athletic glory for their children). What keeps me grounded is God. I can't puff my chest out. I try to keep him grounded. The blessing comes from God."

Obama mama

Tywanna Patterson, the mother of Kentucky basketball star Patrick Patterson, attended a Barack Obama rally Thursday in Cincinnati.

To say she came away impressed is an understatement.

"He looks at you and you feel like, wow," she said in a telephone conversation. "You feel like a kid. You feel part of greatness."

Obama spoke to a reported crowd of 15,000 in Cincinnati's Ault Park. Mrs. Patterson, who went to the rally with co-workers, had a close-up view of the Democratic candidate for president.

"Within a couple feet," she said. "It was awesome."

Mrs. Patterson bought a T-shirt and button before leaving Cincinnati for Lexington Thursday night.

After that experience, could UK's Big Blue Madness seem humdrum? As Sarah Palin would say, You betcha.

Q & A

Syndicated columnist Norman Chad answers reader questions each week. Here's a recent question and answer.

Q: Every time I watch ESPNews, all the anchors seem to have a pen in hand but they never write anything. What's up with that? — Nick Wineriter, Gaithersburg, Md.

A: The pen is a prop, intended to ascribe a degree of intellectual gravitas to the anchor, much as President Bush often wears a suit.

Correction/update

Correction: In last week's note about Sarah Palin's high school basketball exploits, we got a date wrong on UK basketball's political history.

Then Coach Rick Pitino spoke at a Bill Clinton rally at UK the day before the election in 1996, not 1992.

The correction came from Al Cross, the longtime political reporter for The Courier-Journal and now a professor of journalism at UK.

"It was one of the few times a single event arguably can be credited with carrying a state," Cross wrote in an e-mail. "The 6th District was the main swing district in a major swing state, and Clinton won by 0.9 percent of the vote."

Update: In a story about UK fans camping out for Madness tickets, we quoted people lamenting that Coach Billy Gillispie had not made an appearance. Later in the week, Gillispie spoke to the campers.

Blue Ribbon preview

Simply put, the Blue Ribbon yearbook is the most detailed preview of the college basketball season.

So we consider Blue Ribbon's predictions a thoughtful attempt to perceive the future.

Blue Ribbon does not envision a banner year for the SEC. Editor Chris Dortch noted that only one SEC team made the publication's top 25: Tennessee at No. 9.

Blue Ribbon can be ordered at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or by calling 866-805-2255.

By the way, this year Blue Ribbon has become partners with EA Sports, which makes NCAA Basketball 09, a popular video game. Blue Ribbon is providing team analysis to give players the same scouting tool that hundreds of D-I coaches use.

Happy birthday

To Dave Odom. The former South Carolina coach turned 66 on Thursday.

Odom enjoyed retirement this summer and fall. He and his wife Lynn lived in their beach home on the North Carolina coast. He woke up each morning at 7, jogged three or four miles, lifted weights, did his correspondence and played tennis once or twice a day.

"An absolute fantastic summer," said Odom, who coached South Carolina's teams for seven seasons before retiring last spring.

Retirement came easy this summer. He noted all the usual off-season concerns (players' academic performance, recruiting, summer camps, travel and "making sure the players do the right thing and stay out of the newspaper") did not exist.

But now with practice about to begin for another basketball season, Odom is getting the itch to coach. He's worked with players on a Charlotte, N.C., high school team coached by his son Lane.

He also plans to observe practices at Coastal Carolina and Southern Cal.

One place he hasn't visited is South Carolina. That's intentional. He wants to stay out of the way and let new coach Darrin Horn, the product of Tates Creek High and Western Kentucky, command center stage. Odom and Horn have only spoken once.

"I really try to disappear," Odom said. "While I still have an attachment to the players, I don't try to call them."

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