Like coaches, players should be able to move on

John Clay
John Clay

John Calipari received a fair-market value $31 million, eight-year contract and a big, fat kiss from a giddy fan base convinced Kentucky's new basketball coach means happy days are here again.

Kentucky signee G.J. Vilarino received a polite Calipari phone call and some easy-to-read handwriting on a new wall. Vilarino reopened his recruitment.

Dakotah Euton didn't even wait for the ring. The Scott County junior, via Ashland's Rose Hill, announced he, too, has de-committed.

This isn't to bang on Calipari. Not at all. Honesty is always the best policy. Instead, it's to revisit a pet peeve.

Freedom of movement should be a two-way street.

What about the ones who don't have a choice? What about Calipari's former players at Memphis, those not fortunate enough to negotiate a sweetheart deal — a la Xavier Henry and Nolan Dennis — allowing them out of their scholarships if the coach flew the coup?

What about new Virginia coach Tony Bennett's players left behind at Washington State? Or Georgia Coach Mark Fox's players at Nevada? Or Alabama Coach Anthony Grant's players at VCU?

No one begrudges the head man for moving on to a better job. That's life. That's America. That's college sports these days.

But if a coaching change is made, coming or going, then the players should be allowed that same freedom of movement. Without the penalty of sitting out for a season. Without restriction of movement.

Purists say a college athlete should choose a school, not a coach. And in a perfect world, that's correct. But this isn't a perfect world. In the big business of college sports, it's a world where being the athlete is the full-time job.

A student might have a professor for a semester, or a year. He or she has a coach for four, sometimes five. That's if he or she is lucky. If not, then a new coach arrives, maybe with a new system, a new attitude, a new way of looking at things. And what if that new look means the coach doesn't view the specific student-athlete the same way? As it is now, tough, you're out of luck.

One of the best things Calipari said Wednesday was this: "Because I saw what my players go through, no one will be held like, 'You're coming whether you want to or not.' If there are any players who are here who don't want to be here, I'm fine. If there are any players here who came here because of Billy (Gillispie), well then they should be able to be released. And I told Mitch (Barnhart) that."

Cal's got it right, just as Dick Vitale got it wrong when he said that none of Calipari's Memphis signees should be allowed to follow the coach to Kentucky.

That shouldn't be up to Vitale. Or Calipari. Or the NCAA. It should be up to the player and his family, the ones most affected by the decision. The player should be able to pursue an education at any school willing to have him. Any school.

Remember Marvin Stone? Back in late 2001, the Kentucky center asked to be released from his scholarship so that he could transfer to Louisville to play for Rick Pitino. Some UK fans were outraged at the thought of Stone playing for the school's archrival and the Cats' former coach. And at first, UK blocked the move.

Then cooler heads prevailed. UK President Lee T. Todd Jr. ordered the athletic department to grant Stone an unconditional release. The Alabama native played the second semester of the 2002-03 season at Louisville.

The Cards went 25-7 that year. UK finished 32-4.

The tide is turning, if only a little. As a rule, new coaches are allowing freshmen signed by previous coaches out of their commitments, if requested. John Beilein allowed Alex Legion to leave Michigan for UK. Jeff Capel allowed Scottie Reynolds to leave Oklahoma for Villanova, allowed Damion James to depart the Sooners for Texas.

But the player shouldn't have to ask.

If a coach goes, the players should be free to go.

In today's market, it's only fair.