Men's Basketball

Mark Story: Coaches' broken contracts leave only the players picking up pieces

Coach Mark Turgeon agreed to a contract extension at Texas A&M in April 2010, then left for Maryland only one year later.
Coach Mark Turgeon agreed to a contract extension at Texas A&M in April 2010, then left for Maryland only one year later. MCT

If you happened to tune into ESPN radio Tuesday morning, you heard Dick Vitale and Mike Greenberg in a full-throated uproar about the (lack of) sanctity of coaching contracts.

Dickie V. and Greenie were calling on college presidents to start holding coaches to the time parameters of their deals instead of letting them leave at will.

It was prompted by Mark Turgeon — who agreed to a contract extension as Texas A&M men's basketball coach in April 2010 — being named the new head man at Maryland in May 2011.

Said Vitale: "If I sign you to a five-year deal and tell you how much I love you, and how much I want you, then I'm going to look you in the eye and tell you, 'my friend, don't come to me after two years, when you want out.'"

Greenberg all but called out Texas A&M President R. Bowen Loftin for not forcing Turgeon to stay in College Station until his contract expired.

All of which sounds good.

Yet the reason you will never see the length of college sports coaching deals enforced on coaches is because, by and large, the universities themselves don't want that precedent set.

The reason is simple. When a big-time college sports program has a coaching vacancy, it wants the widest pool of candidates possible from which to choose.

If "a contract were a contract," you could hire only from a list of candidates who did not have existing deals with other teams. That would drastically reduce the talent available in almost all coaching searches.

Texas A&M may not be happy with having a coach under contract to it poached by Maryland. But the Aggies aren't apt to mind at all having other coaches under contract to other schools available to become their next men's head basketball coach.

The fact that college coaches seem able to skip out on contracts at will, of course, is in sharp contrast to the situation of college athletes.

One of the biggest criticisms of NCAA sports is, all too often, the adults in charge set up one set of rules for themselves yet hold the young people who participate in the games to a radically different standard.

This is one of those cases.

High school athletes who sign binding national letters of intent with a school whose coach leaves (or is asked to leave) before those players have arrived on campus for their freshmen years should automatically be granted an unconditional release.

Other critics of the current status quo go even further, saying that any time a coach leaves a school for any reason, all the players left behind in that program should be free to transfer without having to sit out of athletics competition the normal one year at their new destination.

That's an understandable rationale, but I'm not willing to go that far.

Under that scenario, a school whose coach leaves (or is asked to leave) could end up with no scholarship players. How fair is that to the season-ticket-buying public?

Players who have already matriculated at a given school should have some obligation to that university, not just the coach who recruited them. For those athletes, I think the requirement that transfers sit out one year if they leave should still apply.

Rather than trying to hold coaches to the length of their contracts, many schools have taken to inserting buyouts into deals that require the coach to purchase their way out if they leave with time left on their pacts. Since the schools frequently "buy out" coaches if they are fired for lack of success, that seems fair.

Just last week, Kent State University filed a $1.2 million lawsuit in an apparent attempt to collect on a buyout clause against former Golden Flashes men's hoops coach Geno Ford, who left after the 2010-11 season to become head man at Bradley.

Yet for schools who are not near the top of the college sports food chain, I'm not certain enforcing such buyouts always makes long-term sense.

At so-called low-major schools, you should want to hire ambitious, up-and-coming coaches. If they succeed and do well, they are likely going to want to move up the career ladder.

If the schools they are leaving make it too hard (or costly) to depart, the school risks making it more difficult in the future to hire up-and-coming coaching prospects.

All of which is why, when it comes to the culture of college sports coaching, "a contract is a contract" sounds good.

In the real world, things tend to be a little more nuanced and complicated than that.