High School Football

Mark Story: Breathitt's Fugate an example of why NCAA rules must change

Having graduated from Breathitt County High School at Christmas break, Channing Fugate was in Knoxville this week to begin his first semester of college and to get a jump on his college football career at Tennessee.

Here in Kentucky, his parents, Condy and Wilhelmina Fugate, were spending a quiet Tuesday evening watching TV — and then the phone rang.

A family friend was on the other end.

You've got to turn on ESPN — Kiffin is leaving Tennessee!

"We were stunned," Condy Fugate said, over and over, Wednesday. "We're just like everyone else, it was a real stunner for us."

With their son being one of the Tennessee recruits blindsided by Kiffin's abrupt exit stage Left (Coast) for Southern California, the Fugate family obviously isn't just like everyone else.

Since Kiffin's departure, Channing Fugate "has talked to his mom four or five times," Condy Fugate said. "He's disappointed. But there ain't nothing he can do about it. We told him to go to school and take care of his business."

Breathitt County football coach Mike Holcomb said Wednesday that he, too, has had the same message for Channing Fugate.

"He's sort of shocked and surprised," Holcomb said. "Wouldn't you be?"

Big time.

Because Channing Fugate was one of the Kiffin recruits who were on campus at the start of UT's second semester, Tennessee athletics officials say he would have to sit out a year as a transfer if he tried to go back on his pledge to the Orange.

At least the high school players committed to Tennessee but who have not yet enrolled or signed national letters of intent are free to change their minds without penalty.

Even with the departure of the head coach who recruited him, Condy Fugate says his son has no desire to go anywhere else.

After a bang-up junior year at Breathitt County in 2008 that saw Channing run for 3,052 yards and 36 touchdowns, Fugate attended a Tennessee summer camp.

Kiffin and Co. were impressed enough to invite him back for a second look at a another camp. After that one, they offered him a Tennessee scholarship.

By that time, Fugate also held offers from Louisville, Stanford, Purdue and Illinois, though to the chagrin of many in Eastern Kentucky, not from the University of Kentucky.

Once Tennessee offered, Fugate basically accepted on the spot.

"That's a big-time football program," Condy Fugate said. "You get that chance, there's no reason not to take it."

A powerful 6-foot-2, 235-pound running back, Channing Fugate was recruited by Kiffin as a fullback.

At the time he committed to UT last June, Channing told the Herald-Leader that Kiffin envisioned him as a "hybrid-fullback." That meant, Fugate said Kiffin told him, that he wouldn't just be a blocking back but would catch "35-40 balls a year" and get to run the ball some as well.

Here is why those who say the universities should be more protected than the players in these coaching transitions are wrong:

What happens to Channing Fugate and his one chance, four years, to play college football if Tennessee now hires a coach who runs the spread option and doesn't even have the fullback position in his system?

That scenario is why the NCAA needs a rule change to allow first-year players a window to opt out of their letters of intent without penalty if the head coach with whom they signed leaves before their freshman year begins.

Without that, the Fugates are left blindly wishing for the best with one of the crucial decisions of their child's athletic career.

"It's Tennessee, you know they'll get a good coach," Condy Fugate says hopefully.

The elder Fugate said he met Lane Kiffin only once, at the summer camp where his son committed to UT.

"I talked to him about two or three minutes," Condy said. "He knows football. He seemed up-front. He was real enthusiastic."

Now that Mr. Fast Lane has bailed on his son and other UT recruits, Condy Fugate says the lesson his family has drawn is that you just have to roll with the punches.

"Life doesn't always go as planned, does it?" he said.

If nothing else, the chaotic cesspool that is big-time college sports will certainly teach you that.