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Thursday, October 13, 2011
Get Luke Walton an NCAA handbook pronto

By Eamonn Brennan

When Memphis coach Josh Pastner hired former Arizona star and longtime Los Angeles Laker Luke Walton to serve as an assistant coach until the end of the interminable NBA lockout, I thought the move was kind of brilliant. Walton could get a chance to see if he liked coaching. Pastner could add an assistant coach who doesn't just have NBA pedigree; he plays in the NBA right now. Recruits and current players -- all with NBA dreams of their own -- had to love the move, too.

Thing is, Walton is new on the job. He hasn't been a coach before. Worse yet, he hasn't been a college coach before, which means he might not be totally up to speed on every single arcane restriction in the infamous NCAA rulebook. Despite some frustrations with that rulebook, Walton is approaching this as a learning experience -- as he shared with the Los Angeles Times this week:
"That's why I took the job, to see the difference between the two worlds," Walton said. "It's frustrating because in the NBA it's all about basketball. You get to college, and there are so many rules and restrictions."

Indeed there are, Luke. Indeed there are. One such restriction prevents college coaches from talking about recruits other than to confirm the existence of that recruitment. Most fans know this already, but in case you want to see the exact wording of the bylaw, the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Jason Smith dug it up. Rule 13.10.2, subtitled "Comments Before Signing," states:
Before the signing of a prospective student-athlete to a National Letter of Intent or an institution’s written offer of admission and/or financial aid, a member institution may comment publicly only to the extent of confirming its recruitment of the prospective student-athlete. The institution may not comment generally about the prospective student-athlete’s ability or the contribution that the prospective student-athlete might make to the institution’s team; further, the institution is precluded from commenting in any manner as to the likelihood of the prospective student-athlete’s signing with that institution.

It's probably a little ironic, then, that the same L.A. Times piece that features Walton's complaint about the NCAA rulebook also contains a vignette about Walton's recruitment of Alex Poythress, the No. 17-ranked player in the class of 2012 and one considering Memphis, Duke, Kentucky, Florida and Vanderbilt. In fact, it's in the lede:
It didn't take Luke Walton long to start popping up in living rooms.

The Lakers forward has jumped into his temporary job as an assistant coach with the University of Memphis, making his first home visit recently to help the Tigers recruit Alex Poythress [...]

"I told him my story," Walton said, sharing with the recruit how he went from a solid college player at Arizona to an eight-year career with the Lakers.

Memphis officials told Smith that Walton didn't commit a violation with that discussion, and guess what? They're right. At least as far as the quote goes, Walton merely confirmed the recruitment of a player. He didn't talk about Poythress's game or whether he's leaning toward Memphis. He simply shared the story of having shared a story.

Of course, most coaches don't get anywhere close to this line. The rule is a little too gray-area to feel totally comfortable starting that conversation, because what if you unintentionally slip in a comment about a specific player's jump shot, or your deep-seated need for a long-range shooter? It's just not worth the violation. Walton didn't do that here, but Smith describes well the concerns this sort of thing might raise for Memphis fans:
But here's the lesson: Memphis doesn't need Walton, who admitted to Bresnahan he's been frustrated by all the "rules and restrictions" that come with college coaching, committing a violation, whether it's knowingly or, more likely, unknowingly. Walton has two years and $11.5 million remaining on his contract with the Los Angeles Lakers. He will leave Memphis the day the NBA lockout is over. His livelihood doesn't depend on learning every small, nitpicky rule the NCAA has when it comes to recruiting.

That makes it all the more important that Pastner keeps close tabs on each move Walton makes in his limited stint as an assistant at Memphis.

Fair points. But I think that fails to give Walton the deserved credit. After all, he did something most coaches would never dare; he talked about a recruit to the press. And he did it without committing an NCAA violation. And he's only been on the job a few weeks. Don't be frightened, Memphis fans. Clearly Walton has already mastered the many nuances of the NCAA rulebook. After a decade spent front-row for the John Calipari show, Walton is your new artful dodger.

OK, maybe not. Let's get Walton a travel-sized NCAA rulebook immediately, and remember, Memphis fans: If something bad happens to your program, don't blame Walton. It's the NBA owners' fault. ("We're all so miserable at our 'jobs' that we want financial immunity from failure. And we won't play basketball until we get it! And wahhhhhh." Free roundie, you clowns.) It's always the NBA owners' fault.

(Hat tip: Rob Dauster)