- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Yours truly has spent a decent portion of this offseason having a good whinge about college basketball's inherent inequalities. Those complaints have been spurred on by the transfer stories of Justin Knox and Murphy Holloway, players who had their No. 1 transfer destinations blocked by their current institutions for slightly arbitrary reasons.
There's also the practice of oversigning and running off, wherein coaches effectively revoke benchwarmers' scholarships in order to make way for more skilled incoming recruits.
To be fair, there have also been super happy fun time stories to be found in the past few months too, whether it's Rhode Island freeing Kyle Cain from his commitment or the NCAA allowing former Binghamton transfer Kraidon Woods to forgo his transfer eligibility year this season.
But the overriding principle still stands: Once players sign a national letter of intent to play basketball at a collegiate institution, they forgo any semblance of efficacy they had in the route their careers will take throughout college. If they want to leave, the school can say no. If the school says yes, it can put conditions on the agreement. If players want to stay, their coach can run them off.
Those coaches, meanwhile, are free to take as many jobs -- and make as much money, which, let's not even go down that road -- as they like. Nothing about this system seems particularly fair.
Which brings us to our latest, and perhaps most egregious, example: The story of DePaul recruit Walter Pitchford, which ESPNChicago's Scott Powers reported last night. Pitchford is a 6-foot-10 recruit who signed with former DePaul coach Jerry Wainwright, who has since resigned. He was eventually replaced by former Clemson coach Oliver Purnell. Pitchford decided that he didn't want to stick with his NLI and play for the new coach, which is something a decent portion of players caught in coaching transitions tend to decide.
DePaul's response? Not so fast, son. You're going to stay:
"Despite recent media reports of Walter Pitchford being released from the National Letter of Intent he signed in November 2009, DePaul University is committed to Walter and is looking forward to him joining the program for the 2010-11 season," the statement said. "Walter showed nothing but enthusiasm to attend DePaul University throughout the recruiting process and since he signed the NLI to join the men's basketball program. At this time, the athletics department does not intend to grant the release, and has notified the NLI Steering Committee as its provisions require."
Um ... OK? The reasons for keeping Pritchford in a commitment he doesn't want to be a part of are that he showed enthusiasm during the recruiting process -- when he was being recruited by a coach who no longer works at the school -- and because ... actually, I think that's it. That's the only reason DePaul's giving here. That is, other than "because we need the players," and "because we can," which are the real reasons for the decision.
Naturally, the Pritchford family is less than pleased:
"I called the athletic director [Jean Lenti Ponsetto] and told her we wanted our release," Walter Pitchford, Sr. said on Wednesday. "She said, 'We want to release him, but we want to recruit someone to take his place at the same time.' I said, 'Fine.' She also indicated to me that she had talked to the president, Father Dennis [Holtschneider], and he was in agreement in relation with Walter. I felt comfortable that at least we'll get Walter his release even if it takes 30 days. Then today, I hear he's been denied.
"When the president of the school and athletic director say he should get his release and something else happens, that concerns me a great deal. That's where I want to start -- right there with Father Dennis. Because she clearly relayed to me that she had talked to Father Dennis about Walter's situation, and that both of them agreed he should get his release. Now, we're looking at something different."
Ponsetto denies that there was ever any such agreement with Pritchford Sr. A spokesperson for DePaul said Ponsetto told the Pritchfords Walter would be released if the school found another recruit, and that no promises were made.
But that distinction shouldn't matter anyway! Pritchford signed his NLI with Jerry Wainwright. Wainwright is no longer DePaul's coach. Whether DePaul landed another recruit to replace Pritchford is completely beside the point -- the right thing to do is to let him out of his letter of intent.
And it's especially galling to have an athletic director essentially admit that she told a player he couldn't leave unless they could find a replacement, which they couldn't, so sorry, you're stuck. Who does that? And who admits to it?
Athletic directors and fans like to use the "you signed with the school, not with the coach" argument, but anyone remotely familiar with college basketball knows that reasoning to be utter garbage, a lame justification for a selfish choice. Players sign with coaches. When that coach leaves, the player should have a chance to leave too. It's really that simple.
To the credit of most schools, that's usually what happens. But not here. DePaul is going to keep a player that doesn't want to come to DePaul for two reasons: 1) Because it desperately needs players, and 2) Because it can.
"Wrong" doesn't begin to describe what this is.