Want loyalty? Don't hold your breath
EAGAN, Minn. -- Over the weekend, some of the top coaches in America parked a fleet of rental cars in the rugged parking lot next to a factory in the Minneapolis suburbs that local AAU guru Rene Pulley recently converted into a multimillion-dollar basketball complex.
Mike Krzyzewski, Frank Haith, Bill Self, Tom Izzo, Tom Crean, Bo Ryan and colleagues ventured to the industrial park in search of prospects.
They shifted between four courts at the High Performance Academy as the country's top preps -- Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, Tyus Jones and more -- auditioned during the first stop on Nike's EYBL summer circuit.
As the coaches who took advantage of the spring evaluation period surveyed potential contributors, they probably spied a couple of future transfers, too.
Hundreds of Division I players have decided to change uniforms since the beginning of the 2011-12 season. It's a small percentage of the total (more than 4,000 scholarship players compete at the Division I level). Yet the multitude of moves have amplified arguments about the limited loyalty at the collegiate level."Transfer numbers are an all-time high. I mean, it's an epidemic right now," Georgia coach Mark Fox said.
But some of the coaches who expressed worries about transfers refused to look in the mirror.
When asked to compare the plight of college kids seeking something more -- playing time, a more suitable system, a better situation, a school closer to home -- coaches countered with a general stance that student-athletes aren't in school to make a living. You can't compare a coach's decision to leave a program for a dream job with a college basketball player's decision to transfer, they said.
"They're kids. They're there to get an education. We're here to make a living," said Minnesota's Tubby Smith, who's watched six players transfer since 2010. "We clothe them, we feed them, we house them, we educate them. It's apples and oranges."
And that's one of the problems with the general outlook on the issue.
We've decided to place the bulk of the burden on athletes alone, and that's not fair.
Yes, loyalty -- in the nostalgic sense -- is gone. There are exceptions, of course. My colleague Jason King detailed some of those in a feature on mid-major coaches who have remained true to their schools (for now).
But by and large, it's a "get mine" culture these days. And that mantra affects every party that's connected to the collegiate scene, including coaches.
The same coach who signs a top-rated recruiting class in the fall could leave by the spring for another gig, despite promising those kids that he'd be there when they arrived.
It seems as though the best players don't care if their jerseys are retired. By the time they reach campus, they're just a block from the pros -- or in Anthony Davis' case, 186 blocks-- and they want to reach the NBA as quickly as possible. Your favorite school is just a temporary stop.
They're kids. They're there to get an education. We're here to make a living. We clothe them, we feed them, we house them, we educate them. It's apples and oranges.” -- Minnesota coach Tubby Smith
Prospects commit, de-commit and re-commit. And once they've exhausted that process, they open up their recruitment again.
Athletic directors express confidence in their coaches one day and fire them the next.
This is not about one turbulent offseason. It's about a new culture of halfhearted promises. And there's a lot of guilt to go around.
April's developments added another paragraph to the growing obituary on the death of loyalty in college basketball.
Kentucky's phenomenal freshmen tore through the college basketball scene like a hurricane last season. And after five months of work, they disappeared. On to the next one, as Jay-Z says.
Same theme for Alex Oriakhi, who left Storrs for Missouri after the NCAA banned Connecticut from next year's postseason.
Two weeks ago, Baylor's Quincy Miller held a news conference to announce his decision to return for his sophomore season. "I definitely prayed about [it] and I feel like this is the best decision for me," Miller said at the time. "Baylor Nation is used to good basketball teams. I know expectations will be high. That's a good thing."
This week, he chose to go pro. Just kidding on that previous announcement, right?
During this past season, I talked to former Wagner coach Danny Hurley at length about his legendary loyalty at the prep level. He'd turned down multiple collegiate coaching offers during this tenure at St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, N.J. He'd led Wagner for two seasons and proved his worth. But he told me that he didn't have any plans to move on. He liked his guys and had a previous track record of "loyalty." And then, Rhode Island called with a multimillion-dollar offer.
If those examples -- rather routine for a typical college basketball offseason -- don't scrub the word "loyalty" from the lexicon of college basketball, then this one should.
Virginia Tech AD Jim Weaver decided "last week" to fire Seth Greenberg. Instead of cleaning up the situation prior to the weekend, his administration posted an awkward, can't-miss bulletin on the school's website announcing a Monday news conference.
It was as though they were celebrating their puzzling, late-April dismissal.
By then, word had leaked to everyone except Greenberg, who told ESPN.com's Andy Katz early that afternoon that he still believed he had his job.
The aforementioned choices should not fuel concerns about the state of loyalty in college basketball.
I don't get worked up when a coach takes a better job or an administrator fires a head coach. And I'm rarely bothered when transfers flee in droves each offseason.
That's because I know that loyalty is dead. And business is alive.
With the millions of dollars exchanging hands, the grand expectations and the opportunities available to players and coaches seeking advancement, college basketball is not a sport, it's a corporation.
That's the attitude that its participants possess.
And if the next step demands a new job, a new school or an agent, who can really fault them?
"I just wasn't happy with where things were going basketball-wise," former Michigan forward Evan Smotrycz said about his decision to transfer to Maryland during the offseason. "It was really affecting everything about me. I wasn't happy like I usually was. I not only wanted to be happy but wanted to be in a place that would give me the best chance to improve and make the most out of my career."
Don't misinterpret my take on this topic. I loved the loyalty that defined college basketball years ago. Every season, you knew that your favorite team and coach would be back for another year, probably more. Fewer questions in the offseason. You could keep the same jersey for years.
Today, fans don't know if their favorite players will show up for practice tomorrow.
But that's the norm now. We shouldn't expect anything else.
The coaches who traveled to Minneapolis over the weekend, however, do. They invest a lot in the recruitment process and don't want to lose the kids they worked so hard to sign.
Smith said he could sympathize with players who want to transfer.
He nearly left High Point, his alma mater. But his father quickly blocked the idea.
"You're not coming back home," Smith said his father told him. "Now, kids have a lot more opportunities. [Transferring] was really unheard of back in that time." Million-dollar contracts weren't popular when veteran coaches such as Smith started coaching, either.
Times have changed for players, coaches and administrators.
So loyalty will never return. There's too much money at stake. There are too many options now.
"I think that's part of society," Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. "You're allowed to make changes."
Whether we like it or not, we have to accept it.