One of the blatant hypocrisies in college athletics is that coaches and administrators have one standard for themselves when it comes to career mobility yet often hold their players to a far stricter code.
Memphis basketball coach Tubby Smith exemplified that on Sunday with his rant about the high number of players transferring in college basketball.
A reporter asked Smith after his team’s regular season finale if he’s confident that the bulk of the Memphis roster will return next season. That prompted Smith to launch into a two-minute diatribe bemoaning how relaxed transfer regulations encourage unhappy players “to quit” instead of persevering through adversity.
“I’ve been in this business a long time and I’ve never seen anything like it,” Smith told reporters. “We had over 800 Division I players transfer last year. Over 800. We’re teaching them how to quit. That’s what we’re doing. Things not going well, let’s quit.
“Somebody needs to tell them, ‘You made a commitment. Stick to it.’ But it doesn’t happen that way. They’ve got a lot of people in their ear. That’s the way life is.”
Tubby Smith had a must-listen rant on college basketball today, citing 800+ transfers last year.
"We're teaching them how to quit."
— Clayton Collier (@Local24Clayton) March 4, 2018
Smith is one of many coaches who complain that the mercenary culture of high school and AAU basketball has bled into the college game. Prospects who jump from team to team as teenagers are taught that it’s OK to go elsewhere when things don’t go their way.
Some college coaches get frustrated when a star player whom they spent years recruiting and developing transfers in search of a bigger stage. Other college coaches get angry if a prospect bolts because of minimal playing time rather than working harder in hopes of earning a bigger role in the future. Smith himself was burnt by both phenomenons last spring when six Memphis players transferred including the team’s three leading scorers from the previous season.
While it’s understandable if Smith feels today’s players would benefit from more patience and perseverance, he is painting with a dangerously broad brush by likening transferring to quitting. It’s not quitting if a player makes a well-reasoned business decision to leave one school in search of another that can offer more playing time, a different role, better coaching or the chance to compete at a higher level.
By Smith’s definition of the word, he has quit a handful of times since he began his head coaching career in 1991. He quit on Georgia with four years left on his contract to take a more prestigious job as Rick Pitino’s successor at Kentucky in 1997. He quit on Kentucky a decade later when he jumped ship to Minnesota amid concerns that his job was in jeopardy. And he quit on Texas Tech mid-rebuilding project in 2016 because a better opportunity at Memphis became available to him.
Smith might argue that there’s a difference between coaches who are earning a living and players who are on scholarship, but the truth is both face the same pressures to perform. After all, when schools make a coaching change, the new hire often has no qualms purging his roster of players he does not feel are talented enough to help him win.
Midway through Sunday’s rant, Smith told reporters that he once wanted to leave High Point during his freshman season in 1969. Smith’s father told him that his bed at home was no longer available and that he had two options: Sticking it out at High Point or joining the Army.
“Best thing he ever said to me,” Smith said.
Hey, fair enough. Some players undoubtedly would benefit from the lesson that life isn’t always better elsewhere, but let’s not forget that transferring can also be the best thing to ever happen to a prospect too.
Three years ago, forward Johnathan Williams III led 23-loss Missouri in points, rebounds and field goal attempts as a sophomore, but he didn’t believe he was improving quickly enough, nor did he feel comfortable with the direction of the program. The talent-starved Tigers would go on to finish last in the SEC two more times before finally firing coach Kim Anderson last year.
Williams transferred to Gonzaga, drawn by the program’s winning tradition and reputation for player development. He was a starter on the Zags’ first Final Four team last year and he’s the leading scorer on another Gonzaga team with Final Four aspirations this season.
“I gave up a lot of things leaving Mizzou as far as touches and how many shots I was getting, but it’s bigger than that,” Williams told Yahoo Sports last year. “You want to look for a program that’s always winning and known for winning. I knew I had to make a lot of sacrifices when I decided to transfer but I just took a leap of faith.”
Perhaps Smith should consider players like Williams next time he’s tempted to complain about transfers.
Smith would never label a coach who takes a better job a quitter. In the future, he should treat players with the same courtesy.
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