Niyo: Plenty of concern, confusion with freshman pitch

John Niyo
The Detroit News

East Lansing — They're "grasping at straws" now, which is typically what happens when your plan falls apart or your cover is blown and no one can agree on just what to do next.

But this is where they are now in major-college athletics, and that is how Michigan State coach Tom Izzo explained it Wednesday, in the kind of impassioned polemic that only a Yooper and a future Hall of Fame hoops coach like him could pull off.

A simple question about this latest trial balloon floated by the Big Ten conference — freshman ineligibility, again, as the NCAA clings to its precious, pretentious amateur model — sent Izzo off on a vintage 1,300-word rant that covered everything from Twitter trolls to highway speed limits to constitutional requirements for the U.S. presidency.

Mostly, though, what the Spartans coach talked about is what college coaches and athletic directors, conference commissioners and university administrators have been talking about for decades: How to square the reality of the games we watch with the games they play, especially given the assumption that everyone's trying to game the system.

They're calling it "a year of readiness for student-athletes," presumably because they think that sounds a little better than "freshman ineligibility," a rule that was lifted back in 1972. But that's the Big Ten's big idea that's being recycled and redistributed, generating plenty of confusion in recent days.

Much of that was fueled by the misconception the Big Ten was talking about acting unilaterally, which it isn't. That'd be competitive suicide, of course. By Wednesday, that'd been cleared up — "We won't go it alone on any of these matters," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said in a statement — and other Power 5 conferences have chimed in publicly with support.

But as Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis was careful to note Wednesday, "It's a conversation, it's not a proposal." And coming from a historically tin-eared bunch, it sounds more like a public-relations ploy than anything else, which is why it's being roundly dismissed by so many folks.

More likely, it's a leverage play that's designed in part to force the NBA's hand and put an end to the league's draft-eligibility rules that spawned this "one-and-done" era in college hoops.

Still, as Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said, "It's something that will never happen, and I don't know why people are talking about it. It makes absolutely no sense."

What's best?

Izzo wasn't going that far Wednesday, though like most coaches he doesn't see it as feasible.

"I just don't know where that's going to come from without a million other rules that are going to cost more money," he said.

"But I do believe that we better start looking out for what's best, and not think it's best just to give in to everybody," Izzo added. "What is best for a kid growing up? What's best for my kid? What's best for your kid?"

All kidding aside, these are genuine concerns, and Hollis candidly shared some of his own Wednesday as he talked about an "education-first" ideal that has taken a serious beating over time.

And fairly, too, because as Izzo acknowledged, "If we truly did what we all say we're gonna do — and that's the betterment of the student athlete — there would probably be some things that we wouldn't do now."

Like the conference expansion money grab the Big Ten helped accelerate, or the 9 p.m. tipoffs for weeknight basketball games that are now commonplace, or any number of other revenue-first, education-last decisions that have made this every bit the "quasi-professional" endeavor Maryland president Wallace Loh and his peers claim to fear.

Familiar refrain

And remember, reform-minded leaders were testifying before the Knight Commission about these very same topics more than a decade ago. ("You have to show you're a student first before you have the privilege of playing intercollegiate basketball," legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith told the commission in 2004.)

Yet even then it felt more like an end-game stall tactic, Smith's sincere lobbying notwithstanding. They'd formed a blue-ribbon panel five years before that — in October 1998 — to study a plan to make freshman ineligible for men's and women's basketball. By the following summer, they'd decided against it, with then-Syracuse chancellor Kenneth Shaw admitting to the New York Times, "We have had to temper the enthusiasm of some with the realities of what we can accomplish."

When I asked Hollis what was realistic Wednesday, he cited the fact that "student-athletes are now involved in the conversation" as one reason why, as he put it, "I really believe this has legs."

To what extent the athletes really are involved is hard to say, however. And that they are at all certainly has something to do with all those lawsuits — the Northwestern players' efforts to unionize, Ed O'Bannon's efforts to reclaim his marketed identity, the antitrust anvil that's still hanging over the NCAA's head.

Ultimately, it's the courts that'll chart the course here, even more than the court of public opinion, which probably reached its verdict years ago.

So perhaps these are the closing arguments?

"I'm not gonna say (we need to) do this behind closed doors, because I think it needs to be a transparent process," Hollis said. "But we have to stay focused on the right issue. And in the past, I don't know that that's ever really taken place."

I don't know that it will this time, either. But ready or not, here they go again.