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Commitment: Players signing early risk possibility of coach leaving school

Will Regan has heard the horror stories.

A high-school basketball prospect signs a National Letter of Intent with a university or college, only to get caught off-guard when the coach he signed to play under bolts before the recruit sets foot on campus.

Regan, a Nichols School (N.Y.) forward and University of Virginia signee, is one of a number of highly touted high school basketball players taking part in this week's Beach Ball Classic.

He wonders openly: Should a player have to honor his letter of intent to a specific school if that institution's coach is fired or leaves for greener pastures?

As cut and dry as the NCAA believed the National Letter of Intent process was supposed to be, the "business" of big-time college basketball is a continually changing environment that leaves players' rights sometimes at odds with that of colleges and universities.

Between the players and coaches attending the Beach Ball, difference of opinion exists on exactly how much protection incoming college freshmen deserve.

Regan said he "feels bad" for the players who get trapped in the unfavorable position. Still others, like Alexander Hamilton (Wis.) junior Elgin Cook, leaned more toward keeping their word to the school.

"I do believe in honesty, but that's something I'd have to talk over with my coaches and family before I make any decisions," said Cook, who has until next November before he can officially sign his National Letter of Intent to Iowa State. "The school, the players, the coach. I had a lot of fun when I was down there. I think I might stay."

As it stands, the verbal commitments from coaches to players has got to be good enough.

The situation came to a head last spring when former Memphis coach John Calipari left the school in March to accept the same position at Kentucky. When he made the move, reports in both Memphis and nationally named two players - Xavier Henry and Nolan Dennis - who were immediately released from their signed letters of intent.

Many of those reports cited an addendum to the document each signed at Memphis that released them from the binding agreement should Calipari leave. Other reports explained the story of DeMarcus Cousins, who refused to sign a letter of intent to UAB if a similar agreement was not in place.

Henry eventually enrolled at Kansas, while Dennis headed to Baylor and Cousins to Kentucky.

It forced the NCAA to step in.

In October, The Sporting News published a report saying NCAA-affiliated institutions were reminded via a memo that official side deals automatically releasing players from their National Letter of Intent should the head coach leave was a big no-no. Instead, the organization preferred to keep the system as it is.

Institutions and their incoming coaches can decide on a player-by-player basis whether or not to release a player from his scholarship and enroll elsewhere.

If the university decides against a scholarship release, and the player does not spend at least one academic year at the school he originally signed with, the student-athlete can lose eligibility for a year or more and is forced to pay his own way the first year at the next college, regardless of NCAA division.

The wording on the FAQ section of the NCAA's Web site specifically reiterates that players are signing with a school, not a head coach; prospective student-athletes are also reminded that "it is not uncommon for a coach to leave his or her coaching position."

As a result of the ever-changing coaching landscape, some of the best prep players in the country were looking for a bit of insurance, not to mention the possibility of fewer headaches.

"With kids committing so early, freshman and sophomore years, you never know who's going to be at the schools and the colleges in a couple of years," Bishop Gorman (Nev.) coach Grant Rice said Monday.

Rice, who has a four-deep sophomore class led by Shabazz Muhammad and a number of upperclassmen with Division-I scholarship offers already in hand, has seen the situation unfold repeatedly in his eight years at Gorman. He's encouraged his players not only to wait to make a commitment, but also to make sure each was committing - like Alexander Hamilton's Cook has - to more than just a university's head coach.

"You can't blame the coaches because they're looking out for themselves," Rice said. "You have to like the complete package. You have to like the coach and the assistant coaches. But you have to like the area and the school, as well. It's a tough situation; it really is. Even when kids are at a school for a year or two and the coach leaves, it's a sticky situation, too. You almost wish the kids could be able to go somewhere else immediately with that. But then you're putting the university in a tough situation."

That Catch-22 is one that college recruiters have wrapped their heads around for years.

Former Coastal Carolina assistant coach Jamie Kachmarik, who is now in the same position at Appalachian State, has been the scouting point man at his respective schools during most of the last eight seasons. On one hand, he can see the Ain't-Broke-Don't-Fix-It approach.

On the other, he understands a 17- or 18-year old also deserves not to get the raw end of a deal because a coach is fired or decides to leave.

Kachmarik has noticed players asking questions that years ago they weren't.

"A kid wants to know how many years this guy has on his contract. Is there a buyout? Is there all that type stuff," Kachmarik said while scouting Monday afternoon's games at the Beach Ball.

"To be honest, it's been the last five years when there's been more coaching movement. It's not like the olden days when guys are coaching at the same place for 30 years. A lot of that has to do with television and the need to win and keep winning. It's just kind of a factor. Kids don't want to go to a place where they're going to play for two or three guys in a four-year span."

The former Coastal assistant knows that scenario all too well. During his time at CCU, Kachmarik watched former All-Big South performer Jack Leasure have to adjust first to Pete Strickland and then to Buzz Peterson - whom Kachmarik eventually followed to Appalachian State - before playing his senior season for Cliff Ellis.

Leasure never publicly bashed Strickland or Peterson's departures, but he also didn't have a problem saying how frustrating the transitions were.

Kachmarik then saw signs of that frustration again with another former Chanticleer, Anthony Breeze. The highly touted forward signed with CCU during the early signing period in 2006. When he finally set foot on campus in June 2007, Peterson was weeks away from leaving for a front-office role with the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats. Breeze stayed at Coastal for two seasons.

When Peterson took over the head coaching position at Appalachian State, Breeze was quickly in tow, willing to sit out this season in order to reunite with the coach with whom he originally signed to play.

Kachmarik, Gorman's Rice and several players said that in a perfect world, maybe there should be some official change to the National Letter of Intent that would further protect incoming student-athletes.

It doesn't appear the NCAA is going to allow that any time soon.

None of the players at this week's Beach Ball Classic who spoke with The Sun News on this topic said the process was a difficult one to understand. But Wheeler (Ga.) forward Jelan Kendrick said understanding aspects of college basketball like letter of intent conditions and necessarily liking them are two different things.

In November, Kendrick signed with the school that brought most of this to light.

Memphis.

"When you reach the caliber quote-unquote that I've reached, or some of the players have reached, in basketball, there's always a business side to it," he said. "You never really get tired of it. You just have to accept it."

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