Rob Oller | If college coaches can leave at will, why can’t players?

Rob Oller
New Michigan State football coach Mel Tucker and his wife, Jo-Ellyn, enter a board of trustees meeting at the university on Wednesday. [Matthew Dae Smith/Lansing State Journal]

Coach Mel Tucker got his tongue caught in a mouth trap when Michigan State offered more cheese, yet it is the University of Colorado’s football players and recruits who remain unfairly stuck.

Tucker is leaving Colorado after one 5-7 season to become Mark Dantonio’s successor at Michigan State, where his salary will double. Good for Tucker on the money deal. When an employer offers to double your pay, you’d be crazy not to take it, especially if the new company has a bigger upside. And the Spartans’ ceiling is higher than the Buffaloes’.

But you also would be careless to proclaim, as Tucker did via Twitter days before bolting for MSU, that “While I am flattered to be considered for the HC job @MSU_football, I am committed to @CUBuffsFootball for #TheBuild of our program, its great athletes, coaches & supporters. #UnfinishedBusiness #GoBuffs.”

Colorado fans have every right to feel betrayed by Tucker’s “decommitment.” Some may argue, “What else was he supposed to say?” My retort: “Not that.”

My beef is not with Tucker leaving Colorado — although it grates when a coach preaches loyalty while practicing something else — as much as with the inability of Colorado’s players to also leave and have the same opportunity to play immediately.

Repeating: If coaches can escape and not have to sit out a season, players should be afforded the same deal. Instead, NCAA rules prohibit transferring athletes in football, men’s and women’s basketball, baseball and men’s hockey from playing immediately at their new school. (Athletes can petition the NCAA for immediate eligibility, but the waiver process is overly subjective.)

I addressed the topic of players’ rights in a Tuesday column detailing how a recent Big Ten proposal would grant all college athletes one transfer with immediate eligibility. (The NCAA is not scheduled to address the proposal until at least 2021.) I cautioned that college free agency comes with unintended consequences, but Tucker trading himself from Boulder to East Lansing offers a strong reminder that fairness should outweigh fans’ fears.

Simply put, it is hypocritical to limit player movement while allowing coaches to depart without penalty.

North Carolina football coach Mack Brown pushed back against the complaint that coaches are not penalized when exiting programs they had promised to build.

“The argument is that I can leave tomorrow with no restraints. The same for assistant coaches,” Brown said. “That’s not really true. All buyouts offer some restraints, so it’s not like you can walk out without problems or consequences.”

Brown is not wrong, but let’s reframe the conversation. Instead of penalizing coaches for bailing, the discussion should center on not penalizing athletes for doing the same. Think progressive, not punitive. For example, allow athletes to transfer, no questions asked, after a coaching change occurs. Or compromise and make them wait a few weeks before leaving, so cooler heads prevail.

Those slow to embrace the uptick in player rights likely consider it a philosophical issue, arguing that 17- to 21-year-olds do not warrant the same privileges and freedoms as their coaching superiors. Thus, there is no inequity between a coach making $7 million and the starting quarterback making “a scholarship.”

Such thinking holds merit on a financial level — that is, if amateur athletics are to continue under the current model — but where player transfers and eligibility are concerned, equality of opportunity must mirror that of coaches. After all, fair is fair.


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