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Madden's Madness: What's good for Howland may not be for Pitt

Wednesday, April 02, 2003

Ben Howland is going to UCLA.

He gets big money, he gets his dream job, he gets a program that will always be nationally prominent, and he gets to take his family home to California.

All that is fine. For Ben Howland.

But Howland leaves behind a bunch of kids who came to Pitt thinking they were going to play four years for him. Howland's seven-year contract only validated those expectations. Pitt's players undoubtedly, and rightfully, feel betrayed.

When a gifted athlete commits to a school, that commitment should be a two-way street. The athlete commits to doing his best at his sport and in the classroom, and to conducting himself properly. The school commits to giving the athlete everything it promised. Pitt promised every one of its current basketball players that Howland would be their head coach for the duration of their stay.

Promise broken. By Howland and by Pitt.

It happens all the time, of course. That's the explanation so cavalierly given when a coach makes an athlete's situation worse while making his situation better. It happens all the time.

Well, if it's broke, why not fix it?

It's too easy for a coach to leave, but not easy enough for a player to leave. When a coach leaves a school before his contract is completed, the NCAA should allow that school's players to transfer immediately and play at their new school without sitting out a year.

Coaches don't sit out a year when they switch jobs. Players shouldn't have to sit out a year when they switch schools, especially when they do so because their coach unexpectedly takes a hike.

Initially, this idea would cause absolute chaos. But sometimes you need chaos to restore true order. Some schools would sign coaches to long-term contracts without buyouts and without the right to void the deal to take a specific job. In other words, contracts would actually mean something.

Or perhaps some schools would sign coaches to short-term deals, so incoming recruits would have a good idea how stable a coach's status is.

A plan like this borders on unfettered honesty, which is obviously not in keeping with the traditions of big-time college athletics.

But it's time to be fair to the kids. An athlete picks a college based largely on the coach. When a coach abruptly leaves, the athlete should be allowed to talk to other coaches and re-think his choice without incurring a penalty.

One caveat: When a coach switches jobs, an athlete should not be allowed to follow him to his new school and play immediately. There would be something very shady about, say, Julius Page going to UCLA with Howland and just jumping right on the court.

In a recent column, I mentioned the adidas shoe company as a factor behind Howland's move to UCLA. I hasten to add that there's a major difference between "factor" and "villain." Adidas helped Pitt get Howland. So you can't hate adidas for steering Howland west.

If anyone comes out of this smelling less than sweet, it's Howland.

Pitt was eliminated Thursday from the NCAA tournament. Howland was in Los Angeles by the weekend. Howland had obviously been talking to UCLA all along -- some say for months -- and that's OK. That's how the game is played.

But when Howland was openly navigating his exit from Pitt less than 48 hours after the Panthers' season ended, it not only revealed how far back his intent to pursue the UCLA job went, it rubbed Pitt's face in that fact.

When you add in that UCLA did not ask for Pitt's permission to talk to Howland, you wouldn't blame Pitt for being a bit chapped with Howland. Which Pitt is.

I don't blame Howland for fibbing about his intentions while Pitt was still playing, though. To do otherwise would have been a distraction, and Donatas Zavackas might have flipped out sooner.

The chance to go home is a big part of UCLA's appeal to Howland. When it officially comes time for Pitt to find a new coach, maybe they could use the same bait to lure John Calipari from Memphis.

Calipari, a Moon native and former Pitt assistant, just finished his third year at Memphis. This season saw him get the Tigers to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1996. He achieved most of his fame at Massachusetts, where he got the Minutemen to five consecutive NCAA appearances. Calipari reached one Final Four, two Elite Eights and three Sweet 16 in eight seasons at Massachusetts.

Of course, getting someone to come home to the winter bluster of Pittsburgh might be a bit tougher than getting someone to return to the eternal sunshine of Los Angeles.

Memphis plays at the state-of-the-art Pyramid, regularly drawing crowds of more than 15,000. Memphis is in Conference USA, which isn't the Big East, but it isn't bad, either, thanks to the presence of coaches such as Calipari, Marquette's Tom Crean, Louisville's Rick Pitino and Cincinnati's Bob Huggins.

If Pitt can't get Calipari, Crean might be worth wooing despite Marquette's presence in the Final Four. How much can a small Catholic school pay?

At any rate, I'll be happy when Howland leaves, Pitt gets a new coach and this whole distasteful matter is behind us.

Until the next time it happens, anyway.

Pitt seems destined to forever be a steppingstone for coaches. Face it, the only reason Walt Harris still coaches Pitt football is because nobody else has wanted him badly enough.

Mark Madden is the host of a sports talk show 3-7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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