Thursday, September 17, 2009

Coaches lose a friend in troubled times

Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski spoke for a lot of coaches when he said Myles Brand was a “true friend of college basketball.”

Losing Brand, the NCAA president who died Wednesday afternoon of pancreatic cancer at age 67, is a blow to the sport and its coaches when they need a friend more than ever.

In almost seven years as president of the NCAA, Brand constantly sought input from college basketball coaches who’d often been demonized by the NCAA leadership. College basketball’s long, sordid history of exploiting athletes who often failed to get their degrees was a black eye for the NCAA that Brand sought to heal. But even as he built the Academic Progress Rate system designed to withhold scholarships from sports programs who failed to meet benchmarks in the classroom, Brand worked with coaches rather than blaming them for all the sport’s flaws.

“The game made great strides as a result of him looking at things out of the box - trusting coaches, trusting players and making appropriate changes that have brought along more dialogue than there has ever been about our game,” Krzyzewski said in a statement. “He will be missed as a man, he’ll be missed as a leader and he’ll be missed as a friend.”

Coaches said it wasn’t fair to punish programs for players in good academic standing who left early for the NBA draft or transferred to get more playing time at another school. Brand listened, and the APR formula no longer penalizes programs in those cases.

Ironically, Brand earned coaches’ respect after he rose to national fame in 2000 while president at Indiana by putting volatile basketball coach Bob Knight on a zero-tolerance policy after a former player said Knight choked him during practice.

Four months later, Brand fired Knight after a freshman at Indiana accused Knight of grabbing him. Two years after that, Brand became NCAA president.

Brand spoke at N.C. State last fall as part of the Millennium Seminar Series, which later became the center of controversy because of the way Mary Easley, the wife of former Governor Mike Easley, was hired to land speakers.

On that evening in the Stewart Theater on campus, Brand explained his view of how academics and athletics can complement each other. He said athletics teach life skills and help schools become engaged in the community and beyond.

He recalled taking the subway to Ebbets Field to watch Jackie Robinson play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and said Robinson’s breaking of the baseball color barrier encouraged social justice long before integration took place on a large scale in the United States.

That’s why Brand believed in the marriage of athletics and academics along with the many college basketball coaches he befriended. But the lure of easy money has put that marriage at a crossroads, at least where college basketball is concerned.

There’s so much money to be made off young basketball players even before they get to college that street agents may have eclipsed overzealous boosters as the most insidious force in the sport.

The NBA’s age limit, which critics say has forced some basketball players with little interest in academics onto college campuses for a year, is a source of consternation among coaches. Should they recruit top players who aren’t interested in attending class? It’s difficult to win big if they don’t.

At the heart of the matter is the question of why players with enough talent to make millions of dollars should play for the price of a scholarship when the NCAA is getting $6 billion over 11 years from CBS to broadcast the NCAA Tournament.

John Calipari is making about $4 million a year to coach Kentucky, and other coaches are making multiple millions, too. The NCAA paid Brand $1,610,340 in the fiscal year ending Aug. 31, 2008, according to tax records.

With all this money out there, it’s no wonder that young basketball players are surrounded by handlers hoping for a payday of their own. The money endangers the principle of the student-athlete and jeopardizes college basketball as a result.

It won’t be easy for Brand’s successor to guide college basketball through these turbulent waters. More than ever, basketball coaches could use a friend who has high principles and is willing to listen.

They lost one on Wednesday.

Ken Tysiac