Stop high school recruiting by holding coaches accountable

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                </div>Hey, AIA … the elephant in the room is still here.  And it gets bigger and more bodacious with each passing high school sports season. The ‘elephant’ in this case […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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Hey, AIA … the elephant in the room is still here.  And it gets bigger and more bodacious with each passing high school sports season.

The ‘elephant’ in this case is the growing problem of  putting a stop to the ‘recruiting’ of student athletes in high school programs. It’s a practice that makes the playing field across prep sports very uneven as it weakens one school’s program while building up the program that’s on the receiving end of the athletic talent.

And now, according to one high school football coach in one small community in southern Arizona,  the ‘cancer’ is spilling over from the larger metro areas and into programs like his that can’t afford to lose a top-notch athlete.

Coolidge High School football coach Cayle Ferguson is appealing his case to the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA), the state’s governing body for prep sports.  He claims he has lost his coveted running back, Juantavius “J.T.” Gray, because Hamilton High School‘s head coach, Steve Belles, personally recruited him while both were attending a March 9 prep football combine at Hamilton High – a direct violation of AIA policy.

Ferguson was quoted in a June 5 East Valley Tribune article as saying:  “We’re not going to let this happen.  You can’t do this.  (Kids getting recruited) is so common up there (in the East Valley), but down here it’s not.

“Something’s got to be done to stop it.”

Didn’t happen.  Gray’s mother officially withdrew her son from Coolidge High School on May 29, after reportedly assuring Ferguson, after the allegations arose, that they were staying.

The part of Ferguson’s comments that should have jumped out to anyone reading them is the part about the practice of recruiting being so commonplace.  Unfortunately, it’s true – and not just in football.

A recent example of that can be found in the comments made by the St. Mary’s High School girls basketball coach, Curtis Ekmark, who just turned in his resignation at the downtown Phoenix school after developing a nationally-ranked program during his six years there. Since his daughter, Courtney, will be a senior there next year, it could easily be assumed that she might not return without her father in charge of the program.

And that was like blood in the water for the circling sharks.

Ekmark was quoted in an Arizona Republic article yesterday, trying to quell any rumors that his daughter would leave the school.  But in the process he mentioned that he and his daughter had been contacted by “a bunch of schools” interested in any potential transfer opportunities.  How is that not considered recruiting?

The AIA has been dealing with this issue for years, but it just keeps getting worse because solutions aren’t forthcoming.

The organization’s latest effort at doing something about the problem was a feeble attempt that would put a distance qualifier on the rule that requires an athlete to sit out a year following a transfer to a new school.  That idea took almost a year to get to a vote (3/4//13 Phxfan article) – and then the AIA Legislative Committee couldn’t get the two-thirds vote necessary to come up with an amendment to the bylaws.

That was an effort to try to begin closing the flood gates since the AIA claimed to be fielding inquiries about transfer eligibility on an almost daily basis at the end of the 2012 school year.  But it only served to point out the futility that has gone into trying to find a solution to curbing the problem of recruiting, which should be a top priority since it basically shifts the balance of power to a select group of schools, while weakening others still further. That’s not what high school sports should be about.

In the latest issue, between Hamilton and Coolidge, it is definitely a major problem for the Bears because next season’s success hung heavily on the 185-pound Gray, who also is a key to the team’s defense.  He has already received numerous scholarship offers from schools that included Arizona and Arizona State, as well as interest from national-champion Alabama.

Belles denies that he violated any recruiting rules and points out that his program, which has won five state titles in the last seven years, doesn’t need the athlete in a program that is already rich in talent, and wouldn’t risk the consequences that would come with breaking the rules.

Those penalties from the AIA, if accusations were proven to be true, would include ineligibility for the athlete and a ban on post-season play for the program.  For Hamilton, that could hurt because they’re expected to make it to the post-season each year.  But it wouldn’t necessarily have the same impact on other schools.

So the ones who pay the price for a recruiting violation are the athlete and, to a lesser extent, the school sports program.  But what about the coach that creates the problem in the first place?

If the AIA really wants to crack down on the problem, it needs to consider amending the bylaws to include penalties for the coaches.  Then you’re getting to the root of the recruiting problem.

As someone who has spent more than a few years as a high school basketball coach, I understand the perils of walking that fine line between ‘recruiting’ and simply promoting your program within the AIA guidelines.  There are many good coaches out there that are careful not to step over that line.  However, there are some that find the temptation to build their programs through recruiting too much to resist.

Those are the ones who need to be penalized.

So how about requiring those coaches that commit flagrant violations, or are repeat offenders, to sit out a year – just like the athletes have to do?  They have to turn the program over to someone else for the next full season of their sport following an AIA determination that they have committed a violation.  And it’s up to the school whether it wants to renew their contract after that season, and whether it wants to pay them while they sit it out.

Seems like a relatively simple solution to a very serious problem.

Yes, but how do you get something this important passed when they couldn’t even decide between a 25-mile and a 50-mile radius for the proposed mileage amendment to the transfer rules?