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Once again, the injustice that is the NLI comes to light

Mar 24, 2011, 7:53 PM EDT

If you haven’t yet been convinced that signing a National Letter of Intent is the wrong course of action for a high school recruit, Tennessee AD Mike Hamilton provides you with yet another piece of evidence of the NLI program’s worthlessness.

As you no doubt know, Bruce Pearl has been fired as Tennessee’s basketball coach. The two players that he signed in the Class of 2011 — Chris Jones and Kevin Ware, both top 100 guards — have requested to receive a release from their Letters of Intent.

And to both, the answer Hamilton gave was essentially the same — wait it out, and see what you think of the new coach we hire.

In all honesty, there is nothing wrong with this approach. In fact, if it was my kid in this situation, I would probably give him the same advice.

I’m not a fool. I know that at this level of basketball, you sign with the coach, not the school. You sign because you like their offensive style of play, not their english department. You pick a coach based on how he develops players at your position, not whether the school can get you a position on Wall Street or with a prestigious law firm.

But it is late March already. Both Jones and Ware signed with Tennessee back in November. The late signing period is in mid-to-late May. While the players may have signed on with Pearl, there had to be something else — something about the University of Tennessee or the town of Knoxville or their future teammates — that Jones and Ware enjoyed. If there was nothing to like about a school beyond the basketball coach, is that really going to be the place that a 17 year old high school senior decides he wants to spend the next 1-4 years of his life?

So, yes, I would tell my son or daughter that they should give Tennessee’s new head coach a chance.

But I would also tell them that they need to start thinking about a back up plan.

And therein lies the problem.

If Jones and Ware are not released from their NLI, they cannot explore other options. They cannot begin to build a contingency plan should Hamilton opt to hire a coach that either Jones or Ware does not like. As of today, there are less than two months left for these two kids to make a decision about college, and that time frame is only going to get shorter.

To make matters more complicated, coaching searches are not easy. Coaching searches where a school’s expectations for their next coach vastly overestimates the position’s can be downright impossible, to the point that it is almost painful to follow. Look at Oregon last season. They tried to woo everyone from Brad Stevens to Tom Izzo, Jamie Dixon to Mark Turgeon.

And based on the list of targets floated by Tennessee, they may face the same problems finding a new head coach. There is nothing wrong with swinging for the fences as long as you understand that strikeouts come with the territory.

Oregon struck out so often that it took them 37 days to find a new head coach.

37 days from now is April 30th, which means that if the Tennessee coaching search is anything like the Oregon coaching search, Jones and Ware will have less than three weeks to decide whether or not they like the new coach that Hamilton hires. If the answer is no, that means the two high school seniors will have a couple of weeks to find a new school that a) they want to attend, b) has scholarships available, and c) is a good fit for their personality, skill set, and position.

I don’t want to see that. I don’t want to see a kid forced into a situation in college he’s not comfortable with. And I would hope that Tennessee fans would agree with me.

I don’t think it will come to that. Maybe I’m too trusting in the goodwill of humanity, but I think that both Jones and Ware will, if they still desire, be released from their NLI. Because that’s the way it generally works with a coaching change. The folks that are left will try to convince you to stay, but if their best sales pitch still falls on deaf ears, they let you go.

The problem?

All the power lies in the school’s hands.

The University of Tennessee should not be able to wield this much control over the future of two recruits. If Mike Hamilton wanted too, he could refuse to release Jones and Ware from the NLI’s, which would force them to sit out a season and lose a year’s worth of eligibility if they didn’t attend Tennessee. That is precisely what happened to Joseph Young, who signed with Providence but decided that he wanted to go to Houston, this year.

And while the school can prevent a recruit from attending somewhere else without punishment, they can also cut the player loose without punishment. Look at the plight of DJ Newbill from last season. He signed an NLI with Marquette, but once Jamil Wilson made it clear that he wanted to transfer out of Oregon and to Marquette, the former top 100 recruit needed a scholarship. And it was Newbill that was on the chopping block. He landed on his feet at Southern Mississippi, but Newbill is a Philly kid. I doubt playing in Conference USA is the same as playing in the Big East.

NLI’s hold no benefit to the players, but precious few players realize this.

They are contractually binding agreements that put the power in the school’s hands.

And you don’t have to sign them.

Ask Brandon Knight. He signed a financial aid agreement, which forced Kentucky to commit to him while still allowing Knight to be able to leave should unforeseen circumstances arise.

Maybe one day this blog will have enough influence to convince every high school hooper to follow Knight’s lead.

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