Student-Athletes Must Check Out A Coach’s Commitment
Student-athletes took a new stage this week as New Jersey native and former Dallas Cowboy star Drew Pearson blasted Michigan State’s new head football coach, Mel Tucker, on Twitter. Pearson’s grandson, Toren Pittman, had been recruited to the University of Colorado by Coach Tucker. The coach had told Pittman, a high school senior, that he had no plans to leave. Coach Tucker did leave, but Pittman cannot. Fortunately for Pittman his grandfather is respected in the sport, and word got out. Also fortunate, Darrin Chiavarini, the assistant who recruited him, is now his head coach. Chiavarini, a former Colorado player, has been on staff for the past four years.
Imagine you’re Toren Pittman, a three-star recruit out of Frisco, Texas. You’ve got seven offers, three at Power Five schools. But you took only one visit, to Colorado. Baylor, one school that offered a scholarship, will soon lose their head coach to the NFL. Arkansas, the other Power Five school that made an offer, fired the coach who recruited you, and will hire a new coach who doesn’t know you. What do you do? You do as you did: go with the coach who says that he’s committed to your team and to your development as a football player.
Coaches like Mel Tucker advance because they help successful head coaches succeed. He has worked for Nick Sabin at Michigan State and Alabama, and Kirby Smart at Georgia. Tucker was also on the coaching staff of the Cleveland Browns during the last season that they made the playoffs. Tucker didn’t make the most of the opportunity his first two times as a head coach, going 2-3 in an interim role in the NFL, and at Colorado where he went 5-7. He’s just doubled his salary after leaving Colorado for Michigan State. Time will tell if he sticks around.
Toren Pittman had offers from Arkansas State, Nevada, Tulsa and UT-San Antonio, which has just fired its coach. Arkansas State has the most successful program in the rest of this group. Their coach, Blake Anderson, completed his sixth season. He has taken his team to winning seasons and bowl games from his first year onward. I could imagine why Coach Anderson might have been interested in Pittman. He was a Power Five level talent who could become a focal point and leader of his team.
But I can understand why Pittman might have taken a pass on Arkansas State, even if he received no offers from the Power Five. They play at a lower level of competition than any other school that extended an offer. Pittman would be less likely to be noticed by NFL scouts and college draft analysts. On the other hand, if Pittman became a dominant player in any conference, he would draw more attention. Darius Leonard, a linebacker like Pittman, became a second-round NFL draft pick from a school, South Carolina State, that has a lower national profile than Arkansas State.
Pittman’s options and his story offer a few lessons for student-athletes in any sport.
- Look at the coach’s track record at the school, and in his prior stops. Has he won, or lost where he’s coached before? If he left a school, was he promoted elsewhere or dismissed?
- Visit the NCAA Web site and look up the Academic Progress Rate for the school. Do student-athletes earn their degrees on time, or at least within six years? With some exceptions—athletes might get an extra year if they are redshirted while they’re in school—student-athletes will usually graduate at a higher rate than the rest of the student body. The most diligent student-athletes are used to juggling practice, competition, study, sleep and fun time.
- Look at the majors for the student-athletes on the roster. Some programs will make it easier to manage a more demanding academic program than others.
- Look at clips of competitions the coach has coached. See how a player in your position fits into his schemes and personnel changes during a game.
- Talk to current and past players on his team. Does he treat student-athletes like adults or children? Does he maintain contact after they finish their eligibility, or after he leaves the school? Were his athletes prepared to compete at the next level?
- Does the alumni base support the team, and the players after they finish school? A good alumni base will be loyal to the student-athletes who have competed for their alma mater, especially when their teams were successful. I have met several former Rutgers football players (picture above) who will never have to pay for a drink when they come to campus.
- If the coach is a first-time head coach, ask how you fit into the plans for his team. What is he going to do that the previous coach did not? What happened to players that he developed who do what you can do?
- If the coach is new to the school, google his press when he’s been at other schools. Does he back up his players, the other coaches? Does he take blame?
I hope that Toren Pittman goes on to have a successful football career wherever he plays. His grandfather is right: he was misled by a coach. It would have been fair to release him from his obligations to the University of Colorado after his coach left. It would have also been fair to release any Colorado freshman or sophomore who had not declared a major, and had not played much under Coach Tucker. But in the absence of such fairness, future student-athletes must do due diligence.