By Matt Norlander
It seems such an absurd notion. No, not this: college basketball coaches and players sharing a campus over the summer, going in and out of the same building or two day after day, all with a mind on a stress-free few months and the goal of working to get better as a team.
Yet the two groups were mandated to be separated? That's the absurd part. It's the way college basketball was for years -- until this one. Last fall, the NCAA finally voted in legislation that states college coaches can spend two hours per week training and practicing with their players so long as the players are enrolled in summer school. It's a sweet deal, and it's about time.
And to this point, the new rule has been received like s'mores at a campfire. An informal poll of the coaches brought back an, oh, 100-percent approval rate. Of course it did. Anything to further the team bond and increase chances of winning. Coaches always want more access to their players because, by and large, they think they can do more good the more they are around their guys.
"In my opinion, the huge benefit comes with the incoming freshmen," Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. "They're leaving home. They graduate on one day and head to summer school the next day. So for us to have interaction with them on a weekly basis, it's a huge positive."
The freshman factor is huge, considering some of the schools going on foreign trips later this year get a head start on including and indoctrinating the newbies into their programs. No longer does the foreign trip have to be the time where the team first gets to know each other. Because of these weekly practices, players are now coming into the gym at the same time instead of swooping in and out at their leisure and according to their whimsy.
"Before this, guys wanted to work out and get better, but they didn't have the right person during the summer," new Mississippi State coach Rick Ray said. "You were having runners and agents get their hands on kids in college, and one way to do that was to have access and have guys work them out over the summer."
This has been, and remains, a huge concern. When coaches weren't able to work out with their players, who were these guys going to? Sometimes it's the shady, fringe characters coaches couldn't call out by name but pick out by a face. During summer months college players roamed about, unchecked and detached, and tampered with the professional side of the sport. Basically, players would go off and work out in a place -- Vegas, for example -- and quietly break the rules, endangering a program while doing so.
Ray will benefit as much as anyone this year, as he is in his first months not only as the new coach of the Bulldogs, but it's also his first head-coaching job.
"The NCAA without question got this one right," Ray said. "In my case, where you're a new coach coming in and you've got seven incoming players, I would've been so far behind as far as trying to implement my system come the fall. "On the court you get a chance to connect with your kids. We don't do any group sessions or team sessions. I think kids really appreciate the fact you're taking the time to work on their individual game. That is valuable as far as building a relationship, person-to-person."
Mississippi State has two summer sessions, but Ray didn't require his players to be there for both. In fact, he encourages his players to be home for the first session. But the second started July 5, where Ray runs three 40-minute workouts per week. Ray opts for the three sessions, whereas McDermott holds two one-hour practices. Basically, the mileage may vary but everyone's enjoying the new road to building a program.
Well, almost everyone.
“It's an awesome rule and I think everybody's so excited about it, and it'll be interesting to see, as we get into the later parts of the year. Everybody thinking it's the greatest rule in a very, very long time.”
Those are the words of Cornell's Bill Courtney. He's the coach of the Big Red. But you know what Courtney doesn't have? The luxury of summer practice with his players. He's a big, big fan of the rule -- maybe more than most others, specifically because he doesn't have the liberty to employ it. Almost all other Division I teams -- and all other leagues -- have been practicing with each other since June's summer classes began. One conference is still stuck a level or seven behind. Yep. Ivy League.
The Ivy League doesn't permit its players to work out with its coaches during the summer because the Ivy League's a bit like diehard Radiohead fans. Intentionally and overweeningly elite, all too happy to fence itself off. You just don't get it. (By the way, The Bends was the best one.)
The primary reason the Ivy doesn't -- or can't, really -- benefit from the new rule: Harvard and Princeton don't have summer school. Without every Ivy school having a chance to get its players into the gym during the summer, no one will. That's just a fact. Another fact is, Harvard and Princeton run the Ivy League, and I'm not just talking about the basketball. The trickle-down effect -- the reason why the Ivy is like this -- stems from powers-that-be at the aforementioned two elephantine institutions of American collegiate education, and the interests of said powers most certainly do not lie in winning basketball games. If a list was made, Harvard succeeding in hoops might not make the first volume let alone the first page.
If you'd like to know more of what the culture inside the Ivy is, consider this: multiple coaches from the conference were interviewed for this piece. All talked freely about what they don't like about their prohibition from summer hoops, but none would go on the record except Courtney. Some specifically requested not to be even quoted anonymously. And I really wish they hadn't pressed for that, because two of them had some good, strong, need-to-be-heard words about how the Ivy is restricted here.
As for any hope of this rule changing in the next five years ...
“It's a non-conversation,” one said. "Even if all the teams had summer school, it's something that wouldn't be legislated right now."
Because, while summer school is offered at most Ivy League schools, it's not covered by financial aid package. The Ivy does not hand out scholarships for players, so, whereas a scholarship school can pay for summer classes, in the Ivy, if you're in summer school you're paying out of your own pocket. That's three, four or five thousands dollars each summer instead of interning somewhere and setting one's self up for a career after college hoops.
The priorities are different in the Ivy, and that's fine, but most within the league believe there should be wiggle room to meet closer to the middle.
“We all want the opportunity to work with our guys," Courtney said. "It doesn't have to be for eight weeks, but any opportunity, from a coaching perspective, is something that we'd all try."
At Harvard, seven players are working out on campus with strength and conditioning coaches and people of their choice. None are coaches. This is blocking teams' chances not necessarily to definitively win, but to grow as a program and to bring in better players long-term. It's another handcuff in recruiting, to be certain. The Ivy League wants guys to do an internship at Goldman Sachs instead of working on their 15-foot jumper in the middle of June. There are benefits to both, believe it or not. Just as improving one's game isn't for everyone, the same can be said for aligning with a hedge fund. After college Billy Donovan briefly worked on Wall Street before realizing he wanted to be involved with basketball for the rest of his life.
"Many people thing it's another way for the Ivy League to slow down the expansion and explosion of success in men's basketball," one coach said.
Another near-consensus opinion: The internships factor in the summertime is what makes the Ivy peerless, but when the coaches are trying to compete at the highest possible level, the challenge is so beyond what most other schools are doing.
"It's a little bit of a disadvantage since we have to compete against those teams that get to work out, but at the same time, with the length of the season, from that perspective, you don't want to work your guys so much because you don't want them to get tired of your voice during the season,” Courtney said. And it's an interesting point. A certain level of acceptance-meets-denial, or in a lot of cases is too much coaching a bad thing?
“I talked with some guys about that [while recruiting this month], and some are concerned," Courtney added. "Maybe come February you might hear of a spot where they've heard your voice too much and there's a lull in what you're trying to do. And for us, since we can't [train during the summer], that's great because there's no [Ivy] tournament, so there's no time to recover.”
If there's a benefit for the Ivy, it's there. No coaching overkill. A lessened chance of huddles becoming batches of white noise by season's end. For coaches -- and for many players in the Ivy, too, by the way -- that doesn't outweigh the positives being blockaded by eliminating the possibility of summer workouts.
Imagine the Ivies moving up to a plane of true competitive balance in college basketball. The schools and coaches and athletes getting the same benefits as everyone else. It'd be great. The smartest institutions with an enhanced presence in the sport and legitimate fair shake at running down recruits and victories that would transcend their cute and cozy niche.