Wiedmer: Kiffin comes through where NCAA needs to, for recruit's sake

Wiedmer: Kiffin comes through where NCAA needs to, for recruit's sake

July 7th, 2010 by Mark Wiedmer in Opinion Columns

Lane Kiffin did something good Tuesday afternoon.

No, the above sentence does not contain a typo.

However belatedly, Kiffin released incoming freshman offensive lineman Seantrel Henderson from his national letter of intent, freeing the nation's top O-line prospect to play for any school he chooses in the upcoming season.

Because Henderson had signed a national letter to play for Southern California's Trojans, Kiffin could have required the 6-foot-7, 295-pound Minnesota native to report to USC or pay his own way elsewhere and sit out the season.

In a rare sign of decency and character, Kiffin instead released the player without limits - USC could also have prevented Henderson from signing with certain schools - in the wake of the Trojans' recent NCAA probation and two-year bowl ban.

"Seantrel has been great through the whole process," Kiffin said, "and we wish him the best of luck with his decision."

That decision figures to be Miami, which was a finalist for Henderson from the start and apparently received a visit from the player over the weekend.

But it never should have come down to what Kiffin would or wouldn't do, because the NCAA should never force a signee to attend a school that goes on probation after that player signs, as was the case with Henderson.

To show you how messed up NCAA rules are, current Trojans who are about to enter their junior and senior years can transfer immediately without penalty - and without USC's approval - because the two-year bowl ban means they wouldn't get to go bowling for the rest of their careers, even though they've already played in two of them.

Ironically, Kiffin's former employer already has benefited from that rule, Tennessee snapping up junior defensive end Malik Jackson on Monday.

But an incoming freshman - on the slender fact that he would be eligible to go bowling his final two years (three if redshirted) - has no such options. Hey, Vanderbilt theoretically is eligible to go every year and the Commodores have gone to one bowl in the last 28 years.

"Absolutely they ought to free those kids up if they weren't recruited illegally," said recently retired Ooltewah High coach Benny Monroe, whose best player from a year ago, defensive end Jacques Smith, is expected to battle Jackson for a starting job at Tennessee.

"They should be free to go wherever they want to if that school's put on probation and they had nothing to do with it. But what really needs to happen is for something to be done to the coaches, athletic director or school president who was in charge when the violations occurred.

"You look at Southern Cal and (head coach) Pete Carroll heads off to the NFL. Reggie Bush (the central figure in the investigation) is playing for the (New Orleans) Saints. I think there should be some penalty for him, too. I've heard they're considering taking away his Heisman Trophy, and maybe they should."

Smith politely declined to comment on the situation because UT coaches don't allow incoming freshmen to conduct interviews.

But Ole Miss freshman and Walker Valley graduate Jared Duke strongly believes any player in Henderson's position should be allowed to transfer immediately.

"It's a tough situation," Duke said less than a week into his second semester of summer school. "And maybe it should depend on how you were recruited. But I think (releasing them) is the fairest thing to do."

It should be the only thing to do. This isn't the same as a coach - Kiffin, for instance - leaving. Reasonable men articulately can argue both sides of that dynamic.

Referring to that long-held NCAA policy, Monroe always told Smith, "Sign where you want to go to school, not with whom you want to coach you, because coaches leave. It's a business and the coach you sign with may not stick around."

Kiffin, of course, didn't. He went to Southern Cal, which soon went on probation, though not for anything its new coach did during his first few months on the job.

Still, the NCAA shouldn't leave it up to Kiffin or any other coach at a probation-strapped school to decide which incoming freshmen are allowed to leave without penalty and which aren't.

The NCAA should allow all incoming freshmen to transfer from programs placed on probation after they've signed but before they've played. In the words of young Duke, "That's looking out for the players."

And naïve or not, isn't that what college athletics should be about?