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Ham-fisted satellite camp ban creates unintended mess for coaches

The move to ban satellite camps seemed to be a resounding victory for the SEC and ACC. But the unintended consequences of the new rule have created a mess—one that mostly hurts those coaches who weren’t a target of the ban in the first place.

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When Hugh Freeze coached at tiny Lambuth University, he sent coaches to work camps at bigger schools. He did the same when he coached at Arkansas State. In the camps Freeze has run since becoming the head coach at Ole Miss, he has stood before hundreds of campers and reminded them that while only a few of them will be recruited by the Rebels, all should work hard because coaches from Arkansas State, South Alabama and elsewhere would also be working with campers. Those schools, Freeze would remind the campers, also offer scholarships.

Monday morning, Freeze’s phone rang. On the other end was a coach wondering if he was no longer allowed to work the Ole Miss camp. The coach worked at an FBS school, and Freeze realized that coach would be banned by a rule passed Friday. The SEC—Ole Miss’s league—and ACC had spearheaded an effort to ban satellite camps. Since such camps were created by coaches from one college working a camp at a host high school or college in a recruit-rich area, the rule banned any FBS coach from working a camp that wasn’t on his own campus. The NCAA Division I management council voted, and the ban is effective immediately. Freeze realized quickly that the ban had a serious consequence he hadn’t considered. In keeping Michigan coaches from working camps at high schools in Alabama, Florida and Georgia and Oklahoma State coaches from working camps at a Division III school in Texas, the schools also had banned Bowling Green coaches from working Ohio State’s camp and Arkansas State coaches from working the Ole Miss camp.

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One of the most cost-effective methods for Group of Five schools to recruit and one of the best ways for recruits to get noticed by schools that might be good fits was eliminated in a flash, and no one wanted it to happen. But the SEC and ACC were so determined to defend their turf that they didn’t think about the consequences. Neither did the schools of the Sun Belt or Mountain West, which kneecapped their coaches by siding with the SEC and ACC. The Big 12 and Pac-12 also voted to ban satellite camps even though it didn’t appear to be in their best interests, and one Pac-12 coach wondered aloud Monday how that could happen. (More on that later.)

I’ve told you for a year that the satellite camp argument was one of the stupidest in the long and storied history of stupid NCAA rule arguments. It came to the stupidest logical conclusion Friday when a vote that should have been 11–4—because each Power Five conference vote counts double—against the ban came out 10–5 in favor of the ban. Maybe schools were more worried about keeping Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan coaches from working camps in Birmingham, Atlanta, Dallas and South Florida than they were about what was best for them. Maybe the people voting didn’t think hard enough about the consequences. Maybe they simply weren’t very bright. Maybe they had political reasons for standing with the ACC and SEC, which were trying to defend their turf.*

*I have zero problem with the ACC and SEC seeking a ban. Entities are supposed to act in their own best interests. My problem is with the Big 12, Pac-12, Sun Belt and Mountain West, which did not. Usually, people who vote opposite their own interests are stupid, corrupt or a combination of the two.

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It says something about the ham-fisted construction of this rule that one of the coaches from one of the leagues that championed it is already expressing regrets. Freeze wants to find a way to change the rule so coaches from Group of Five schools can still work camps in conjunction with Power Five schools. “I would love to continue that,” Freeze said Monday. “I just don’t want satellite camps for the Power Five. I am for non-Power Five schools being able to attend and evaluate.” Freeze agrees with the intention of the rule—just not the unintended consequences. He does not think his coaches should be able to work a camp in Houston, smack in the middle of Texas A&M’s recruiting territory. He does, however, think South Alabama coaches should be allowed to work the Ole Miss camp.

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In this he is joined by Ohio State’s Urban Meyer. Meyer said Monday that every MAC school has been represented at Ohio State’s camps, and he hates to think that coaches from Bowling Green and Miami (Ohio) might not get a chance to meet some players from across the country by working the camp in Columbus. Meyer also has looked at this issue as a parent. His son Nate is a high school sophomore who will hit the camp circuit this summer. While Meyer makes plenty of money, he remembers a time when he didn’t. For parents who don’t have much, sending their sons to multiple schools’ camps could get very expensive. Before, a player from Columbus could get evaluated by the Ohio State coaches and the entire MAC at Ohio State’s camp. He could then drive to Lexington or Knoxville and be seen by an SEC staff and multiple Sun Belt or Conference USA staffs. Two camps—both drivable—might get that player seen by 15–20 FBS staffs. Now, that recruit or his parents would have to pay the entry fee for more camps as well travel expenses to each. “Do you send your kid to eight camps?” Meyer said. 

This rule makes the ACC and SEC look like they’re anti-student athlete, and that’s probably because they are being anti-student athlete in this case. Because they want the great high school players in their footprint to focus on their schools, they didn’t want schools from the Big Ten and Big 12 to have easier access to those players. Now, those recruits have fewer choices if they want to be seen by coaches at Ohio State or Oregon or Boise State.  Meanwhile, there is another group of players who think they’re good enough to play at Michigan State or Texas but who might only be good enough to play for Western Michigan or Texas State. Since most players don’t think about the correct level for themselves below the Power Five, they’re still going to go to the camp in East Lansing or Austin. But now there won’t be any Group of Five coaches there to see them. Perhaps those Group of Five coaches might come across those players in their own recruiting efforts, but being allowed to work Power Five camps gave them a low-cost option to cast a wider net and helped them find the players who best fit at their level.

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The ban leaves recruits with a few options if they want to get noticed by schools that aren’t an easy drive away. They can ask their parents to buy expensive plane tickets. They can hope their high school coach organizes a trip that they’ll probably still have to pay for. Or they can pile into a van with a bunch of other recruits and hit campuses across the country. Does the driver of that van get an envelope under the door at certain schools? Yes he does. But the ACC and SEC weren’t concerned about choking off that underground economy. If anything, the skeevy guy who rents the van just became more valuable. So good job, good effort.

Meanwhile, one Power Five coach said his league voted against the wishes of most of the schools in his league. In an interview Monday with myself and Jack Arute on Playbook on SiriusXM’s College Sports Nation, Washington State coach Mike Leach said most schools in the Pac-12 were for satellite camps. ESPN’s Brett McMurphy previously reported that the Pac-12 voted in favor of the ban, and Leach isn’t sure how that could have happened. Common sense dictates that only UCLA, USC and maybe Arizona State would want to ban such camps to protect their recruiting turf. The Pac-12’s representative on the Division I management council is UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero. A UCLA spokesman said Guerrero would not be made available to explain the Pac-12’s vote and that all questions should be referred to Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips, the acting spokesman for the committee.

Leach said such camps helped schools that needed to fill their rosters from other states. Washington State would not hold a satellite camp in Seattle, for example. Those players can drive to Pullman. But Leach would send coaches to work camps in Los Angeles, where they might have discovered some players who weren’t being recruited by UCLA or USC but might still be good enough to play in the Pac-12. Many of those players, Leach said, can’t afford to pay their own way to Pullman to check out the school. “I don’t know if there was a genuine determination to further oppress low-income families, but that’s essentially the effect that this rule on satellite camps has,” Leach said.

Leach also said schools need to stop worrying about what Jim Harbaugh is doing and worry about their own interests. “For those in the SEC that don’t like satellite camps, they need to stop being such big babies,” Leach said.

Freeze doesn’t want Power Five coaches traipsing across the country, but he does want Group of Five coaches to have a chance to work Power Five camps so more players can be discovered by those schools. The question is, how do the schools change the rule to fit? Here are a few potential options.

• Freeze won’t like this one, but schools could simply go back to the way things were before. No one really cared when Mike Gundy’s Oklahoma State staff was working camps at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, Texas. It wasn’t that big of a deal when Penn State coaches worked Georgia State’s camp in Atlanta and Stetson’s camp in DeLand, Fla. It was only when Michigan’s Harbaugh began touring the country that anyone noticed and began complaining. So schools could accept the fact that this was a silly rule in the first place and overturn it. That doesn’t seem likely at this point.

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• A league could propose a rule that FBS coaches are allowed to work camps only at other FBS schools. To further regulate it, coaches from each staff could only work a certain number of off-campus camps—three, five or whatever the schools choose. This would allow MAC staffs to work Big Ten camps and Sun Belt staffs to work SEC camps. It also would allow Harbaugh and his staff to work a camp in Waco with Baylor or in Boca Raton, Fla., with Florida Atlantic, but no one could pepper the country by teaming with high-value high schools.

• Freeze will like this one best, but it may not be workable even with the current governance structure. Since the Power Five schools were granted autonomy to essentially make rules to govern themselves, they could ban their coaches from working camps off campus but allow their schools to host the staffs of Group of Five schools for camps. This would reinstate the part that most benefits the recruits while still banning the part the ACC and SEC wished to ban. The question is whether such a rule is possible. Would it have to apply to all coaches in the FBS, or could it separate coaches using the schools’ agreed-upon caste system?

• Group of Five assistants could file an antitrust suit against the NCAA, the SEC, the ACC and all the other leagues that voted for the ban. Because lower-level coaches are paid to work the camps, they could claim these entities colluded to take away an opportunity for them to earn money that the entities would have paid to them without the ban. If you don’t believe this would work, read about what happened when the schools tried to use NCAA rules to cap certain coaches’ earnings.

Any of these solutions would be preferable to the rule that passed Friday. The people who voted in favor didn’t consider the consequences, and now they need to try to clean up their mess.