This year's winner for Annual College Basketball PR Mishap for Restricting a Transfer: Pittsburgh!
When it comes to transfers, though 99 percent of them are handled (relatively) well behind the scenes, there's always at least one every year that plays out publicly. When this happens, college basketball coaches and/or programs can't prevent coming off as petty and paranoid. Player wants to transfer. Player is held back by coach and/or school from doing so by way of intra-conference and/or schedule restrictions.
You can leave, son ... but only on our terms.
Program and coach, knowing the PR hit is coming -- and accepting that as cost versus the horror of letting a grown man make a life decision for himself; anything but that! -- hold firm until, most times, they don't. Or can't.
This issue hit the mainstream in 2011, when Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli refused to budge on Todd O'Brien. Bo Ryan worsened his reputation at Wisconsin by initially restricting Jarrod Uthoff in 2012 (Uthoff eventually wound up in the Big Ten, at Iowa, and thrived). Florida International once didn't let a player have an unconditional transfer even after Isiah Thomas was fired (!), and it was so dispiriting that the player opted to turn pro rather than jump through hoops. In 2015, former Memphis coach Josh Pastner initially fought hard against allowing Austin Nichols to transfer to Virginia.
Nichols wound up at Virginia anyway, and was summarily kicked out of the program within weeks of the start of the 2016-17 season.
Now, the uncommon situation of Cameron Johnson. In a pool of more than 500 transfers, Johnson qualifies as a top-five player this spring. Johnson is a 6-foot-8 wing who averaged 11.9 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists and shot 42 percent from 3-point range last season with Pitt. But Johnson is leaving the program for the best reason: He has already graduated from Pitt, in three years' time. What an awesome student-athlete he is. A walking logo for the NCAA's most coveted principles and ideals.
Johnson is considering Kentucky, Ohio State, Oregon, TCU, UCLA and -- here's the issue -- North Carolina. Johnson, whose grades were so good in high school he was recruited by the Ivy League; whose classroom performance was so consistent at Pitt he was a two-time ACC All-Academic honoree; whose character has never been questioned, is now being told by the University of Pittsburgh that he can't transfer to North Carolina unless he wants to sit out a year and lose one of his two seasons of eligibility remaining.
Yes, two seasons. Normal grad transfers only have one season to burn, but Johnson is not normal. He graduated in three years but still has two seasons of eligibility remaining due to a prior injury that kept him off the floor in 2015-16. After initially being told by Pittsburgh that he could not transfer within the ACC at all, Johnson appealed the decision and got a half-hearted compromise. Pitt is now fine with Johnson choosing North Carolina if he wants, but he's going to have to burn one of his two remaining seasons and sit out 2017-18.
It's a crock. Johnson graduated from Pitt. He has been nothing but an ideal model for college basketball. He's now being punished for his acumen, success and ambition. It's antithetical to the mantra of the NCAA. Players should never be restricted on transferring -- ever, anywhere, without exception -- but it's even more heinous to put lassos on a kid who graduated with stellar grades. Pitt looks awful.
Johnson, as he should, has opted to talk with the media about his situation. He told Inside Carolina that UNC is "definitely a situation that interests me."
"I've been talking with Coach (Roy) Williams and Coach (Brad) Frederick a little bit too," Johnson said. "When I got my release back in April, I tried to get Pitt to take (the ACC transfer block) down and they wouldn't take it down. I just got that decision back in the mail about a week ago -- they allowed ACC schools permission to contact me, but they put on that I'd have to sit out a year if I went to an ACC school.
"Of course, with the permission to contact, Coach Williams and Frederick reached out to me, which they weren't able to do before. Had I been able to get in contact with them all along, I would've been in contact with them all throughout the process."
It feels like many in the media hammer this declaration every year, but once and for all: There must be a new rule in place. The NCAA (made up by its member institutions, which makes things tricky) should not be allowed to restrict players who have graduated from moving on to any school of their choice. Johnson is no longer a student at Pitt and ipso facto should not be subject to any provisions. Pitt's oversight of his transfer should be voided, completely off the table.
Here's where Pitt currently stands. Hat tip to Jay Bilas for bringing a megaphone to this topic over the weekend.
Reminder: This is not a conference mandate. This is Pitt's policy. Somehow, outrageously, Pitt still has a say over Johnson even after Johnson's academic journey has been completed at the school.
"My biggest concern though, frankly, isn't the optics of it but whether it's fair or not to the young men and young women," NCAA president Mark Emmert said. "What's the rationale for constraining someone to move from school to school?"
That Emmert quote is from February 2012. Nothing is changing. What kind of player, what kind of situation, is going to eventually cause enough backlash to prompt policy change? Pitt should not be allowed to do what it's currently doing. Stop with the paranoia. Yeah, Johnson going to UNC betters UNC, and that's a tough one for Kevin Stallings to swallow, but that's what the money is for. These players aren't getting paid. Johnson isn't in position to leave Pitt and be drafted. He's a smart kid who wants to continue his studies and do so at a blue blood program.
He could go to Kentucky or UCLA or Oregon or TCU, but that isn't the point. The point is he should have the opportunity, as someone who has earned his degree, to go wherever he wants to go next. No red tape.
"I think it's just contacting certain people now who are within all of this. It's mostly what they're doing right now, in terms of talking to the ACC people and Pitt people," Johnson told Inside Carolina. "If I have to do further action in the future, then I'll do what I have to do."
Pitt went 16-17 last season, Stallings' first year with the program after he broke his contract and left Vanderbilt to take the Pitt job. He got a fresh start at the place of his choosing.
Johnson, who is no longer Stallings' or Pitt's player, deserves the same basic rights.