NCAA may see wave of signees seeking freedom due to four big coaching changes post-early signing

The calls to Tom Mars started arriving Monday morning. They came from the parents of just-signed players at Miami, Temple and Houston who wanted to know about their options. More will likely be coming soon from Class of 2019 signees at West Virginia. Just days after signing National Letters of Intent with those schools, the coaches who the players agreed pledged their loyalty to play under have all departed.

On Sunday, Houston fired Major Applewhite and Miami's Mark Richt retired. Richt's former defensive coordinator, Manny Diaz, then left the job he had for 17 days at Temple to return to Miami and replace Richt. Minutes after the clock struck midnight on New Year's Eve, it was reported that Dana Holgorsen is finalizing a deal to leave WVU for Houston.

For now, the combined 66 just-signed prospects at those four schools are in limbo. Some would say they are trapped. They are bound to the schools they signed with due to the letters of intent. If they are not released from their NLIs, they will have to sit out the entire 2019 season and lose a year of eligibility. 

That's where Mars comes in. The Arkansas-based attorney has become the go-to advocate for these transfer waiver cases. Mars was the driving force behind six players all getting waivers to transfer immediately after NCAA sanctions hit Ole Miss.

With as many as 66 players possibly on the market seeking their freedom, it could get ugly.

The Early Signing Period has been in place for two years. This year, it was Dec. 19. Critics of the early period -- the SEC among them -- argued that this sort of situation could develop.

Coaches have complained of a Wild, Wild West environment if players are able to be released from their NLIs.

Last year, which included the first Early Signing Period, 96 percent of requested NLI releases were granted across all sports, according to Susan Peal, the NCAA's director of the National Letter of Intent.

"I expect to see, in the coming days, some [but] not all [seek NLI releases]," Peal said. "People think there will 25 or more. History shows that just doesn't happen."

Complicating matters: The NCAA had a chance to change its rules to accommodate players. According to two sources, the NCAA Transfer Working Group that loosened transfer restrictions earlier this year recommended freedom for players if a coach was fired or left abruptly. The 32 conference commissioners in charge of the NLI took no action.

The Big 12 last year proposed that players should have complete freedom in the event of a coaching change. This was the conference's contribution to transfer reform.

"Basically, we're saying kids can go anywhere they want," said Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard at the time. "For the first time ever in college athletics, the student-athlete is empowered."

The proposal never got that far. Now we're left with that 500-year flood.

"Based on the recent abrupt head coach changes, it seems likely that a number of student-athletes from Temple, Houston and Miami will end up transferring and seeking immediate eligibility so they can play next season," Mars told CBS Sports. "With that in mind, the NCAA should seriously consider making the change in the transfer rules that the working group considered this past year."

The case of three coaches leaving so soon after a recruiting class has been signed has rarely -- if ever -- occurred. There may be others depending what coaches are hired by Temple, Houston and possibly West Virginia.

When situation was compared to a 500-year flood, Justin Sell, chairman of that working group agreed. "It really is. It's an interesting case."

Miami AD Blake James told CBS Sports he would decide on release requests on a case-by-case basis.

The issue has become an ethical one for a lot of folks. Multi-million dollar coaches can change jobs at any time. Players are bound by their scholarships.

In October, at the urging of that transfer working group, the NCAA began allowing players to transfer without permission from their originating school. That change was considered long overdue as some coaches were controlling player movement merely because they could

"Schools should never be allowed to restrict athletes," said Ohio University professor David Ridpath of the reform-minded Drake Group. "Schools and coaches have got to realize their absolute power is going away. If [not], their power is going to be taken away by force.

"Not to be too cynical: If coaches and commissioners don't like it, they can do other stuff."

However, one working group source said, "All these kids better make sure they have a place to land. Everybody needs to be a little careful. … The new coach can come in and say, 'I didn't sign you. I don't want you.' I guess we'll test that proposition."

The NLI binds a player to a school for an academic year. In exchange for their athletic talents, the athlete receives room, board, books, tuition and fees. If a player leaves after than NLI is signed, they must sit out the next academic year. 

A player denied a release would appeal to the NLI Committee, a group made up of five commissioners from the AAC, American East, Big East Colonial, Conference USA. A second appeals committee is staffed by commissioners from the Big 12, Big West, Missouri Valley, Ohio Valley and Sun Belt.  

Peal indicated that when cases get that far, appeals are rarely granted.

Recruits don't have to sign a letter of intent. They can sign a non-binding scholarship agreement until the moment they actually enroll. But in the 50-plus years since the NLI was instituted, coaches have convinced prospects of the "marriage" aspect of signing with a school. Never mind coaches can leave at their leisure while the NLI binds players.

The NLI contains specific language that players are signing with a school, not a coach.

"It's the age-old question, are you signing with the coach or are you singing with the university?" said Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. "That is the ultimate question that will have to be answered."

Temple, Houston, Miami and West Virginia could, on their own, release players from their NLI. Miami might be at an advantage in keeping its class together without much convincing considering Diaz recruited many of the players over the last few years. However, Diaz is also leaving the 20 players he signed at Temple stranded, though he only led the team for a short time before the early signing period.

There is a another option for recruits. CBS Sports reported last year that a so-called CAP Agreement exists as an actual contract that can be made between a player and a school. It was developed by reformer Ramogi Huma.

"In a more perfect world, the NCAA would go ahead and make the change now," Mars said. "With the NCAA annual convention right around the corner, that would present a perfect opportunity for the NCAA to put this issue back on the agenda.

"Changing the rule now would spare these student-athletes … the burden of waiting months to learn whether they'll be the ones to suffer because their head coach suddenly saw a better opportunity."

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

Our Latest Stories