Mike Casazza: Background check could help WVU hoops retain recruits

MORGANTOWN, W.Va.­ — It seems like we’ve spent a lot of time lately discussing and thus debating the recruiting and the retaining of West Virginia University basketball players. What we can agree on is recruiting is the essence of a program and retaining is an element that can facilitate staying power.

Schools know this. The WVU athletic department’s 2012-13 equity report shows the Mountaineers spent $1,312,757 on recruiting. That’s a lot of money, and it figures to increase as the Mountaineers enjoy the financial fruits of their associations with the Big 12 and IMG College and they find ways to improve everything under the athletic department’s roof.

Maybe recruiting needs some dollars thrown its way. In that same report, the Mountaineers reported $73,501,593 in expenses. Recruiting for the 17 sports accounts for just 1.8 percent of athletic department expenses.

Now, there’s only so much a school can do or is allowed to do to enhance the recruiting enterprise. But that’s another story because there’s another part attached to recruiting and retaining. It’s research. It’s about getting to know your recruits before they become your players.

In his press conference Saturday defending his program and insisting what’s happening on his watch is happening everywhere, Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins made it clear recruiting is an inexact science rife with surprises about players and their backgrounds and their personalities and the company they keep.

That’s a valid point, and the fact so many coaches at so many places are caught off guard proves it’s just not possible to be more proactive to prevent players from never showing up or transferring.

But couldn’t schools help?

Head coaches, assistants and even directors of operations are busy men who are governed by the NCAA. The combination of time and rule constraints puts limits on what and on how much a coach or a program can know about a recruit.

But let’s not worry about the problem. Let’s worry about the solution.

What if teams devoted someone full-time to exploring the backgrounds of players, their families, their friends, their entourages, their enablers, their high schools, their academics, their reputations, their legal standing or any one of the many things that happen to these schools?

Let’s flash back to that 2013-13 equity report. In the four annual reports before that, men’s basketball averaged $230,102 spent on recruiting expenses. Again, a large and nationally competitive chunk of money, but look around and wonder if it was well-spent.

In those same four years, WVU averaged $196,884 spent on what it calls “Support Staff/Administrative Salaries, Benefits and Bonuses Paid,” and offices everywhere are swelling with people hired and given odd titles and specific responsibilities. Surely someone positioned to investigate prospective student-athletes would fall into the support staff and could probably run a google search to see if someone faces charges for failing to appear in court.

What’s another, say, $40,000 for someone to do not what coaches can’t do, but what prioritization and legislation don’t let them do? It’s a drop in the bucket for a school like WVU that’s spending $106 million on facility projects. It’s not a novel concept, either. Many schools, including WVU, have considered a like role for admissions. There’s no reason to think it couldn’t happen in athletics.

So let’s agree for a moment what’s happening at WVU is happening everywhere. Noah Cottrill was suspended before he withdrew and later took steps to address addiction problems.

“I’d like to think I’m a fairly intelligent guy,” Huggins said, “but I’m not a doctor.”

Huggins shouldn’t have to be responsible for that — but someone definitely should.

David Nyarsuk had what Huggins called a “language problem” that played a role in Nyarsuk struggling with qualifying tests and not being cleared academically. Pat Forsythe’s father is blind and Forsythe was allowed to transfer to Akron and play right away because of his father’s health. It might seem hard to pin those on Huggins, but it’s fair to wonder if in the future more research on similar situations at any school might prevent those players from coming and going.

When junior college guard Tarik Phillip signed last month, Huggins admitted there was some confusion over Phillip’s legal standing and that the Mountaineers didn’t know some things had been left unresolved. Maybe the offenses are minor ones, but the misunderstanding is not. It shouldn’t happen, and Huggins is made to deal with it, even if it seems WVU was misled in the process.

Now, it’s not always going to work. Darrious Curry was found to have a heart condition and was medically disqualified. Short of Curry volunteering for a physical, there’s no way WVU could have known without violating federal regulations.

And WVU knew Aaric Murray pretty well before he transferred from LaSalle. The team recruited him as a troubled high school prospect with documented personal and legal problems before he chose to stay close to home and play for the Explorers. The Mountaineers thought they had a chance to help Murray with a year off as a transfer and that Murray would help for one or two seasons as a player. It didn’t work, and Murray was kicked off the team last offseason, but at some point it’s on the player.

But the point here is that there is so much more in play than the players, and we were reminded of that again last week. To hear Huggins explain things, losing Eron Harris and Terry Henderson had a whole lot to do with the voices in their corners whispering things in their ears.

“There are a lot of other people in young peoples’ lives other than their head basketball coach,” Huggins said. “You’d like to think they’d defer to (the head coach’s) expertise, but that doesn’t always happen.”

But if schools knew more about meddlesome AAU coaches, disgruntled parents, troubling habits and all the other persuasive influences that can take a player off campus after so much time, effort and money was spent getting him on campus, maybe they’d avoid a similar mistake in the future.

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymailwv.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.

More News