Asked about the National Association of Basketball Coaches’ urging of members to stop offering scholarships to prospects not yet in their junior years of high school, Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings couldn’t resist a joke.
“Doggone Billy,” he cracked.
And the reaction of Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury?
“Is this the Billy Rule or what?” he joked.
Billy, in this case, is Kentucky’s Billy Gillispie. The NABC formally asked its members last month to stop the early offers not long after Gillispie received commitments from eighth-grader Michael Avery and ninth-grader Vinny Zollo.
But the “Billy Rule” now can reference a different Billy — Florida coach Billy Donovan. Two weeks after the NABC’s announcement, Donovan promptly accepted a commitment from Austin Rivers, a member of the 2011 class. Rivers is the son of Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers.
Offering scholarships to prospects too young for a driver’s license isn’t a novel idea — Bobby Knight pegged Damon Bailey as a future star in the mid-1980s and accepted a commitment his sophomore year — but it’s certainly more prevalent in recent years.
Last year, Southern Cal’s Tim Floyd accepted a verbal commitment from guard Ryan Boatright before he even picked a high school. Taylor King committed to UCLA after his eighth-grade season in 2003, then signed with Duke and now attends Villanova.
And Tennessee’s Bruce Pearl offered a scholarship to Cordell Passley, then a rising high school sophomore, three years ago. Passley never signed with the Vols and now attends Vincennes University in Indiana.
“The academic and athletic profiles of these younger students are still very much works in progress,” said former Kentucky coach Tubby Smith, now with Minnesota and on the NABC’s board of directors. “Coaches and athletes need to respect the process and allow development to occur in both areas prior to making commitments.”
The NABC cannot enforce the rule, only make a suggestion. NABC Executive Director Jim Haney said he hopes to pass legislation making such recruiting a violation of NCAA rules starting in 2010.
The proposed rule is drawing the ire of Pearl and Donovan, who also accepted commitments from Teddy Dupay, Mike Miller and Nick Calathes before their junior years of high school. All three were or, in the case of Calathes, are productive players.
“I, quite frankly, don’t understand it,” Pearl said. “I would prefer to see the NABC spending their time with issues with greater effect like coaches’ lack of job security and the NCAA rules as it relates to how we can recruit and our inability to communicate, like having one phone call a month and not being able to text. There are other problems. I just don’t understand this.”
Per NCAA rules, Donovan cannot comment on his recruitment of Rivers. But he said the situation was much different and not intended to mock the NABC.
Donovan and Doc Rivers are longtime friends. Austin Rivers’ sister, Callie, plays volleyball for Florida. And Austin Rivers attended Florida’s summer camps the last three years.
“It was based upon the best interests of the young man and the University of Florida by way of relationship,” Donovan said. “It’s a completely different situation. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.
“I will say this: One of the things going on that the NABC needs to be clearer on is there are a lot of these seventh- and eighth-grade camps going on. And college coaches are working them. They’re seeing the best seventh- and eighth-graders play.”
Most coaches said the NABC’s proposal isn’t going to change recruiting until the NCAA passes legislation. The problem, several said, is enforcing the rule.
No one can stop a 14-year-old kid from telling media outlets that he’s committing to a school. Rules already exist preventing coaches from contacting high school freshmen, but those prospects can initiate contact with the coach.
“We’re supposed to be doing the best job we can,” said Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy, who claimed he can tell, in a camp of 100 ninth- and tenth-graders, who will be the stars. “If a kid wants to go to a school and make a commitment, he should be able to do so.”
And the namesake of the so-called Billy Rule? Expect Gillispie to live up to the name.
“I haven’t changed my opinion at all,” he said. “I’m a company man, but I’m not going to get beat up as far as competing. I will always try to do what the coaches organization asks. But I’m not going to let the competition get ahead of me.”