There’s a dust-up going on at Harvard concerning the basketball staff cutting five of the previous coaching regime’s recruits. Since it may have impacted some players’ thoughts on possibly transferring, hoping to play elsewhere, to them and their families, it probably runs a little deeper than that.
Coaches have the right to cut players, to deny them an opportunity to play or even to be on the team. The ability to make those sort of decisions is part of the confidence that an athletic department and athletic director and university bestows upon a coach when they hire that coach. Now, most Division I schools don’t even have tryouts, and if they do have them, they are pretty much pro-forma, i.e., a bit of a charade. Still, when we had them when I was at Harvard (’85-’91), though it felt like it was costing you a day of practice, it was an interesting exercise and often brought with it a touch of angst or uneasiness. Could you make a place on the roster for someone you did not recruit, thereby displacing someone you did recruit, and to whom, presumably, you had more allegiance? Not always so easy and at times you can make mistakes, or moves you regret.
So, a couple years after we cut a player, a move that drew letters to the editor in The Harvard Crimsom, I’m sitting in a gym at The College of St. Rose in Albany, NY watching an AAU team from that area practice. I was there checking out Greg Koubek (who later went on to four Final Four appearances with Duke) and Brendan O’Sullivan (who eventually starred at Dartmouth) both players with the necessary grades and basketball acumen to have helped us. The only other coach in the gym was Terry Holland, then head coach at Virginia; he was there keeping an eye out on Koubek. Since there was no one else in the gym to talk to, I sidled over to Holland, introduced myself, and he to me. We chatted, then, upon hearing that I was at Harvard, he, citing the one thought he could have possibly had that related to Harvard Basketball (I mean, here’s a two-time ACC Coach of the Year and we were, well, Harvard Hoops), asked me “what ever happened to _ _ _ _ _ _, we had him at our summer camp a few years back and in the staff games, he gave Ralph Sampson fits”. My (and I’m pretty sure I must have half-mumbled this, way-y-y under my breath) reply? “Oh, we cut him.” Holland, thinking for a second, no doubt conjuring up what he imagined an approximation of what he guessed Harvard’s record to be the previous season (6-20), figuratively, if not literally, scratched his head.
Maybe it was a mistake, maybe it wasn’t. We had the tryouts, we weighed the factors that all coaches of good conscience could and should apply: style of play, offseason commitment to program, perceived chemistry with other players and coaches, development potential, was-it-a-good-fit?, etc. I don’t recall whether there was direct communication with that player or other players who, over the years, expected to make the team and didn’t. I hope we did. The point is (and I have no idea what happened most recently at Harvard, other than what I read in the NY Times which – guaranteed – is not the whole story): it seems to me that in this matter, as in so many, difficult as it may be, communication, transparency, accountability and careful consideration of what’s best for the player and the team are, at minimum, required of the coaching staff. As coaches require commitment from players, players and families should have clear communication from coaches. After all, rightly or wrongly, based in reality or not, being a part of a college basketball team, once denied, is a cut that can really hurt.