Many of the particulars of this week’s transfer controversy involving Wisconsin’s athletics program and Cedar Rapids Jefferson graduate Jarrod Uthoff were set in motion two years ago when Wisconsin sought a signed Iowa recruit during a coaching change.
Ben Brust, Cody Larson, Zach McCabe and Devyn Marble signed letters of intent in November 2009 to play basketball at Iowa. When Iowa fired Coach Todd Lickliter in March 2010, all four were unsure of their Iowa future.
Within days of his hiring, new Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery tried to re-recruit all four players. McCabe had no interest in leaving Iowa, but Marble was a more difficult sell. Both opted to stay.
Brust and Larson were unsure of the new Iowa coaching staff and asked for their scholarship release. There still was hope — from Iowa’s perspective — that both would consider Iowa.
“We released them,” Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta said at the time. “We didn’t put any stipulations. We gave them a full release from the University of Iowa.
“I still hope they come here. If they don’t, selfishly, and I say that with a smile, I don’t want to have to compete against them. But I also, that’s probably why the rule was put in place years and years ago. But if that ends up through the appeal process getting passed, then we won’t stand in the way.”
Larson opted to play for Florida. After multiple conversations, Brust declined McCaffery’s overtures. Brust considered Big
Ten schools Wisconsin and Northwestern among others. But at that time, the league’s intra-conference transfer rule prohibited athletes from obtaining a scholarship after signing a letter of intent to play for another Big Ten school.
Brust sought a waiver to the rule, and Iowa wrote a letter to the league on his behalf. But the Big Ten’s academics and eligibility subcommittee denied Brust’s request for a waiver. Brust, through Wisconsin, appealed the ruling and it was granted. One Big Ten official said the league and schools feared a lawsuit from the Brust family.
Brust then committed to Wisconsin and received a scholarship to play basketball.
At the Big Ten’s annual spring meetings in May 2010, the league’s intra-conference transfer rules were heavily discussed by coaches and administrators. (The subject also flew under the media radar because of the impending expansion talks.)
“We’ve gotten ourselves into a little bit of a gray area relative to inter-conference transfers and so that’s something that we’re going to have to address,” Northwestern Athletics Director Jim Phillips said at the time. “I think this particular situation (Brust’s transfer) is really the impetus for us to discuss it and what do we want to do moving forward?”
So, had the Big Ten opened itself up for potential litigation by allowing Brust to earn a scholarship?
“I think that’s the question that we have to ask ourselves,” Phillips said. “Have we now, as a league, opened up a series of new opportunities that didn’t exist. We’ve been pretty steadfast in how we dealt with inter-conference transfers and the rule was pretty clear. Now we may have stepped into an area that isn’t quite as clear as we’ve been.”
For Wisconsin Athletics Director Barry Alvarez, there was clarity at the time.
“We talked a little bit about it,” Alvarez said. “The rules won’t change.”
Some people in the room characterized the atmosphere as “intense” in the basketball discussion about transfers.
“I wouldn’t say heated, but it was a long discussion,” former Illinois men’s basketball coach Bruce Weber said at the time. “It was just different viewpoints. One, you want what’s best for the league and keep the best players in the league if possible. The other is when it really affects you and you lose a kid and it’s not your fault, that’s a tough situation, to.
“There were a lot of different opinions and obviously with the schools that were involved with (Brust). They were the ones … until it really affects you when you go through it, you have a better feel of really what it means and how it will affect you in the short term and long run.”
“That’s something that the league can take very seriously,” former Penn State Coach Ed DeChellis said at the time. “I don’t know if the cat is out of the bag, but it’s up to us as coaches to take another look at it and make recommendations.”
Weber said the discussion ranged from the narrow points of view — Iowa losing a player and Wisconsin picking up one — to the national trend of players leaving schools after their coaches leave.
“I think it’s beyond even the Big Ten; it’s the national letter,” Weber said. “There are a lot of kids, more and more, with coaching changes getting out of their national letters. The problem you have here is you have teams that you play, they’re rivals and you’re going to touch them. It’s one thing to sign someone, and he goes across the country. It maybe doesn’t affect you the rest of his career. But when it’s right in your conference, it becomes a touchy issues there’s no doubt about it.”
When asked if the topic generated discussion, Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan said at the time, “We discuss a lot of things. I’ve been around the Big Ten since the ’70s as an assistant. Things are done for a reason. Things are put in place and then there’s always circumstances.
“The rule was in effect and was in effect for a long time. How the process worked and all that, I’m not somebody that knows everything about the rules that way. I don’t think anybody really did. But what transpired on this is an individual family making a decision, and it was in their hands. Everything else that happened was through the Big Ten.”
On Oct. 25, 2010, the league revamped all of its intra-conference transfer rules, not just athletes who sign letters of intent and want out. Athletes who want to transfer within the conference now can earn immediate scholarships with a complete release. Athletes who do not receive a full release must pay for one season but then are eligible for scholarships and competition afterward.
The new rules went into effect for the 2011-2012 school year. All of it stemmed from Brust gaining a release from Iowa and wanting a scholarship from Wisconsin, which was granted.
Cedar Rapids Jefferson star forward Jarrod Uthoff picked Wisconsin over several high-major colleges, including Big Ten rivals Iowa, Indiana, Illinois and Northwestern in July 2010. He was tabbed Iowa’s Mr. Basketball in 2011 and left for Madison after his high school graduation.
Ryan was high on Uthoff and wanted him to play right away. Uthoff was asked to enter an early-season game, but chose to sit out and red-shirt instead.
“I was ready to go in, but at the same time I know it was in my best interest to get stronger and I needed that year to get stronger,” Uthoff said.
Uthoff, a 6-foot-8 forward, packed on 15 pounds during the season but grew disinterested with Ryan’s successful — yet methodical — style of play.
“Through the course of the year I got a better understanding of the system and how it works,” Uthoff said. “I’ve been thinking about this decision for a couple of months. Finally I decided it would be best to transfer.”
Uthoff waited until the Badgers’ Sweet 16 season was over to tell Ryan. He called Ryan while the coach was on vacation and told him he was leaving. Ryan told ESPN’s “Mike and Mike” he offered to come back to Madison, but Uthoff said his decision was final.
On April 12, 2012, Uthoff submitted a list of 16 prospective schools for transfer to Wisconsin officials. Four were denied — Iowa, Indiana, Iowa State and Marquette. Wisconsin also restricted Uthoff from the contact with any Big Ten school.
Monday, Virginia Coach Tony Bennett wanted permission to contact Uthoff. Bennett also recruited Uthoff before he picked Wisconsin. Badgers officials then restricted Virginia and the rest of the ACC. The move left Uthoff perplexed.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Uthoff said.
Ryan told “Mike and Mike” he just wanted answers from Uthoff regarding the restricted schools.
Uthoff had two days in which to appeal the restricted schools. Tuesday, a source close to the situation told The Gazette that Wisconsin had never received Uthoff’s appeal letter.
Wednesday, Uthoff asked Wisconsin officials why they hadn’t received his appeal. He told The Gazette he had dropped off his appeal letter with the department secretary, who had placed it in Justin Doherty’s mailbox. Doherty, Wisconsin’s associate athletics director for external affairs, found it and the appeal process proceeded.
Thursday, Uthoff met with Doherty and Alvarez for about 90 minutes to discuss the appeal. After Uthoff left, Doherty and Alvarez met with Ryan. Uthoff’s restrictions were lifted for all non-Big Ten schools. Uthoff has eight days to appeal the restriction to Wisconsin’s board of athletics.
Uthoff also is weighing his intra-conference options over Wisconsin’s restrictions. Because of the rules changes — prompted by Wisconsin’s recruitment of Brust — Uthoff could transfer within the conference and still earn a scholarship. If Wisconsin maintains its Big Ten restrictions, Uthoff would have to pay his own way for just one season. He also is ineligible for competition for one year at any Division I school.
“I’m just going to take it one step at a time now and see what options, see what I like out there right now,” Uthoff said. “And then we’ll kind of go from there.”
Friday morning, through the NCAA’s Twitter feed @insidetheNCAA, NCAA President Mark Emmert loosely commented on transfer cases.
“transfer rules need to be looked at to be sure they are fair to student-athletes. And they are too complicated,” the site quoted Emmert. Later, “NCAA rules made by committees not President Emmert.”
So where does this go from here? You can bet Iowa, Wisconsin, the Big Ten and the NCAA will be involved.