Discontent With Letter of Intent : Darrick Martin Case Raises Questions About Commitments

Times Staff Writer

The letter of intent, a document that is supposed to reduce college recruiting problems and excesses, is at the heart of one notable problem.

Jesse Martin wants to get his son Darrick, star point guard at St. Anthony High School in Long Beach, excused from his agreement to attend UCLA. A National Collegiate Athletic Assn. steering committee recently ruled the letter valid and binding.

The elder Martin has not specified why he wants the release for his 17-year-old son. If he gets the Bruins to agree to release him, however, Darrick will be free to play somewhere else next season, without penalty.

The change of heart in the Martin camp apparently stems from the recent coaching change at UCLA. Darrick Martin signed his letter last November, when Walt Hazzard was the coach. But Hazzard was fired this spring, after which Jesse Martin decided that UCLA wasn't the place for his son anymore. He said that even before Jim Harrick of Pepperdine was named to replace Hazzard.

Most coaches seem to think that a change of that sort should cancel the athlete's obligation. Still, it is an interesting dilemma, which raises several questions:

--Would a coach--any coach--want someone on the team who didn't want to be there, someone who has said so publicly?

--At what point does a school stop trying to hold the line and let the player go with an unconditional release?

--What obligations does the athlete have?

There are two schools of thought.

According to one, it is ridiculous to make someone play for a school. Any school insisting that a reluctant athlete live up to his letter is asking for trouble. Coaches don't want the problems likely to occur, personally and with the team.

The other view points out that after signing Martin, UCLA stopped recruiting freshmen point guards, and maybe other players, too, because the coaches couldn't promise a scholarship they didn't expect to have. Now, after the April late-signing period, Martin wants out and the Bruins could be stuck without a replacement. Isn't there something to be said for fairness on both sides?

Here is what people are saying, either about the Martin case in particular or the situation in general:

--Jesse Martin: "How can one kid make a difference on a team of five players? If a kid expresses a desire to leave, or demonstrates he doesn't want to be there, why won't they let him go?"

--Harrick: "If Darrick would have tore his knee up or something playing in the McDonald's (high school all-star) game in Albuquerque and could never play again, we would honor the commitment and still give him the scholarship.

"I just think you have a lot of problems with (releasing a player from his obligation). You've got to look at both sides. What if we, as a school, were suddenly unhappy with a kid and didn't want him to come? Life is a two-way street."

--Jerry Pimm, coach at UC Santa Barbara: "That's a valid point. When a letter of intent is signed, it's signed by both parties. That means the player cannot be recruited anymore, but also that the school is committing one of their 15 financial-aid packages to the youngster. It's a commitment by both sides.

"(But) I wouldn't want to coach someone who doesn't want to be on my team. That's the bottom line. Life's too short to take time away from either side by holding someone back."

--Jerry Tarkanian, coach at Nevada Las Vegas: "I would never hold a kid who wants out of a letter. The basis of our program is players giving 100% all the time, and I don't believe anyone would play hard and work hard if they were in a program they didn't want to be in.

"If you talk a kid into changing his mind or staying in the program, you're not going to get the 100% effort. It's not the same thing. I think there will be a difference. I want kids on my team who want to be there."

--George Raveling, coach at USC: "I think there are a lot of considerations. You have to ask yourself if another school has tampered with a player to the extent that he doesn't want to go to your institution. Then there is a certain consideration of how much impact the player will have to the program.

"If you've spent a lot of time and effort and money on the recruitment of the player, I think you have an obligation to the institution to do everything humanly possible to see that he attends because you have spent a lot of the school's money.

"My mindset would be one of great reluctance to let a player out of his obligation."

--Bill Mulligan, coach at UC Irvine: "It always seems to come out that the school and the coach are the bad guy and the kid is the good guy. We all know that's not true. I'm not against kids, but this type of thing always seems to come out that way."

--Joe Harrington, coach at Cal State Long Beach: "You have to try to work out the differences and see if the problem can be worked out. If not, I certainly wouldn't want to coach someone who didn't want to play for me.

"I think it's a new concern. It could get to where the letter of intent won't mean much. It hasn't happened yet because most people still go by the rules. . . . But if one person got out of it, it could be a precedent."

--George McQuarn, coach at Cal State Fullerton: "I'm not concerned with the so-called precedent. It's very complicated to get out of a letter of intent in the first place. There are certain penalties.

"Normally, it's not going to happen. The number of kids trying to get out of a letter of intent is a very small percentage. I have no idea how many, but it's obviously less than 1%. It's only under very special circumstances that people try to get out."

Indeed, according to Fred Jacoby, commissioner of the Southwest Conference and chairman of the 5-man national letter-of-intent steering committee, of the 15,000 high school seniors who sign for all sports, only "eight or nine a year" try to break it before beginning college.

The main problem area in basketball according to coaches, is the early signing period. It was implemented four years ago to allow the high school senior who has made up his mind to commit to a college in November and then concentrate on school and the basketball season the rest of the year.

As happened at UCLA, there can be major changes from November to the late-signing period in April. Many players wanting to be released from their letters are asking because the coaches who recruited them are no longer at the schools.

"When you had one signing date, there wasn't as much of this," McQuarn said. "You can look at it as a minimal issue, but maybe a bigger part of the problem is the dual signing period."

Said Tarkanian: "The early signing period is great for coaches, not the kids. I don't understand why any great kid would sign early. There's not one benefit for them.

"They say it keeps the recruiters away so players can concentrate on the season and classes, but any good (high school) coach should be able to keep things under control. It's the (college) coaches who benefit because they can wrap up the stars early.

"It's the marginal players who benefit because they are guaranteed a scholarship, whereas they might not get one (in April)."

Despite the talk, though, no one has a solution to the problems arising out of the letter of intent. It's not as if you can just tear it up and start over.

For the Record Los Angeles Times Sunday May 15, 1988 Home Edition Sports Part 3 Page 11 Column 1 Sports Desk 2 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction A story in Saturday's editions of The Times incorrectly reported that a high school recruit who is released from a letter of intent may go to another school without penalty. National Collegiate Athletic Assn. rules stipulate that the player must sit out a year and lose that year of eligiblity.
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