SCOTT: Football players bouncing around

Richard Kovalcheck transferred from Arizona to Vanderbilt recently with the intention of competing for the Commodores' starting quarterback job. Immediately. Without sitting out a season. And it's not against the rules – at least not yet anyway.

Under a rule originally intended to reward true academic achievement, the NCAA is allowing athletes with a fifth year of eligibility to transfer immediately without penalty if they have already earned a bachelor's degree. The rule, passed on April 27, provides athletes with the opportunity to select a graduate school that meets their academic and athletic interests.

 

Kovalcheck isn't alone either. Offensive lineman Tyler Krieg recently left Duke for Cal and will be eligible this fall.

 

That might look good on the surface, but consider this: every fifth-year senior with a degree could become a free agent of sorts. No wonder SEC football coaches are worried about the possible impact of this new rule.

 

"A guy like Ronnie Brown might have left is and gone start for someone who's got a chance to win a national championship," Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville told the Birmingham News last week during his time at the SEC spring meetings in Destin, Fla. "It's a pretty scary thought."

 

It might be scary for coaches, but not for athletes. Consider Kovalcheck's case.

 

Kovalcheck, who is 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, spent three years at Arizona. He redshirted in 2003, played two seasons and then graduated after only three years.

 

As a redshirt freshman in 2004, Kovalcheck completed 80 of 168 passes for 1,039 yards, six touchdowns and seven interceptions. Last season, he completed 125 of 220 passes for 1,351 yards, 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

 

Now he has two years of eligibility remaining and will compete for the starting job following the loss of All-SEC quarterback Jay Cutler, a first-round 2006 NFL Draft choice of the Denver Broncos. Kovalcheck will battle against sophomore Chris Nickson and redshirt freshman Mackenzi Adams for the starting job at Vanderbilt.

 

"I'm not going there to sit on the bench," Kovalcheck told The Tennessean. "I definitely want to get on the field and do some things and try to get the program to a bowl game for the first time since 1982."

 

So why leave Arizona in the first place? For one thing, Kovalcheck lost his starting job to Willie Tuitama, who played well down the stretch in 2005 and will likely be Arizona's starter this season as well.

 

Academics also play into the picture. Kovalcheck, 21, said Arizona didn't offer graduate work in health care while Vanderbilt offers an MBA graduate program in health care.

 

"When I first decided I was going to look into other schools, I talked to the compliance office at (Arizona), and they said it would be a strong case for a petition to the NCAA," Kovalcheck said. "So I was thinking about petitioning, but then the rule came through. It worked out real nice.

 

"The combination of the SEC, the coaching staff, Jay leaving, and the MBA program from that kind of school -- and on top of that having a scholarship, it's a perfect situation."

 

It's not so perfect for the rest of the SEC. Think of all the outstanding players who could have transferred as fifth-year seniors with bachelor's degrees? Start with Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning and Alabama's Shaun Alexander, and it's easy to see the chaotic and disastrous potential of this well-intended but poorly written and executed new rule.

 

"I found out about it just last week," Arkansas basketball coach Stan Heath told The Commercial Appeal. "And I said, 'Huh?'

 

"From an academic standpoint, it does sound good. From a basketball standpoint and running a program, it can be very difficult. The person who graduates early with a year left to play becomes very marketable.

 

"That person gets rewarded, but in some ways it penalizes your program. As a coach, now you're thinking that maybe your players shouldn't take so many summer courses, that you might want to slow down the progress toward a degree a bit.

 

"You hope for the most part that a kid would graduate and stay in that program because he has been successful. But some of that may depend on what kinds of courses are offered in graduate school."

 

It's not just SEC coaches who are worried. Imagine a starter at a Sun Belt Conference school who has developed into a legitimate NFL draft prospect and he wants to improve his draft stock by playing his final season of eligibility in the SEC, ACC or Big 12. Or how about an experienced backup quarterback at a BCS school leaving for more playing time at a low- or mid-major Division I-A school? Think about it, LSU fans: that could be Matt Flynn next summer.

 

It's probably not as big of a problem for basketball, since most of the true draft prospects leave before their senior seasons anyway. Still, imagine how Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl would feel if senior Dane Bradshaw, who has earned his degree, were to leave before his senior season so he could play somewhere else?

 

That might be a wonderful opportunity for the athletes, but coaches are concerned about losing experienced competitors and having to replace them sooner than they originally expected. It's not realistic to think a coach can recruit someone in June to replace someone in August.

 

"It's unbelievable," Florida football Coach Urban Meyer said. "It's a loophole that needs to be closed.

 

"I can see when I was at Bowling Green all of a sudden a young guy hears that rule and he says, 'You know what, I'm having a hell of a career here. I'm going to graduate and go try my take at another university and not have to sit.' I don't think everyone is aware of that rule. It's hidden. I can't see that one sticking around."

 

That appears to be the general consensus among coaches, athletic directors and SEC officials. After discussing the matter in Destin, the SEC moved toward closing the loop hole.

 

SEC Commissioner Mike Slive told the media gathered in Destin that several conferences are working on ways to change the rule. In the meantime, we're not likely to see many players follow Kovalcheck immediately. In addition to his degree, Kovalcheck just happens to fall under the SEC's current transfer rule because he has two years of eligibility remaining and not many athletes will fit those requirements.

 

"Certainly, if your guys can leave, we want the ability to bring in some other guys," Tennessee football coach Phil Fulmer said. "But how many are there really of those? I don't really think it's going to last anyway. I've heard this will be a one-year deal."

 

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Richard Scott is a Birmingham based sports writer, author and a featured columnist in Tiger Rag magazine. Reach him at RScottfree@aol.com.

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