Getting on his calendar is no easy feat.
From recruiting to a recent meeting of the National Association of Basketball Coaches -- where he and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo were elected to the board of directors for an unprecedented second go-round in their careers – Kent is a man on the move.
“I can honestly say I haven’t slept all that much since the season ended,” he said. “I am absolutely committed to turning Washington State basketball into a year-in and year-out contender."
The conversation was so encompassing that that we decided to break it down into two parts. Today’s focus is mostly about the transfer issue and tomorrow’s is about the numerous positives Kent sees as his Cougars head toward the 2016-17 season.
Cougfan.com: Let’s start with a national issue that affects WSU: player transfers. The Miami Herald recently published an article stating that more than 700 players are transferring this spring from the 351 Division I men’s basketball programs. They dubbed it the "NCAA’s free agent market." What’s this mean for WSU and college basketball in general?
ERNIE KENT: It means that transferring is going to affect every university at every level at some point in time. It is the No. 1 problem we deal with in college basketball today. In the Pac-12, I believe the transfer total this year is around 15 players, plus several early departures for the NBA. Therefore, until there are CHANGES in college basketball, we just have to live with the transferring phenomenon.
One piece of that puzzle which needs to be looked at is the integrity of the graduate transfer rule, which was put in place so a player with remaining eligibility can transfer without sitting out if he has earned his degree and his current school doesn’t offer the graduate program he desires.
Until then, there is a right way and wrong to do it, which I can talk more about if you want. But the transfer situation is not a Washington State problem or a Pac-12 problem or even isolated to college basketball in general – it’s everywhere in society. You see young people changing jobs in short periods of time. You see 33 percent of all college students transferring. And in basketball, 41 percent of all incoming freshmen will transfer by the end of their sophomore years. It’s a societal problem, whether you’re in the corporate world or athletics. Therefore, we have to accept and live with the transferring phenomenon and in that vein there is a right way and a wrong way.
Cougfan.com: Define that – the right way vs. the wrong way – and offer up some examples.
ERNIE KENT: There are mutually agreed upon transfers that can happen for a variety of factors. Here’s a prime example: When we took over the program here, Royce Woolridge approached us. He was going to be a fifth-year senior, and a starter for us, but he wanted to be closer to his grandmother in Arizona who was ill. He was our first graduate transfer. We talked it all through and there were no hidden agendas. He was penciled in to be a starter for us. Yet with my full blessing, he played his final season at Grand Canyon University. It made sense. That is the right way for all concerned.
Now, on the flip side, when an individual sits in my office and tells me he wants to transfer because we don’t have the people to get him the ball, or a player comes into my office and says something equally puzzling, I take exception because it’s pretty clear a third-party entity is involved. I’m not talking about parents. I’m talking about individuals outside the family with their own agendas.
Cougfan.com: Fair to presume you’re alluding to Que Johnson and Valentine Izundu there?
ERNIE KENT: The only thought I'd like to share on that is both Que and Val are in summer school (at WSU) and both will have their degrees from Washington State University shortly. That keeps us at a 100 percent graduation rate for players who have finished their eligibility here or have completed their coursework with a year of eligibility remaining like Que and Val. That also means that as a program we will continue to have a strong APR (Academic Progress Report ).
I wish those guys the very best and think it’s important to look ahead, because the direction this program is heading, despite our record last season, is very positive.
Cougfan.com: With that chapter now closed, what do you see as the bottom line on it for Cougar fans?
ERNIE KENT: One point I’d like to emphasize is this: I can guarantee Coug fans is that as long as I’m the head coach at Washington State University, we are going to have players that other programs want. That’s because we’re going to be recruiting good players who get better and better while they’re here.
But I believe there is a right way and a wrong way to transfer. I may lose that debate in the court of public opinion but I’m willing to fight and take that hit because I'm never going to let anyone come in and try to make us look like second-class citizens. When people attack your school, you fight the battle.
Cougfan.com: ESPN estimates there are 75 graduate transfers this spring. And if ESPN and Scout.com reports are right, you may be courting one or two. Talk about the dichotomy of winning and losing through this process.
ERNIE KENT: It’s the game we have to play, though I can assure you third-party interference isn't part of what we do. Some people think college sports is headed to free agency. I’ve read about lawsuits by undergraduate football players seeking not to sit out a season after transferring. Can you imagine what college sports would look like when an athlete could literally play at four schools in four years?
As for fifth-year graduate transfers, we’re not trying to hold anyone back from getting their dreamed about master’s degree in a particular field. The rule was put in place for academic reasons, BUT THE RULE IS BEING USED FOR BASKETBALL DECISIONS.
I recently attended the National Association of Basketball Coaches meeting in Indianapolis and the graduate transfer rule was a huge focus of discussion. I’m also hearing that at the NCAA’s June meeting, legislation will be discussed that would hold the receiving university accountable for the incoming transfer to get his master’s degree. Right now, roughly 30 percent of graduate transfers do get their master’s, which means approximately 70 percent of those transfers are BASKETBALL DECISIONS, NOT ACADEMIC DECISIONS. The way the legislation would work is that the scholarship slot is tied up for however long the master’s program is – usually two years – and the student-athlete’s grades and progress in that program may affect your APR.
Cougfan.com: Talk about the parameters you place on players when they decide to transfer.
ERNIE KENT: Anytime a player leaves any program you don’t want them taking your offense, defense and play calls to someone on your schedule. That’s just not right. In our case, I block the 11 Pac-12 teams and the 10 or so teams on our non-conference schedule, leaving roughly 325 other Division I schools for the student-athlete to choose from. With Val, there was one other school I initially blocked but fighting it became more trouble than it was worth.
Cougfan.com: When a player decides to leave in what you determine is the wrong way, what happens the rest of the school year with their access to tutors, the weight room, etc.
ERNIE KENT: People may be surprised by this, but we do not deprive them of the learning center, the strength coach, the Gray W dining hall, access to our trainers and doctors and working out with the team. And the reason is straight forward: I promise the parents of all my student-athletes that I will take care of them like my own sons as long as they are on campus. Heck, I saw Que the other day wearing Cougar gear.
Cougfan.com: Let’s backtrack for a moment. Two arguments you often hear from those defending player transfers is that 1) coaches job hop all the time so why another standard for players?; and 2) coaches run off players, so why complain when the shoe is on the other foot?
ERNIE KENT: In regard to coaches changing jobs, the majority of us have buyouts in our contracts. Those buyouts punish you, sometimes severely, if you leave for another job. That alone keeps many guys from even considering a move.
As for “running off” players, I can tell you the only student-athletes I have ever shown the door in my entire career were two with off-court issues. I obviously can’t speak for other coaches or programs, but I have never run a player out of my program for on-court performance. We do make sure each player knows where he stands in the program -- we have conversations with each player about where they stack up at their position, player rotations, what we’re expecting of our incoming recruiting class and so on. Through that process, student-athletes will ask to leave in search of more minutes. It’s all very honest and open and no one gets “run off.”
Cougfan.com: Playing-time matters aside, what’s the single-biggest way to fend off guys transferring?
ERNIE KENT: There is no single way. If you talk to any coach in the country, here are the things we try to do: evaluate talent better; build stronger relationships with the student-athlete once you have them; do a better job of developing their talent; and in the case of Washington State, recruiting players who want to be lifelong Cougs. Even after you do all those things, there is no mechanism in place -- after you've invested thousands of dollars and hours -- to prevent an individual from transferring off your campus for what they perceive as greener pastures. In other words, you basically have to re-recruit your student-athletes to make sure another school, through a third party, doesn’t woo them away.
Cougfan.com: At season’s end, I think Cougar fans were worried that of all the players on the team, the one to worry about becoming a graduate transfer was Josh Hawkinson. He’ll be back for his final season, but were third parties trying to pry him loose as well?
ERNIE KENT: My sense is that his phone was ringing off the hook. Josh is a Coug and his parents are very supportive Cougs – and that’s saying a lot because Josh’s mom played for the Huskies.
Cougfan.com: Speaking of Josh, the announcement after the season that he, Ike Iroegbu and Conor Clifford would make themselves available for the NBA draft seems to have generated some confusion among fans. Can you lay it all out?
ERNIE KENT: I know some people have wondered about that. We encouraged the three of them to put their names in the draft for the simple reason that they can get a realistic evaluation by the NBA advisory committee without losing eligibility and perhaps have the opportunity for individual workouts with pro teams. Josh has a couple of workouts coming up. The point of this is to test the waters … As long as they pull back by May 25, it’s all positive. If the process doesn’t distract from your academic progress, there is no downside for a player to take advantage of the opportunity.
Part 2 of this 2-Part Series: Ernie Kent reflects on last season and the positives headed into 2016-17