“The greatest minor league system in the world”

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The title quote is from Larry Brown, in an interview last week. Dave Zirin derided the statement yesterday, noting that 1% of college basketball players make it to the NBA; that they don’t actually get paid while playing in that minor league system (should we rename these positions unpaid internships?), in contrast to the players in actual minor league systems; and that the impositions on their time related to the fiction that they’re students first only inhibit their development.

One might quibble a little bit here – for example, the 1% figure includes all NCAA players, including those at Division III schools. Having taught at a D-III school, I very much doubt whether more than a tiny fraction of such players have any illusions about playing professionally. If one were to be as charitable as possible, both in discounting players who compete outside Division I and in “crediting” the colleges for players who play professionally outside the United States, the figure is probably closer to ten percent. Is that a good record for a minor league? I don’t know. But neither does Larry Brown. What I do know is that the Larry Browns of the world have every reason to make self-serving comments about how invaluable they are to player development in one breath while insisting in the next that their charges really are “student-athletes” who’ve come to SMU or wherever to get an invaluable education that will serve them for the rest of their lives.

In this connection, the mega contract Bruce Pearl just signed with Auburn – worth nearly $15 million over six years – illustrates well the surreal gap between the rhetoric and reality of the big time college sports enterprise.

Pearl has been a head coach for ten years at Division I schools, four with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and six with Tennessee, before he was fired and slapped with a three-year show-cause suspension in 2011 for recruiting violations. Pearl had a great record with both schools and was a consummate showman. But how did he do at training future pros?

According to Basketball-Reference.com, no UWM player has ever played in the NBA (You can check out the search engine for yourself).

How about at Tennessee? In six years, you can plausibly connect two future NBA players to Pearl. One is CJ Watson. Watson is now in his sixth season in the NBA, where he’s a solid backup point guard, after having played overseas for a couple of seasons. He was recruited to Tennessee by Pearl’s predecessor Buzz Peterson (the man who beat out Michael Jordan for high school player of the year in North Carolina in 1981). Watson played three years for Peterson and one year for Pearl. Watson thrived in Pearl’s up tempo offense, but how much credit is due Pearl for Watson’s future professional trajectory? It can’t be *that* much.

The second player is Tobias Harris. Harris is now in his third year in the NBA, whom Pearl recruited to Tennessee in 2010. Harris was a blue-chip recruit – a consensus five star high school player and McDonald’s All-American. His one season in college was Pearl’s last. Pearl was suspended for the first eight games of Harris’ freshman season, in connection with the violations that eventually got him fired.

So to recap – in ten years as a D-I coach so far, Pearl is connected to two NBA players, each of whom played for him for exactly one season.

Under Pearl, there was something of a (sometimes circuitous) pipeline it seems, between UT and the Turkish pro leagues, through which Tyler Smith, Scotty Hopson and Chris Lofton have passed. But Auburn didn’t hire him because they give a crap about any of that. They hired him to make the school money. Obviously, bringing in better players is the means to doing that and if some of those players end up in the NBA, so much the better for Pearl and the program. But let’s be clear about which way the arrow runs. The players are there to help the university, not the other way around, unless you want to argue that the players are also going to Auburn to receive an invaluable education and degree that will serve them for the rest of their lives.

Since 2007, Charlie Montoyo has been the manager of the Durham Bulls – the Tampa Bay Rays’ Triple A affiliate –  and before that was a manager at lower rungs since the franchise’s inception. An extraordinary string of future major leaguers – Price, Zobrist, Longoria, Moore and many more – has played for Montoyo. I can’t find precise salary data for Montoyo, but a best guess is that he makes about $100,000 a year. Needless to say, there is a very good argument to made that Charlie Montoyo is vastly superior to Bruce Pearl at developing future major league talent. But Bruce Pearl is a coveted coach – even after an embarrassing scandal – to whom Auburn is willing to pay millions. And if Pearl’s record at player development is not notably better at Auburn than it was at UT, guess what? He still gets his 15 mil.

The absurdity of the claims that college sports defenders make for the virtues of the enterprise grow in tandem with their extravagance. It’s both an ideal venue for classroom education and an incomparable means of professional athletic development. The major programs are both making money hand over fist for their universities and selflessly training players at significant university expense. The coaches are, first and foremost, educators and molders of men whom it’s unreasonable to ask that they know what their players are doing in the classroom.

After all, when it comes to college sports and especially the extraordinarily well-paid coaches who are its most direct beneficiaries, all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

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7 comments

  1. That depends a bit on how you define “greatest”. I recognize that Larry Brown meant it in terms of the quality of NBA preparation, but there are other terms you could use.

    For example—maybe the “greatest” minor league system is the one which actually attracts the most fan enthusiasm and support? The flow of money to NCAA football and basketball reflects an outstanding level of fan interest. The Durham Bulls may send a lot of guys on to the major leagues, but does anyone give a rat’s ass who wins the Governors’ Cup?

    1. Certainly, the NCAA has done a great job of developing a massively popular entertainment. Minor league baseball, by contrast, is a strictly local affair (though a very enjoyable one). But as you say – it’s clear how Brown meant it, and how Vitale means it and so on…

  2. If college basketball is the best way to develop as an NBA player, why do they need the ‘invaluable’ education the school provides? Vice versa, if the school provides an ‘invaluable’ education, then why do they bother developing them for something that doesn’t require the education they’re supposedly getting? If they want to say that they’re the best at developing players, fine. If they want to attest to their school’s education program, great. But you can’t have it both ways.

    It’s a joke anyway. No one truly believes that the colleges truly care about the players and their development/education. No one. Even the guys that say that don’t believe it.

    1. Sydney,

      I often wonder about that – how much do the folks most fervently defending the educational mission believe it? I think there are a lot of divided minds on this – people who, in one part of their brain, no it ain’t so, but in another part of their brain really want to believe it.

  3. Jonathan,

    Great point about Bruce Pearl. There are very few coaches who have a proven track record of turning “preps” into “pros”.

    We should start referring to big time college coaches as “Chief Revenue Officers”. Their primary job is to sell tickets, jerseys, hats, beer mugs and hope to a public that just wants to be part of the winning team.

  4. As the better half of Mr. Montoyo, you are over estimating his salary by a lot! It is an interesting sport, you are the boss but you are paid less than your employees. On the flip side, we have awesome medical insurance and Durham is a great place to be as a family.

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