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Former UNC Basketball Coach Calls For Freshman Ineligibility

Posted February 3, 2004 7:49 a.m. EST

— The last time freshmen were banned from playing on varsity teams in major college sports, David Thompson suited up for North Carolina State's freshman-only basketball team.

That was in 1971.

Former University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill basketball coach Dean Smith said Tuesday that an old idea should get new consideration.

Smith favors once again making freshmen ineligible for varsity play, claiming it would boost graduation rates.

Smith made the comments in Washington, D.C., to the Knight Commission, a college sports think tank that makes suggestions to the NCAA.

Smith said it would be beneficial for basketball, where graduation rates for men in Division-I schools stand at 44 percent.

"What we want them to do is say they're a student first and foremost, and then they get the privilege to play varsity basketball," Smith said Tuesday during an appearance at the Bull's Head Bookshop on UNC's campus to sign copies of his new book, "The Carolina Way: Leadership Lessons From A Life In Coaching."

Freshmen ineligibility is not a new concept for Smith. He has pushed the idea for 20 years, calling an athlete's freshman year "a year in residence.

"It worked so many years so well," Smith said. "I'm still waiting to see the player who says: 'Gee, I wish I'd played as a freshman.'"

David Glenn, of the ACC Sports Journal, said Smith "always has been a guy to think beyond the four walls of the basketball court." But Glenn does not think the former coach's idea will sit well with today's coaches.

"Basketball coaches are going to say: 'I have 13 scholarships, and you give four of those to freshmen, and I'm down to eight or nine,'" Glenn said.

Glenn also said freshman ineligibility may cause more athletes like Kobe Bryant, who skip college altogether.

"Those kids are straight to the NBA," Glenn said. "I'm only talking a dozen or so. But they'll opt for that instead of college for a year or two."

Smith said college presidents would have to support his idea, which is shared by former Virginia coach Terry Holland. Others wonder if the NBA could step in.

The NFL and Major League Baseball have a rule that once enrolled in college, athletes cannot go pro until they have been out of high school for three years. Right now, that is being challenged.