About the time news broke this afternoon that John L. Smith was jilting Weber State for Arkansas after having never coached a football game for the Wildcats, I was speaking to a distraught father about why his son can't immediately transfer to the school of his choice when he returns home from a two-year LDS Church mission this June.
"It's an unfortunate system, and it creates some really unfortunate situations," said John Wadsworth, who happens to be the founder and president of Tahitian Noni, a Utah-based, multi-million dollar worldwide business about to become known as Morinda Bioactives. "It just doesn't seem right."
You've probably read bits and pieces about this, or heard talk of it on the radio. Here's the rest of the story:
Wadsworth's son, Michael, grew up in Orem, but played prep football at Silverado High in Las Vegas, while John Wadsworth was serving a three-year stint as a mission president in Nevada. Utah and BYU took long looks at Michael, but opted not to offer him a scholarship. Arizona State and Hawaii did offer, and Michael chose Hawaii, where his former defensive coordinator at Silverado, Tony Tuioti, was working as the defensive line coach.
In 2009, his freshman season, Michael Wadsworth was a safety and a key special teams player for the Warriors under head coach Greg McMackin before being called on a mission to Leeds, England.
"He got some good playing time for them his first year," said John Wadsworth. "He really enjoyed it and I think he did really well for them. We enjoyed seeing him play at Hawaii. We have nothing bad to say about Hawaii. Not one thing. We respect them and honor them. They have a good program, and hopefully they will win under coach [Norm] Chow.
"He just wants to live closer to home."
Last summer, having been on his mission for about a year, Michael Wadsworth started thinking about his future and sent a letter to McMackin, who was still Hawaii's head coach at the time, asking for permission to talk to other schools because of that desire to play college football closer to his home in Orem. McMackin quickly grabbed the telephone, according to John Wadsworth, and tracked down the missionary in England.
McMackin asked Wadsworth to reconsider, and told the missionary that if he would return and play just one more year at Hawaii the school would release him to any other school in the country if he didn't like it. During that call, John Wadsworth believes, his son mentioned to McMackin that he really wanted to play at BYU.
John Wadsworth is adamant that BYU coaches never contacted Michael on his mission, and still haven't. In fact, John says he is not even sure BYU coaches know about the situation, "unless they have read about it in the paper. We haven't talked to anyone at BYU about this, and they haven't called us, either."
The family doesn't even know if BYU coaches will let Michael walk on, let alone give him a scholarship. John Wadsworth said a report that BYU petitioned Hawaii for Michael's release are totally inaccurate. The father said every appeal for the release has come from either him or his son.
A few weeks after that phone call between McMackin and Michael Wadsworth, the family was informed that Hawaii would release the player to any school in the country upon the completion of his mission this June except one: BYU.
In December, McMackin was fired and replaced by Chow, the former BYU offensive coordinator who was at rival Utah last year. Norm will understand, the family believed, and so they appealed the school's decision singling out BYU.
John Wadsworth says that not only was Chow not amenable to the release, he was even more adamant than McMackin was that Michael not be released to BYU.
"Coach McMackin was really cordial about it, willing to talk about it. He was really a people person. But coach Chow was very adamant that he wasn't to go to BYU without [having to wait it out]," John Wadsworth said. "We sent in the appeal a few weeks ago, and they denied the appeal, and that's basically what happened."
Requests by The Tribune to speak to either Norm Chow or Hawaii athletic director Jim Donovan were denied.
"I spoke to Jim [Donovan] and he does not wish to comment on the matter," noted Derek Inouchi, Hawaii' athletics' director of media relations.
A request to speak to BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall about the matter was also denied. BYU football spokesperson Brett Pyne said BYU coaches cannot talk about a recruitable student-athlete on a church mission and referred this reporter to a half-dozen statements made by Mendenhall over the past year in which the coach has said BYU coaches do not contact players from other schools who are on their missions.
Meanwhile, a father searches for answers.
"Hawaii feels strongly about not releasing him to BYU," John Wadsworth said. "He can talk to any other school out there, even other schools on Hawaii's schedule. But he can't talk to BYU."
Wadsworth said he asked Chow why BYU was singled out.
"The way coach Chow explained it, he believes BYU has an unfair recruiting advantage for missionaries," John Wadsworth said. "I don't know his motives. The thing he expressed to me is that he felt like [BYU] has an advantage with returning missionaries and he referenced the Riley Nelson Rule."
After Utah State apparently complained to the NCAA when quarterback Riley Nelson transferred from USU to BYU after his church mission, the NCAA enacted a rule that restricts missionaries who want to change schools.
Here's rule 18.104.22.168.2.1, Exception, Official Religious Mission:
"An institution shall not contact a student-athlete who has begun service on an official religious mission without obtaining permission from the institution from which the student-athlete withdrew prior to beginning his or her mission if the student-
athlete signed a National Letter of Intent (NLI) and attended the institution (with which he or she signed the NLI) as a full-time student. If such a student-athlete has completed his or her official religious mission and does not enroll full time in a collegiate institution within one calendar year of completion of the mission, an institution may contact the student-athlete without obtaining permission from the first institution." (Adopted: 1/17/09 effective 8/1/09, Revised: 4/2/10).
Apparently, then, John L. Smith can stiff Weber State, and coaches can switch programs any time they want with no penalty, but student-athletes such as Wadsworth and Wisconsin's Jarrod Uthoff have to jump through hoops imposed upon them by not only the NCAA, but the schools they are leaving. Uthoff drew national attention last week when Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan basically barred him from contacting a laundry list of some 25 basketball-playing schools before Ryan bowed to public pressure and just excluded him from Big Ten schools.
So what happens next?
John Wadsworth said his son still plans on attending BYU next fall and will pay his own way. Since he can't have any contact with the coaches for a year, the father isn't sure how, or if, his son can walk on. He might have to wait until June of 2013, if Hawaii doesn't relent.
Wadsworth chuckled when it was suggested his son could end up at rival Utah, Chow's old school.
"Well, I suppose. We haven't had any conversations with them," he said."I guess we can talk to them, if that's what Michael wants. We couldn't talk to anyone two weeks ago. We got the denial of appeal a week ago, so I guess we will see. I don't know the rules well enough to coach you on that. ...I am just sorry he got caught in the middle of it. I don't know all the political games that they play. Obviously there are some, and I didn't realize that until I went through this."
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