Thursday, September 20, 2007

Businessman Jones | by Pete

The Demetrius Jones transfer has all the makings of a top-notch football soap opera: a program performing at historically low levels, an “arrogant” head coach finally getting his just desserts (insert fat joke here, naysayers), a quarterback scorned and cast aside for a hot-shot whiz kid everybody loves to hate, and finally, as the cherry on top of the Schadenfreude Sundae, a double-secret, eleventh-hour defection.

And yet, timing notwithstanding, this transfer is not all that different from the ones that occur in competitive programs every year. As Weis started bringing in higher levels of talent in greater numbers, many Notre Dame fans expected a number of transfers, and in a bittersweet way, almost looked forward to it. Increased depth and competition, and yes, transfers, are the signs of a healthy, vibrant program, one that Weis is trying his damndest to build.

Sometimes, a transfer is just business. Take Jones, for example: his was made for all the right reasons. But it was executed in a very poor fashion. Failures to execute haven’t occurred just on the field this year.

Imagine you’re Charlie Weis. You’ve got four quarterbacks competing during spring practice, and one – Jimmy Clausen – has taken the lead in your mind. However, he needs surgery over the summer, and won’t be able to take the reps needed to prepare for the first game (let alone as a first-time freshman) so he can’t be your starter. So you turn to the next guy in line, a sophomore with some feet to go with his arm, and tell him he’s going to be the starter for the opener. You throw your support behind him, and try to develop an offense to cater to his dual strengths. It doesn’t go well, and so you want to prime the pump with your highly-touted freshman, who's getting healthy just in time.

Now imagine that you’re Demetrius Jones. You take a role as an outspoken leader of the team, going so far as to put on the mantle of the fabled #3 jersey ("No busters wore number 3," he said at the time. "I'm just setting high expectations for myself.") After spring practice, you start taking more reps with the first team, and you learn that you’re going to be the starter against Georgia Tech. An offensive package has been developed to take advantage of your skill set, and you’ve prepared for it the best you can.

But the game doesn’t go well, and you’re pulled before you’ve had the chance to play a half of football, and you're ultimately replaced by that hotshot freshman quarterback everybody's had their eye on.

Obviously, Weis and DJ came to different conclusions about how much he should be playing, and that’s when transfers happen. It’s business. Unfortunately, business decisions, made for all the right reasons, can still go poorly.

Missed the bus. On the Friday before the game, Jones didn't show up for the team bus to Ann Arbor. Charlie didn't hear about it until about fifteen minutes before it was set to leave. Reporters caught up with DJ on Sunday, where he spilled the beans about why he jumped ship. His chief beef was about being misled by Weis. After the Georgia Tech game, Charlie had talked about Jimmy being #1 coming out of the spring. DJ heard that, and was miffed.
"When I heard Jimmy was the No. 1 all the way through spring and that the only thing that was keeping him out of the lineup was his surgery, well that's not what I was led to believe going into the summer. I thought I was getting a chance because coach Weis believed in me. Then I didn't know what to believe anymore.”
Demetrius was understandably upset about being yanked for Jimmy, and felt stung by being told he was the starter, only to see it taken away before one half of football had been played.

But let’s also look at it from Weis’s side of things. You know that the guy leading at the spring won’t be in shape to be the starter come the opener. Do you tell the next guy that he’s just keeping the seat warm? Tell him, try not to screw up too much out there before we can bring in the REAL quarterback? Hardly. You do your best to make a game plan that gives Jones the best chance of winning, and you give him your support. Try this thought experiment: if Demetrius had gone out against Georgia Tech, thrown 3 touchdowns and run for one more, would Charlie have still benched him? I don't think so. Starting Demetrius was brought about by necessity, by continuing a stated objective of giving the team the best chance to win, but it still was a shot at the starter's job.

In reality, Demetrius was named the starter because he gave the team the best chance of winning, and Charlie did believe in him more in that regard than the other two guys. He wouldn’t have been given the spot if he didn’t think that. Unfortunately, he struggled early, coughing up the ball twice and, despite those that say he never got the chance to throw due to his measly three attempts, failed to execute the offense and bailed out early on pass plays due to pressure.

After that, DJ wanted another chance to prove himself, and when he felt like he wasn’t going to get that, he looked for another opportunity to play. Business.

Benched forever? DJ may have felt that he was now forever trapped behind Clausen, but Weis may have had a different outlook on the situation. Remember that disastrous snap on the first play of the Michigan game? The one that was supposed to go to Armando Allen from a spread formation? Given Michigan’s well-documented weakness to the spread offense, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to think that, prior to missing the bus to Ann Arbor, that snap was originally meant to go to Demetrius. Other voices in the ND press (Irish Illustrated, for one) have surmised as much. If Weis had indeed put together a spread package, it would suggest he hadn’t given up on Jones just yet.

Yet it still wasn't enough to mollify DJ. Demetrius had made no attempts to hide the fact that he came to Notre Dame to be the starting quarterback, not to be trotted out to run specific packages like a poor man's Tim Tebow. (At least Tebow had the luxury of knowing he had the starting gig waiting for him after one season, whereas Jones saw his starting spot disappear for his entire tenure under Clausen.)

DJ deciding he didn’t want to be Pat White-Lite for Weis would also explain his sudden departure from the team. As Notre Dame prepared for Michigan, DJ learned he’d be expected to run the spread offense again, suggesting that he may never get a shot to truly run the offense, and would strictly be a package-specific tweak. He’d never get another true shot at the starting job.

Where the Huskies go. With a couple of high school buds and a cousin on the team, Northern Illinois, just a few hours west, had to look like a comfortable place for DJ to land.
''I'm Phil's [a linebacker for NIU] cousin,'' Jones said. ''I'm here to check [the Huskies] out. These are my boys from Morgan Park.''
So Demetrius decides to transfer. It's a sound decision, but executed poorly. This is where things start to unravel.

First, we know DJ had to have been enrolled at NIU by the time classes began for this semester in order to not waste a year of eligibility. It appears that his enrollment took place on either Tuesday or Wednesday night. But DJ practiced with the Irish all the way through Thursday, hiding his true intentions from the staff. There's never a conversation with Charlie about leaving. No sit-down. No phone call. He goes through the motions as if he's with the team 100%. But when the bus warms up on Friday, he's MIA.

In retrospect, DJ admits the move was "immature."
“I admit I made an immature decision, but I think it's going to turn out to be a good decision. It probably won't be the last immature decision I make. I'm human. But what we're talking about here is a dream -- my dream. I'm a man. I made my bed, and I'm willing to lay in it, whatever that might bring."
It would take until Monday night for Charlie to track down DJ and "clear the air", as Charlie put it.

I don't think DJ's a villain here. He’s a 19-year old kid making a big decision, but he obviously shirked his responsibility to be up front about it. Again, the problem isn’t the transfer, it’s the way he handled it.

No release. Late Tuesday another twist in the soap opera would materialize: ND wasn't going to let Jones out of his scholarship, which meant Jones couldn't accept one from NIU this year, and would have to pay his own way for this school year.

Typically speaking, when a school doesn’t release scholarships for transfers it's because the player wants to transfer to a school that they directly compete with, or because they’re not happy with how the transfer was handled (see Southern Cal receiver Jamere Holland not being allowed to transfer to Florida). This is obviously a case of the latter.
"We don't believe [Jones'] departure was handled appropriately," a spokesman for Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White said.
When a player doesn't call his coach, and simply skips the team bus, (and ends up landing on a team stocked with friends and relatives), that’s probably a sign of a transfer that wasn’t handled appropriately.

On its face, this move might look like petty retribution from ND. But I think the facts tell a different, and much more mundane, story.

First of all, a spokesperson in the NIU athletic department said that even if they wanted to give Demetrius a scholarship, they couldn’t this year since they’ve already all been allocated. DJ is paying for the opportunity to be a Husky this year whether Notre Dame releases his scholarship or not.
He will not be able to receive an athletic scholarship from Northern Illinois this school year without the release -- though a spokeswoman for the football program said it doesn't have a scholarship to give Jones anyway.
Knowing this, Notre Dame is presented with a choice: release the scholarship anyway as a sign of good will and to play nicey-nice with the media, or hold the scholarship to express concern about how the transfer was handled. Given that the move is entirely symbolic, Notre Dame took the opportunity to show that this kind of 11th-hour, don't-tell-anybody transfer will not be condoned by the athletic department.

It's important to note that Notre Dame potentially is holding the scholarship because they can't be sure some transfer tampering didn't go on as well. As noted above, DJ had several high school friends and a cousin at Northern Illinois. And it appears they knew Demetrius was transferring before Weis did:
Another hint surfaced Friday on Jones' Notre Dame page, where Northern Illinois linebacker Phil Brown, a teammate of Jones' at Chicago's Morgan Park High School, wrote "So loong" at 1:08 p.m.

“I found out at quarter after 2 yesterday,” Weis said. “I’ll wait (to comment) until after I talk to him. I don’t know all the gory details. I was very, very surprised.”
The transfer didn't go through the appropriate channels, and when a player's new teammates know about the transfer before his current head coach, Notre Dame has reason to be suspicious. Throw in the fact that DJ's abrupt transfer means he must have handled some of the more time-consuming aspects of it (transfer application, enrollment, transcripts, etc.) beforehand while acting as if nothing was wrong, and you've got reason for Notre Dame's athletic department to not be so magnanimous in giving him back his scholarship.

And if you really look at it, there isn’t that much of a choice to be made here. Consider DJ’s handling of the situation. Unhappy with his role in the program, he goes out and enrolls at another school without notifying any appropriate parties at Notre Dame, continues to practice with the team as Transferred Man Walking, only to fail to show up to travel to a game less than 24 hours away. If DJ’s behavior doesn’t merit a refusal to release a scholarship, what will? A Molotov Cocktail lobbed in the direction of the Gug as the player peels out of South Bend, playbook in hand? Notre Dame isn’t holding the scholarship to screw DJ, they’re holding the scholarship because DJ transferred in just about the worst way he could manage, and a precedent needs to be set.

Old friends in familiar places. As an epilogue, it's worth mentioning that immediately prior to becoming Northern Illinois' athletic director, Jim Phillips served as senior associate athletic director at Notre Dame. He and Kevin White obviously know each other pretty well, and I imagine both parties realize that this situation was handled in less than an ideal fashion. Recognizing the fact that there is no scholarship waiting for DJ at NIU, and empathizing with White about the messy transfer, I don't think Phillips has any problems with Notre Dame adhering to standards by not releasing the scholarship. In fact, I bet if the roles were reversed, he'd do the same.

Some people would like to say that DJ’s transfer was a sign of the wheels coming off of Weis’s program, but that’s simply not the case. It’s just a transfer, made for the same reason transfers are typically made: business. Unfortunately, when your program is doing a great impression of a smoking, rusted-out Pinto, it’s easy to think every little ding is going to make the wheels come off.

In short: DJ wanted to be the starter, and Weis thought there was someone else better suited to play the role. So DJ went elsewhere for an opportunity to play. It’s a textbook transfer case. Notre Dame has had several notable transfers over the last two years (Zach Frazer, exhibit A), but this is the only one to blow up into a brouhaha. The way it was handled, and Notre Dame’s responsibility to subsequently address that irresponsible approach by withholding the scholarship, are the only deviations, and even those aren’t as dramatic as they first appear.

Good luck to DJ and all that, but we've got bigger fish to fry.