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Pac-12 Confidential

Bud Withers offers an inside look at the Pac-12 Conference and the national college scene.

October 14, 2011 at 1:00 PM

Wisconsin wins the free-agent sweepstakes in Russell Wilson

Russell Wilson seems like a thoroughly decent fellow. He’s mature and well-spoken. He graduated from North Carolina State in three years. He comes from impressive stock; his grandfather was president of Norfolk State and his dad graduated from Dartmouth and went on to Virginia Law School.

He seems like a solid guy in every way. I just don’t think he ought to be playing quarterback for the University of Wisconsin this fall.

You may know already of Wilson’s case. And you’re going to hear a lot more of it if unbeaten and fourth-ranked Wisconsin keeps winning. It should do that Saturday in Madison against Indiana.

In a nutshell, Wilson is Prince Fielder, the other big free-agent-to-be in the state of Wisconsin. Wilson took advantage of the NCAA rule that provides for an athlete who has graduated, but still has eligibility left, to transfer to another school and take graduate classes – without sitting out the usual year — if the first school doesn’t offer the graduate degree available at the school transferred to.

This is a rule that is bound to elicit polar opinions. On one extreme is the faction that decries the relative powerlessness of the student-athlete in the NCAA money machine.

Stating that case over the summer, SportsIllustrated.com’s Andy Staples wrote, “The grad student exception is the best rule in the books because it’s the only one that offers a positive incentive for athletes.

“The NCAA has a thick manual that tells student-athletes what they can’t do. The graduate transfer exception is the one regulation that tells athletes what they can do.”


I get that side of it.
But in one sense, the rule is more extreme than extrapolating the example of baseball’s free agency. Given that Wilson can play only one year for the Badgers, he’s the very definition of a rent-a-player.
If you value the concept of an athlete growing within a program – of player development, so to speak – it’s hard to reconcile the path of Wilson, who arrived in Madison in the summer and will be gone from the program early in January.
The marriage never happens unless Wisconsin doesn’t have an immediate need, and Wilson isn’t looking for a landing spot outside NC State. The Badgers might win a national title with Wilson; should they be rewarded for coming up dry at the quarterback position, and should its opponents – in the Big Ten and nationally (in the hunt for BCS recognition, those could include Stanford and Oregon) – be penalized for it?
There’s also the matter of the Heisman Trophy race. Wilson, No. 1 nationally this week in pass efficiency and throwing for a ridiculous 12.53 yards per attempt (nobody else is even at 11), is being prominently mentioned on Heisman watches. I’m a Heisman voter, and it gives me some pause to think that Wilson may well beat out somebody like Stanford’s Andrew Luck, when Wilson might not know where half the buildings are located on the Wisconsin campus.
Wilson’s case at NC State was a unique one. He was a fourth-round draft pick of the Colorado Rockies and played some baseball in the summer. State coach Tom O’Brien felt lukewarm about whether Wilson was committed to the year-round demands of football, so he went with Mike Glennon as his starting quarterback, perhaps fearing he could lose Glennon if named Wilson the guy.
Wilson, meanwhile, told the New York Times his preference had been to stay at NC State, and that he opted out only because he felt he couldn’t win the starting job under those circumstances.
Knotty problem, in other words.
This week, on a conference call, I asked Wilson what he thought of the rule, and the dissent over it.
“My job is to play quarterback,” he said. “For me, that’s what I have to focus on. I can’t really make that decision in terms of the NCAA. I graduated early. I graduated in three years at a great school and I wanted to continue my education and athletic career. It’s been a great opportunity for me, and it’s worked out well.”
When I asked O’Brien about the rule two weeks ago, he said, “It’s a good rule, I think, for situations guys find themselves in – especially if there are changes in coaching staffs, and probably a lot of reasons.
“I don’t have a problem with it at all. I’m really happy for Russell, and wish him the best.”
The best is what Wilson is getting in his new team. He’s getting mentioned among the best players in the country. The question is whether this is best for college football.

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