Curie boys basketball coach Mike Oliver first watched Cliff Alexander play the summer after Alexander’s eighth-grade year.
Oliver noticed that Alexander was 6-6 but overweight, unskilled compared to smaller players of his age. But a handful of high schools in Chicago were salivating about him just because of his size.
“The whole West Side was after him,” Oliver said of Alexander, who by his senior season would commit to Kansas and be named the 2013-14 Sun-Times Player of the Year.
“And after his freshman year and sophomore year, everyone tried to get him to transfer. All the way up to his senior year, people were trying to get him to leave Curie.”
He didn’t. But many other players as skilled as Alexander do make the switch, highlighting the transfers and inherent recruiting that the Illinois High School Association struggles to police.
Those factors were at the heart of last month’s banishment of top-ranked Homewood-Flossmoor from the girls basketball state playoffs and the indefinite suspension of its coach, Tony Smith.
The ruling by Marty Hickman, the IHSA’s executive director, was based on H-F’s admission to bylaw violations involving improper offseason conditioning programs and Smith’s coaching of a non-school AAU team. The saga began with the parent of an H-F player filing a lawsuit, which was subsequently dropped.
When Smith left powerhouse Bolingbrook for H-F, four players followed him. Two players from his AAU team also transferred to H-F.
“There is so much movement going on that it’s destablilizing the whole system, but the IHSA can’t play cop [for] the entire state,” said Bruce Firchau, basketball coach at Westminster Christian in Elgin who also has coached at several public schools. “You’ve got a system that’s breaking down.”
It used to be simpler. If a student transferred from a private school to a public school, they were immediately eligible. The same rule applied from private to private. Only transferring from a public school to a private school required sitting out a calendar year to be eligible.
For 2013-14, the IHSA approved a rule change: any student transferring was ineligible, unless a move or other extenuating circumstances were cited. But for 2014-15, the IHSA again made it OK for a student enrolling in his/her boundaried public school to transfer and be immediately eligible.
“The Catholic schools got hood-winked,” said Mike Zunica, St. Rita’s athletic director and baseball coach. “For one year they changed the transfer rule and I really loved [it]. Now, Catholic schools come out on the short end. Kids should be taught to persevere and stick it out.
“My feeling is everyone should sit one year, with the exception of freshmen, who should be allowed to transfer if the school isn’t right.”
John Chappetto, who guided Richards to the Class 3A state title but stepped down as the Bulldogs’ boys basketball coach after this past season, sees it slightly differently.
“Maybe it’s the social studies teacher in me, but we live in the United States,” he said. “I think it’s wrong for an organization to tell a family you can’t move for athletic reasons, even though it may help a kid academically and socially, too. As long as it’s the family’s decision and the kid isn’t being recruited, I see nothing wrong with it.”
The IHSA doesn’t track exact transfer numbers, assistant executive director Matt Troha said.
“We make about 2,000 eligibility rulings a year and the majority are related to transfers,” Hickman said. “Many don’t make it to my desk.”
Still, Hickman constantly faces the frustration of how illegal recruiting and transfers are reported to the IHSA.
“People will say, ‘I know a coach or school has reached out to [recruit] people, but don’t use my name,’” he said. “When the person isn’t willing to stand up and be counted, we are not able to chase down allegations like that. That’s one of the most frustrating things, because then they’ll wonder why we aren’t doing anything about it.”
Fans of the Chicago Public League contend the pursuit of a player like Alexander is business as usual. Detractors of Smith and the H-F girls basketball program were shocked by the amount of transfers. But in the past decade, history shows that both situations are far from rare.
“I guess I’m the poster child,” Kent Payne, Elgin Community College’s athletic director, said of his children’s propensity for transferring.
Payne’s three basketball-playing children — Cully, Katlyn and Quinten — each played for two high schools within the last several years.
Cully began at Burlington Central, but transferred to Schaumburg when the family moved so Katlyn, who was playing at St. Edward, could transfer to Fenwick. Quinten started his high school career in Florida, but then finished at St. Charles North.
“There are so many places where kids who have a tremendous amount of ability and potential can go and it doesn’t work out,” Kent Payne said. “[Then] parents have to make a family decision on what they want and what their goals are.”
Twelve years ago, with AAU beginning to rise, West Aurora basketball coach Gordie Kerkman faced recruiting accusations only two years after the Blackhawks won the state title in 2000.
In 2001, Shaun Pruitt transferred from Providence-St. Mel and Dameon Mason from crosstown Waubonsie Valley. The following season, they were joined by Justin Cerasoli (Providence-St. Mel) and Michael Binns (Young). Along with standout point guard Jaeh Thomas, Kerkman started five NCAA Division I prospects.
“I didn’t talk to any of them [beforehand],” said Kerkman, who always maintained the moves were because players knew each other from AAU and wanted to play together.
The 2001-02 team lost to Glenbard North in the supersectional and the 2002-03 team fell to Downers South in a sectional semifinal. The following year, with Thomas, Cerasoli and Pruitt as seniors, West Aurora made it to Peoria but finished third.
“I thought, ‘Holy cow, if I were [an opposing coach] in the conference, I’d hate it,’” Kerkman said of the transfers. “I think most [coaches] believed me. It is what it is. What was I supposed to do, tell them not to move here?”
South Elgin coach Matt Petersen started the Illinois Valley Stars earlier in his career. While stressing the positives of AAU, he also acknowledged the darker side of recruiting that has resulted in a deluge of transfers.
“You’ve got to have hard evidence of recruiting to start accusing,” he said. “I don’t see it as being an awful thing when kids want to go to the same school together. People want to play for winners.”
But at what price?
Additional reporting by Michael O’Brien, Jeff Bonato, Pat Disabato, Gene Chamberlain, Matt Harness and George Wilcox.