SALT LAKE CITY — Even all these years later, John Walsh remains a cautionary tale. He was a prolific quarterback at BYU in 1993 and 1994. After NFL draft “guru” Mel Kiper predicted Walsh would be a first-round draft pick, Walsh declared himself eligible for the 1995 draft following his junior year.
Most fans know what happened next. He tumbled all the way to the seventh (last) round, 213th overall, the last quarterback taken. He was quickly cut by the Cincinnati Bengals.
In a fair world, Walsh would simply have returned to BYU for his senior year, but there is nothing fair or sensible where the NCAA rules. Once a college football or basketball player makes a final decision to declare for the professional draft, his college career is finished. There is no going back.
Instead of leading the BYU football team his senior year and rebuilding his draft stock — or simply enjoying the college game in and of itself — Walsh sold tools out of a truck in California.
"It still hurts," Walsh told the Salt Lake Tribune in 2005. "I think about it still and I'm still trying to get over it.”
The same NCAA draft rules are still enforced nearly three decades after that famous draft gaffe, and more and more players are making the same mistake that Walsh made.
A record 123 college football underclassmen have declared themselves eligible for next month’s NFL draft. A record 137 college basketball underclassmen declared for the 2017 NBA draft, despite the fact that it consists of only two rounds and 60 total picks (math apparently still being a weakness in college curriculums). One of them was Eric Mika, who left BYU two years early to declare for the draft and now plays in Italy.
The number of players leaving school early for the draft has increased dramatically in recent years, and yet for many it’s a risky, all-or-nothing proposition: Get drafted or go home.
Per CBS Sports, since 2014 nearly one-third (31.6 percent) of those declaring for the NFL draft have gone undrafted. That means, about 39 underclassmen won't be selected in April. They probably followed the bad advice of hangers-on, agents, family and maybe Mr. Kiper, none of whom have as much to lose.
"If a guy didn't get drafted in the first or second round, he should have kept his butt in school," Alabama coach Nick Saban once said.
Steve Kerr, the coach of the Golden State Warriors, addressed this issue recently from the NBA perspective while noting that a player who signs with an agent and/or declares for the draft cannot return even if he is undrafted.
"Let's do what's best for the kid and give them some options, and work together between the NBA and NCAA to find the right system,” said Kerr. “I think it's entirely doable if you people just open their eyes if a kid signs with an agent and he doesn't get drafted, welcome him back. Why not? What's the harm? We talk about amateurism and all this stuff, but if you're truly trying to do what's right for the kid, and the kid declares for the draft and doesn't get drafted ... welcome him back. Do something good for the kids."
Kerr actually doesn’t go far enough. Why not allow a player to return who is drafted but is unhappy with where and by whom he was drafted. Yes, this would leave a few pro teams empty-handed, but the onus is on those teams to do their homework on the player. Consider it the price of using the college game as a free farm system.
Besides hurting the players, the NCAA’s current rules hurt its own game. The quality of college basketball has suffered immensely from the loss of so many players declaring early for the NBA draft (the quality of the NBA game has suffered, too).
No matter how you cut it, the NCAA’s draft rules are unfair and nonsensical. They do more to serve the needs of NBA and NFL teams than college athletes.