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Dick Harmon: Former BYU hoops coach Steve Cleveland says Cougar players leaving early disruptive, costly

The early departure by BYU basketball players, not for the NBA, but for European professional contracts, is hurting the program and now star Yoeli Childs could follow.

There are myriad hurdles facing the Cougar program and veteran coach Dave Rose these days and a lot of it was on display during an embarrassing exit at the West Coast Conference Tournament in Las Vegas over the weekend. But right at the top is this issue.

I wouldn't begrudge any college player to ever pass up an opportunity to play professionally at any time in their college career. Go for it. Take the leap. But to think that early departures from BYU’s program by Eric Mika and Elijah Bryant didn’t kneecap the program is delusional.

Unlike the Zags, BYU doesn’t have the luxury of reloading with a huge transfer or potential first-round pick every year. It has to develop players.

Former BYU coach Steve Cleveland, the person BYU chose to bring its program back from a one-win season back in 1997, told 1280 The Zone Sports Network's radio audience on Monday that these early departures have significantly hurt a BYU program that has its own kinds of challenges in recruiting.

In the WCC, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s have kept players for senior years, and so did the San Diego team that throttled the Cougars in Orleans Arena. It does make a difference.

“As you look at BYU, this could have been a pretty special year if you start thinking if BYU had Eric Mika and Elijah Bryant in this group. If they had stayed together this might have been a really special team, but that's not the case. I think it's really important that BYU keep these guys for four years because that's how you do it,” Cleveland said.

Mika and Bryant played on teams that beat Gonzaga.

“You gotta keep them there for four years and then occasionally you lose a guy to the NBA, but you hope that you're not losing them just to Europe.”

But that’s what’s happened. And it could be three-for-three with Childs, who has shown tremendous talent but also displayed room for growth.

Cleveland, who hired Rose when he came to BYU from Fresno Community College, does not believe these early departures are an “indictment” of the program but admits he has not talked to Mika, Bryant or Childs about their thoughts. Rose did have Jimmer Fredette for all his eligibility and it made a tremendous impact on his program.

Marriage, a desire to make some money and perhaps agents selling them on a path to the NBA may have played a part in these decisions, Cleveland said. But in the balance, the now-TV analyst says in retrospect it may have been a mistake. It definitely was for the program.

“I think Eric Mika honestly thought that he had an opportunity to play in the NBA. I mean, I don't think he would have done that without it, and Bryant believed he could have been in the NBA’s Developmental League.”

Now, there seems to be a precedent at BYU and Childs is a part of it.

Cleveland proclaimed these decisions are killing BYU.

“That's disruptive to a program, it's really disruptive. I mean, you spend a lot of time recruiting those guys and all of a sudden they kind of walk away where they have a chance to make pretty significant money," he said. "I know that Elijah Bryant had a huge year last year and was a leader on the floor and did a lot of really good things for the program. It wasn't something that I saw coming.”

Brigham Young Cougars forward Yoeli Childs (23) walks off the floor after being whistled for a technical foul as the BYU Cougars and San Diego Toreros play in WCC tournament action at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday, March 9, 2019. San Diego wo
Brigham Young Cougars forward Yoeli Childs (23) walks off the floor after being whistled for a technical foul as the BYU Cougars and San Diego Toreros play in WCC tournament action at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday, March 9, 2019. San Diego won 80-57.
Scott G Winterton

Usually, a player takes the leap and leaves early if he has trusted people tell him he has a chance to be a first- or second-round pick, almost a guarantee. That wasn’t the case with these BYU players.

“I get that,” said Cleveland. “ But I'm not sure that I completely understand why you would leave it with a year left and have an opportunity to play your senior year, a chance to play college basketball one more time.”

Cleveland said he has had multiple conversations the past several weeks and heard interviews with athletes playing at the pro level who claimed the greatest experience they’ve ever had was playing college ball. “It was so pure and it was so fun and at the next level, it just gets more difficult. Adam Silver said last week he talked to a number of young men in the NBA who were struggling with so many things emotionally and mentally. They had to make adjustments and they told him how they yearned for the college experience, how great it was having that camaraderie. So you have to be careful about what you wish for.”

Cleveland said the cold, hard business aspect of professional ball is nothing compared to the warm comfort found in college and the meaningful experiences there. He emphasized the college game is something a player never has a chance to do again. "Of late, the NBA is having to provide support services for players due to the loneliness and adjustments needed at that level,” he said.

“There's a lot to be said about it. So yeah, that's what really hurt BYU in terms of those two young men leaving, because it's a whole different look with Eric Mika and Elijah Bryant not there, guys the coaches worked really hard to recruit and all of a sudden they go away. I don't think it's an indictment against the program that they came out. They wanted to be there (at BYU), they liked it there, there was lots of excitement, but at the end of the day they chose to take another path.”

Cleveland is right. It is hurting BYU basketball.

It hurts in experience, leadership, chemistry and a payoff for a lot of work by many.

But making it so doesn’t detract from the right to the decision. It’s a deal Childs is deciding, if he has not already.