Pima Community College's new locals-only athletics policy is worth a shot, even if it eventually fails

A few dozen pounds ago, I was playing basketball and attending college on an athletic scholarship. It mattered not that the entire scholarship (which included room, board and books) was only worth about $1,000 a year, or that the college I was attending was of the "junior" variety and located so close to the end of the Earth that I had to drive an hour and a half, one way, at the then-strictly enforced speed limit of 55 mph, just to buy some fried chicken in Sierra Vista. I was a college ballplayer, dammit, and I swear I didn't give one thought to the fact that I had also been admitted to an Ivy League school.

This is not a mental place in which I have taken up permanent residence, nor was it by any means a perfect experience, but I've never regretted doing it. And if I have the luxury of lying on a death bed and ticking off the Top 10 coolest things I did in my life, that would certainly be on the list.

Therefore, having revisited that fond memory (and being as parochial as all hell), I have arrived at the odd conclusion that the new Pima Community College policy of relying almost exclusively on in-county athletes for its sports teams is not completely horrible. It certainly is a noble concept, and I think that, under certain circumstances, it might just work.

I say that despite the fact that it has been tried before elsewhere and was an unqualified disaster. A few years before I went to the afore(un)mentioned college, the school had been a basketball powerhouse, one of the best in the state and ranked nationally. Its roster was full of guys from New York and the Midwest who had nothing in common with the desert setting or the other 98 percent of the people attending the college, but they could ball.

One year, a kid from the local town tried out for the college team. He had been a star for his high school team, but he was way out of his class at the college and got cut. It turns out that the kid's dad was some big shot in local politics. He applied the right pressure in the right spots, and the college suddenly announced that it had lost its way, had strayed from its mission, and would henceforth go with only in-county ballplayers.

This was all well and good, except for the fact that the county in question included such metropolitan areas as Bisbee, Willcox, Bowie and Tombstone. The only sports the school had at the time were baseball and men's basketball. The baseball team struggled, while the basketball team set unbreakable records for futility. In fact, the hoop team went 0-54 the next two seasons and lost one game by a mind-boggling 90 points (135-45), and this was before the adoption of the three-point shot!

The college board eventually softened its stance, and the newly hired basketball coach was allowed to bring in players from out of state. My first year there, the team consisted of 11 African-American gentlemen from the Chicago and Detroit areas, and me. I became known as the answer to the question, "What's wrong with this picture?" Somewhat sadly, but most certainly emphatically, there were no in-county ballplayers on the squad.

Some would think that what happened back then would lead me to conclude that Pima's new policy is doomed to failure, but I'm not so sure. Certainly, Cochise County in the late 1970s is not the same as 21st-century Pima County. Nearly a million people live in Pima County. We have three dozen high schools in the county, of which two-thirds are of the (big-school) 4A and 5A variety. That means that several thousand athletes graduate from Pima County high schools every year. Obviously, only a few will be college-level athletes. The trick, as always, will be to win and to make Pima a place where kids will want to go.

To be sure, there are a whole lot of kids out there--including a lot of real smart ones--for whom the sweetest two-word phrase in the English language is "athletic scholarship."

Pima's new policy has already chased off the track coach, who resigned, as well as the high-profile men's basketball coach, Brian Peabody, who was primed to build a powerhouse at the westside campus. Ironically, Peabody had assembled a squad for next year that was almost exclusively Pima County ballplayers, including several who had played for him over the years at Salpointe Catholic, but he felt the new policy was too restrictive, so he moved on.

This new policy may well prove to be unworkable, or even disastrous. However, school administrators had to be smiling widely when the Pima softball team won the national championship last month. And they did it with a roster consisting almost exclusively of Pima County athletes. It can be done.

The new policy can be fought or it can be embraced. It might end in failure, but it will have been a noble failure. Whatever happens, it might be a policy that more self-proclaimed "community" colleges would do well to pursue.

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