Hakim Hart was walking through the cafeteria at Philadelphia’s Roman Catholic High School in March when the new athletic director at St. Joseph’s University dropped a bombshell that transformed Hart’s college basketball career.
Anna Camden was on her way out of math class at the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr when she noticed that she had missed a phone call from the deputy director of athletics at Penn State. Her basketball career was rocked, too.
Both St. Joseph’s and Penn State were replacing their basketball coaches, so Hart and Camden -- two of the area’s top high school players -- were suddenly committed to playing for college teams with no head coaches.
Will the new coaches still want them? Will they want to play for the new coaches? What will happen next?
“It made me want to cry to think about doing this all over again,” Camden said of the uncertainty.
One of the area’s most heavily recruited basketball players, Camden didn’t even want to think about going through a second recruiting process.
“I think that’s what is so frustrating and unfair to kids that are put in these situations,” she said. “I’d already signed my letter of intent. I would just be thrown back into the jungle, scrambling to find a place."
Hundreds of college recruits in many sports at many colleges across the country face similar situations each year when coaches for whom they planned to play are either fired or resign. Some players, such as Camden, choose to stay with the next coach and reestablish a relationship. Others, such as Hart, choose to decommit and sign on with another school and another coach.
“There’s so much money invested that you would call it a business," Matt Griffin, Hart’s coach at Roman Catholic, said of college basketball. "And so college coaches are held accountable for wins and losses, and they have to produce. But it does make an impact on each of the players [when coaches leave or are fired], and you can see that by the number of transfers every year.”
Hart’s classmates first brought the Martelli news to his attention, so the 6-foot-3 first-team all-Catholic League senior guard scrolled through his Twitter feed.
St. Joseph’s fires men’s basketball coach Phil Martelli after 24 years at the helm.
Hart was shocked. The coach to whom Hart had committed to play was out at Hawk Hill.
“I was down because I knew I would do good at St. Joe’s,” Hart said. “Phil would have developed me to get better.”
So, about a month after he decommitted from St. Joe’s, Hart signed on with Maryland to follow in the footsteps of former Terrapins Steve Francis and Grevis Vasquez, each of whom made it to the NBA.
Billy Lange eventually was named to replace Martelli at St. Joe’s.
On the other hand, Camden, a 6-2 all-Friends League senior forward, remained firm in her commitment to Penn State after Coquese Washington was replaced by Carolyn Kieger. After all, Penn State was the first school to offer Camden a scholarship, and it’s close to home and has a sports journalism program in which Camden is interested.
Camden said she has since spoken with Kieger, who led Marquette to the NCAA tournament for three straight seasons. But she was initially crushed in knowing that she might have to go through the recruiting process again.
“My heart dropped. I lost my breath for a second,” Camden said of when she first heard the news. “My eyes swelled up before I got control of myself, and then I got my butt out of school, came home and talked with my parents.”
Before heading home, Camden made one stop. She went to see Sean Costello, her basketball coach at Shipley, to discuss her next move.
High school coaches often serve as links between their players and the colleges during the recruiting process.
“It’s total uncharted territory for those kids,” Costello said. “Some of these kids have been getting recruited for years by a coaching staff. And when they commit, all of the sudden that coaching staff, which is a big part of why they were looking to go to the school, isn’t there.”
Costello had been through this situation from the other side as a college coach. He is a former women’s basketball assistant coach at Appalachian State and Belmont. When he took the job at Appalachian State, he and the rest of the new coaching staff immediately reached out to that year’s recruiting class.
“It’s not like you’re going to be able and get [all] new kids. You need that class,” Costello said.
Costello counseled Camden to reach out to Kieger and obtain game film from the coach’s time at Marquette and also to send her own game film to the new coach. For Camden, Costello was a guiding hand she could not find elsewhere.
“We already had a great relationship throughout the years that he’d been coaching me,” Camden said. “But even though now I’m not his player any more … it’s been amazing and comforting to have someone on my side like that.”
There was a similar bond between Griffin and Hart. Both were first-team All-Catholic League players, and both had to overcome the shock of coaching changes. Pat Chambers left to take the men’s basketball job at Penn State when Griffin was a junior at Boston University.
Overall, Griffin had three different coaches during his time at Rider and Boston. “It’s unfortunate, but it happens,” Griffin said.
Griffin said he told Hart to do his homework in choosing the next school after he turned away from St. Joe’s. That meant that Hart had to analyze rosters, conferences, coaching staffs and schools that might be a fit for him.
Griffin said he remembered how excited Hart was to play for Martelli at St. Joe’s after he took his official visit last fall. Hart had committed to the Hawks about two weeks after that visit.
But the switch wasn’t all negative.
“There’s a reason why you’re being contacted by multiple schools,” Griffin told Hart. “It’s because you have a lot of success and tremendous development as a player and person.”
Hakim Hart Sr. remembers his son being down for a few days after Martelli was fired, but the two built a special connection during that time.
For the elder Hart, the situation was a blessing in disguise. Martelli’s firing, it seemed, opened up new opportunities for Hart that weren’t there before he committed to St. Joe’s.
“He worked hard for these types of situations,” Hart Sr. said. “He put his time in, and he’s reaping the benefits now. Unfortunately, things happened. But it opened up some new doors for him.”
On his second recruiting dance, Hart’s top suitors included Maryland, Michigan, Penn State and Temple. Only Temple had previously offered Hart before he committed to St. Joe’s.
It was fortunate that Hart’s senior season helped him go from playing at a Mid-Major to a Power 5 school. He led his team in scoring with an average of 21.1 points per game and helped the Cahillites win a second straight Catholic League title. He was also named to the Pennsylvania all-state Class 6A first team.
The second recruiting process allowed Hart to find the right program from among more schools, and he joined AAU teammate and Imhotep Charter standout Donta Scott at Maryland.
“I feel like the program can really help me get to the [NBA],” Hart said.
At the Camden household, Tex Camden, Anna’s father, tried to keep his finger on the pulse on the coaching situation at Penn State. "As soon as we would hear something, we’d try to do our own little investigation and find out what we could about the [potential] coach, their history, background,” Tex Camden said.
He said he would check on Wikipedia for the coach’s biography, watch videos and try to get a feel for their personalities. He also used his contacts at the Philadelphia Belles, Camden’s AAU team, to get information on the coaches.
“Anna did her homework, and I did my work," Tex Camden said. "We didn’t let it consume us, but it was a big part of our conversation. How could it not be?”
The Camden family is not new to athletic drama since Meg Camden just finished her senior year as an Ohio State lacrosse player, and Heather Camden is a sophomore lacrosse defender at Drexel.
And since Camden’s mother, Susan, played college basketball at William & Mary, Tex Camden said her input was invaluable.
“[Susan] has such a great relationship with all of [the daughters], and they have a trust in her because she is their mom and she has been through it herself,” Tex Camden said. “It was very crucial to have that support and guidance along the way."
In the end, Tex Camden said, whether the players stay or leave the school to which they had committed, having a second chance to decide can be as rewarding as it is harrowing.