James “Satch” Sullinger coached basketball from 1983-2011 at Grambling State, Oberlin College, East High School (Ohio) and Northland High School (Ohio), and is a former administrator with USA Basketball. He was the 2010 Naismith High School Coach of the Year and won the 2009 Division-I Ohio State Boys Basketball Championship at Northland. This is the third installment in our series with him. You can find our previous chapters here and here.
Satch Sullinger sent three of his children and countless other players into college basketball, and the former coach has some strong opinions on the state of the collegiate game.
A few weeks ago, the NBA officially proposed lower the minimum age for draft eligibility from 19 to 18, where it was set before the “one-and-done” rule took effect in 2006. The change couldn’t come sooner than 2022 and would need approval from the players union, but it’s a step in the right direction for advocates of its elimination, like Sullinger.
“You let the kids go straight from high school to the (NBA), because it’s not a club where you join, you have to be good enough to get there,” Sullinger said, “but once you get to college, you have to spend two years.”
The rule is the NBA’s, but Sullinger said it’s up to the NCAA to add a two-year requirement for all players who choose to begin a college basketball career.
“If they say that they have to stay two years, then the NBA will find a way to say, ‘Well, we don’t want to wait three years to get the kid,’” he explained. “Make them adjust, because if they come to us, they’re going to stay two years.”
A common argument for a replacement to the one-and-done rule is allowing complete freedom for players to begin a professional career whenever they want, whether that’s right after high school, after one year in college or more. But Sullinger doesn’t agree. He wants players to have a bigger taste of the college experience.
“You learn a little bit of synergy. You learn to become a part of something bigger than you,” he said. “In order to play two years, you have to be eligible at least three semesters. You get three semesters under your belt, you start experiencing different things. Your world opens up, and it becomes a little bigger than when you went in.”
He drew from his own time in undergrad at Oberlin College to explain it further.
“When I got to my second year, I realized, ‘I’m halfway through my degree,’” he remembered. “All of a sudden, school became really important to me. We have to learn how to become part of something bigger than us. Without that, you’re just going to learn how to work a system. You’re never going to learn how to become a part of it.”
Sullinger’s youngest son, Jared, was one of the highest rated recruits in the Class of 2010. After wildly successful freshman campaign at Ohio State, he was considered a popular candidate to go one-and-done from many outsider perspectives. But he didn’t and remained in college for a second year before pursuing a professional career.
Former Ohio State head coach Thad Matta told ESPN in 2011 that it was something Jared had told him since the beginning.
“Oh, he’s been telling me that all along,” Matta said. “And I believe it. He told me, draw up a contract, whatever you need to do. I believe him when he says it.”
The news surprised people unfamiliar with the Sullinger family, but the elder Sullinger made it very clear where he stood.
“A person is no more than what they’re fed mentally,” he said. “I can go in thinking one way, then be produced two different thoughts, and that helps me grow and my box gets bigger. But if I’m not forced to deal in that, my box gets smaller, and I never become a part of society.
“I think you owe me. The world doesn’t owe us anything but an opportunity to become part of it. That’s all this world owes us, and we’re no more than what we’re fed mentally. If we’re fed mentally gray area, then we learn how to function in the gray area. You tell me one person who’s successful living in the gray area?”
I responded to his question: “I guess that would depend on your definition of successful.”
“Yeah, you’re damn right,” Sullinger said.
Sullinger still lives in Columbus, Ohio, with his wife and dogs. You can find him at Thomas Worthington High School games watching his grandson or at the Starbucks on Market Street in New Albany, enjoying the community he’s spent most of his life in. His view on modern athletes, experiences in coaching and more will be featured further in our continuing series with him.