In the romanticized, idealized world of college football, Big State U. recruits the best high school players each year and sells them on whatever works: the coaches, the system, the campus, the tradition, the co-eds, etc.
The young men are offered scholarships and asked to sign a National Letter of Intent, which commits them to that school and makes them off-limits to other interested suitors.
After faxing the agreement, elite players often go on TV and hold up a hat or pair of gloves in announcing their choice to the world. Hugs and handshakes ensue at the high school, while staffers at the college exchange high-fives and keep tally on the big board.
But like everything connected to major college sports, the NLI has an underbelly that’s dark, seamy and foul-smelling.
We’ve become immune to the sudden departure of head coaches who a year earlier talked about the wonderful things ahead for them and the incoming class. Jim McElwain hosted Florida officials at his house on Dec. 1 last year, despite his contract with Colorado State and an upcoming bowl game. He bolted shortly thereafter.
Arkansas State watched three coaches – Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn and Bryan Harsin – leave for high-profile gigs after one-year stints. Surely they gave no indication of the possibility while regaling recruits.
At least head coaches are long gone by National Signing Day, giving prospective signees a chance to re-evaluate the destination. However, that’s not the case with assistant coaches, who serve as the main recruiters, influencers and points-of-contact for prep athletes and annually jet off before the ink dries.
Mike Weber, the top-rated halfback in Michigan, signed an NLI with Ohio State last week. Less than 24 hours later, Buckeyes running backs coach Stan Drayton accepted a job with the Chicago Bears.
Two days after defensive tackle Du’Vonta Lampkin signed with Texas, Longhorns defensive line coach Chris Rumph took the same position with Florida (whose D-line coach Terrell Williams left for the Miami Dolphins a day earlier). “Guess I was lied to in my face,” Lampkins wrote on Twitter. “It’s not even the fact he left. … It’s the fact I was told it wasn’t going to happen.”
If Weber and Lampkins opt to change their decision, they will forfeit a year of eligibility because they signed their NLI.
Conversely, Roquan Smith remains an “unrestricted free agent” and a potential game-changer for future elite recruits.
The four-star linebacker out of Georgia went on ESPNU and announced his intention to sign with UCLA. But he never followed through, due to rumors that Bruins defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich was headed to the Atlanta Falcons. The news leaked on signing day and was confirmed News leaked the same day and was confirmed this week. Now Smith’s high school coach says the player won’t sign an NLI after making his final decision.
“How can these guys (college coaches) talk about the people and the relationships – and then you get these kids signed and then you bail on them at the first time you get the opportunity?” Macon County coach Larry Harold told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“You can’t tell me that these head coaches aren’t telling these assistants that they know are leaving, ‘Don’t tell anybody until after signing day and then we’ll announce it.’ That’s deception and that dishonesty. And, most importantly, it’s not fair to the kids.”
This is a bigger deal for five- and four-star recruits because they field more attractive offers than two- and three-star recruits and lose all of their leverage after signing. But NLIs don’t guarantee a thing. Schools can dump signed players prior to preseason camp.
That’s something else college coaches probably don’t volunteer during recruiting trips.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer asked Weber’s high school coach if the Ohio State staff was misleading as it pursued the halfback. “Yes. 100 percent,” Thomas Wilcher told the newspaper. “100 percent.
“I want (Weber) to understand this is part of the business,” he said. “This is how they do things. But kids shouldn’t be played as a pawn in the business, though. That’s the problem.”
Unfortunately, the industry has always worked that way (Louisville snake/head coach Bobby Petrino pulled a scholarship offer from halfback Matt Colburn 48 hours before signing day; the player had been committed for eight months).
Thankfully, we’re in the midst of a sea change, as power conferences move toward guaranteed scholarships, full-cost-of-attendance stipends and athletes’ rights to market their own names likeness.
The NCAA should take another step: If a head coach, coordinator or the signee’s position coach leaves within 30 days of signing day, recruits should be able to change their decision without penalty.
A healthy dose of honesty wouldn’t cure the recruiting process completely.
But more truth-in-advertising is a good place to start.