Wednesday, February 14, 2007

It Must Feel Good to Decommit

There needs to be reform in college football recruiting. Despite the fact that even knowing recruiting exists may indict me on being a basement-dwelling freak, I can’t believe that a stand-up organization (sarcasm intended) like the NCAA would allow such absurdity to go on under its watch. Apparently the NCAA has taken an interest in said absurdity. Considering the NCAA has done everything it can to take away from the enjoyment of college football, I would not expect much to come of their “interest”.

Recruiting is a fascinating and weird phenomenon. At the very core of the weirdness is the fact that many otherwise rational college football fans engross themselves in the decisions made by 17 and 18-year old kids. I remember when I was 17 years old. No offense to my 17-year old self, but I was a moron in the nicest way possible. I can’t imagine other 17-year olds being that much different than I was in terms of maturity and understanding the effects of my actions. To think that there could have been thousands of rabid fans agonizing over my decision seems laughable. I almost didn’t even apply to Michigan because I didn’t want to write the essays. So yeah, recruiting is centered on kids who are probably just like that.

The other part of the weirdness is that, measurables and hyperbole aside, 90% of people that follow recruiting don’t know the first thing about the recruits that they invest so much of their hopes into. I know I don’t. Some call that creepy, I prefer foolhardy. Even though it seems like the negative emotions from following recruiting almost always offset the positive emotions, it is so hard to ignore the inherent lure to college football fans. It combines schools pride with unlimited potential. It is the draft of college football. Following recruiting is as irrational as following the NFL draft. For someone to try to arbitrarily draw a line between the two is ridiculous.

That brings me to the reason why recruiting reform is needed in the first place. Recruiting has been infiltrated by broken promises, negative recruiting, and decommitments. I suppose that has always been the landscape but things have escalated to a new never-before-seen-level. Everyone from the NCAA to the coaches to the recruits to the parents has played a part in creating a culture of dishonesty. There are a number of reasons why coaches and recruits manipulate and renege on their word. Without ethical rules in place to govern the way coaches behave in the recruiting process, you can’t really blame them especially when they seem to be acting in the best interests of their families (better recruits means more wins, more wins means better job security, better job security means more money, more money means happy families (at least in theory)). You can’t really blame recruits for similar reasons. But, the reasons why the reneging and decommitting are happening aren’t nearly as important as why the NCAA has allowed for such a culture to exist. With all of the rules the NCAA forces coaches and players to follow, one would think there would be a clear set of guidelines preventing coaches and players from lying through their teeth without consequences.

There seems to be somewhat of an unwritten rule in college basketball that coaches stay away from committed recruits (don’t tell this to Illinois or Michigan fans), it seems that college football coaches actually become more interested in recruits after they have committed. The world of college football coaching is very similar to the world of used-car salesmen. Not every football coach is shady. My guess is most are. What makes the recruiting scene particularly annoying for this Michigan fan is that Michigan’s football and basketball coaches are by all accounts “stand-up guys”. That inevitably leads to them being the victim of decommitments without benefiting from them (Jeremy Van Alstyne aside). They don’t meddle with committed kids. For every recruiter like Lloyd Carr and Tommy Amaker, there are ten recruiters that will tell a recruit anything and everything to get him to pledge allegiance to their schools. There are hundreds of rules that these coaches have to abide by. Unfortunately, there are no rules prohibiting coaches from lying or misleading recruits and vice versa.

Although the coaches seem to be the ones doing the most to facilitate such a distasteful environment, the coaches are certainly not the only culprits in this mess. The recruits and their families are just as responsible as the coaches. Whenever a recruit goes back on his word, that decision is inevitably characterized as “par for the course when dealing with 17 and 18-year old kids”. That pretty much excuses any prospective college athlete from having even the slightest bit of integrity. That also excuses the parents from having integrity as well. That reminds me of the famous quote from Jerry Maguire when Cush’s dad (Beau Bridges) says, “What you do have is my whole word, and it's stronger than oak.” Of course, that was just before he stabbed Jerry Maguire in the back and signed with Bob Sugar. And that is how things are unfolding right now. Without the luxury of a binding commitment until well after the average recruit has committed, coaches have to hope they aren’t being fed a bunch of empty promises by a recruit that may or may not be looking to improve his own position at all costs.

Even if being indecisive seems to be “par for the course” for young adults, someone has to be held accountable for a recruit not sticking to his word. I understand some of the arguments that kids are fickle and it is in their nature to change their minds. That is certainly a reasonable stance. If the kids aren’t going to be held accountable for their decisions, then their parents need to be. I don’t think it’s reasonable to allow kids to significantly affect the lives of hundreds of people (coaches, players etc.) because they aren’t willing to live up to their word. If an 18-year old signs up for the army and decides to renege on that commitment after being given orders to report to Iraq, he/she doesn’t have the luxury of decommitting. No commander is going to accept the excuse that kids are fickle and it’s in their nature to change their minds. In many corners of society, 17 and 18-year old kids are expected to live up to their word. College football should be no different.

Decommitting used to be a big deal. Now, if you don’t decommit, you aren’t cool. In fact, if you don’t decommit at least twice, you are falling behind the curve. Take the cases of Jerimy Finch and Cedric Everson for example:

Finch verbally committed to Michigan which undoubtedly led the Michigan coaching staff to focus their efforts on other positions. Well into the recruiting season, Finch informed Michigan that he was decommitting. He then committed to Indiana which undoubtedly led the Indiana coaching staff to focus their efforts on other positions. Shortly after that, he informed Indiana that he was decommitting again but would still consider Indiana, along with Michigan and Florida before announcing on Signing Day. Finch ended up committing to the only place that would do the story justice—Florida.

Everson verbally committed to Georgia Tech which undoubtedly led the Georgia Tech coaching staff to focus their efforts on other positions. After Georgia Tech had a shake up in its coaching staff, Everson essentially decommitted from Georgia Tech upon which he committed to Michigan State. Michigan State undoubtedly focused its efforts on other positions after getting word from Everson that he was in the fold. That was until Everson informed Michigan State that he was decommitting again to go to Iowa.

Some may argue that all of the double-crossing and reneging is just a necessary evil. I suppose that could be the case if the double crossing didn’t dually encourage dishonesty from 17 and 18 year old kids and coaches while having a tremendous impact on the job security of coaches that actually do take a more integrity-based approach to recruiting. I don’t want to give too much credit to one or two recruits. However, there is no question that coaches live and die by the success that they have on the recruiting trail. When a recruit decommits late in the season, he runs the risk of causing a school to come up empty at a position of need. If that recruit waits until most of the other highly recruited recruits have committed or until signing day to decommitt, then that school is left with nothing. That can be a crippling blow by itself. Imagine if a coach enticed a “silent verbal” to commit to a rival school with the intention of shunning them on Signing Day? As far as I know, that has happened yet. But considering the underhanded nature of recruiting, is it really unreasonable to think that might happen?

If you still aren’t convinced that decommitments can’t have a significant impact on the state of an entire athletic program, then consider what happened to the Michigan basketball program just a few years back. Joe Crawford and Al Horford decommitted from Michigan leaving Tommy Amaker with a one-man recruiting class of Ronald Coleman. Say what you will about Amaker’s coaching (I know I have), having Crawford and Horford over these last three years would have made all the difference in the world in terms of on-court success and recruiting.

That kind of thing happens all of the time in college football recruiting. Just in the last two years alone, Michigan received verbal commitments from Nic Harris (ended up at Oklahoma), Jai Eugene (ended up at LSU) and Finch (ended up at Florida) only to be bamboozled very late in the recruiting process. You can bet that in each instance, Lloyd Carr changed his recruiting emphasis after thinking the players were in the fold. When they reneged on their commitments, Carr was left scrambling to fill those empty scholarships.

Acknowledging that something is wrong and coming up with a solution are two different beasts. Most people can admit that there is something wrong in Iraq right now. Very few people can agree on a solution. I suspect we will see the same thing with recruiting reform. College football coaches (yes, even the ones that are doing the manipulating and cherry-picking) will scream foul play. Some will give suggestions on how to remedy the situation but it will likely take a long time before anyone can agree on the proper course of action. As much as the NCAA would like everyone to believe, it doesn’t take rocket science to come up with a solution. The answer has to start with holding commitments with higher regard. A commitment (even a verbal commitment) has to mean what it’s supposed to mean. What good is a commitment if it’s only temporary? If a kid commits to a school, there should be consequences for decommitting. I would have no problem with a rule that states a decommittment incurs a loss of a year of eligibility or at the very least, forcing the recruit to sit out a year. If this rule was initiated, it would make sense to allow for transfers after at least one full season at a school. The point isn’t to punish a kid for his entire collegiate life because of a regretful decision. The point is to force recruits to think the process through before haphazardly committing to a coaching staff. That sounds harsh but I think it is more than fair. This whole thing started because the NCAA has allowed an environment that encourages dishonesty. It can make up for its transgressions by punishing dishonesty.

The way things are right now, nothing a recruit says means anything until he signs a Letter of Intent. That needs to change. Verbal commitments should be given “official” status by coming with paperwork. Likewise, coaches should be obligated to keep a recruit once an offer has been given and accepted. Coaches should not be given the luxury of binding a recruit to a commitment without having to live up to his commitment as well. Making verbal commitments binding would essentially create an early signing period that is in effect all the way until signing day. Instead of signing day being the pinnacle of the college football recruiting season, it should simply be viewed as the last day a recruit can commit somewhere.

There also needs to be a rule discouraging coaches from contacting kids that have committed. With a decommitment meaning a loss of a year of eligibility, I doubt that we’ll see any decommitments. However, coaches should only be allowed to contact a kid after that kid decommits—not before. I have no problem with a rule that would allow the coach of the team that received the initial commitment to allow the recruit a release from his commitment to pursue other interests. It should be written in stone that no committed recruit is to be contacted by another coach. That, along with taking commitments in literal terms, needs to be the focus of the recruiting reform.

I know some people don’t like absolutes. There would be complaints about these reforms being too tough on kids. I don’t have any sympathy for that school of thought. If the kids aren’t going to be held accountable, then their parents need to be. The NCAA makes such a big deal about not violating their rules but they have created a breeding ground for the largest amount of ethical violations it has ever witnessed.

The outcome of these rules would hopefully be a more thought out recruiting process on behalf of both the recruits and the coaches. The recruits would be forced to do more research on various schools and explore all options since the consequences of a decommitment would be too harsh to risk. The coaches would no longer be able to rely on stealing kids from other schools to complete their classes.

I have read on more than one occasion the viewpoint that as long as coaches can leave whenever they want to, recruits should be able to change their minds whenever they want as well. I don’t have a problem with that thinking. There should be a rule that states that if a coach leaves the program before the end of the signing period, recruits that had committed to that school can decommit without incurring a loss of eligibility. That seems reasonable to me.


Anonymous said...

While I agree it sucks, I think that's giving the program a pass. Programs often pressure kids into commitments during visits before they're ready. Maybe making an earlier signing day would be a better way to improve things. Also, the reality is that programs need to realize these verbals aren't binding (Michigan's certainly missed out on a bunch recently, though we did get Henne after he verbaled to Penn St).

Even more importantly than any of this stuff, the NCAA needs to beef up its enforcement. I get the feeling it's a couple of incoherent guys sitting around talking about Truman and when a Coke cost a nickel.

Anonymous said...

Finch committed to Michigan, but only with a "soft verbal." I don't feel bad about his decommittment; Michigan should not have relied upon a "soft verbal" commitment. Furthermore, Indiana knew who it was getting involved with when it sought out Finch; if they relied upon somebody who already decommitted once, shame on them. At any rate, Michigan has benefited from the current recruiting regime for a long time; it always out recruits the other teams in the big ten. One possible change that would make sense would be to allow schools to give early commitments who also enroll early special advantages, such as small amounts of compensation, or something similar. The schools would benefit from certainty (once they are enrolled they can't leave), and the kids (especially those from underrepresented communities) would benefit from having an easier adjustment period.


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