Airline passengers are used to the announcements that come before full flights are about to take off. The plane is overbooked, they are told, and two volunteers are needed to give up their tickets. For their trouble, they will be rebooked on the next flight and compensated with a little cash.
But now imagine instead that the attendant on the intercom named two passengers — ones who had bought their tickets early and had stuffed their bags into the overhead compartments already — and then summarily ordered them off the plane and wished them the best of luck finding some other way to get to St. Louis.
Welcome to what continues to be the wild world of recruiting in the top tier of major college sports.
Wednesday is college football’s national signing day, when prospects can finally ink their names on national letters of intent — binding documents that lock in the offers of athletic scholarships that colleges have made to them. But until players sign on the dotted line and, typically, fax their letters in (signing days are practically keeping the fax machine industry in business), agreements made beforehand are only as solid as the word of the parties who made them. A coach can pull a scholarship if he lands a better player. A player can renege on his commitment if he decides to sign elsewhere.
This year, Connecticut’s Randy Edsall and Florida Atlantic’s Lane Kiffin faced criticism after recruits accused them of withdrawing scholarship offers only weeks before signing day, leaving the players scrambling. Last season the same charge was leveled at Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and Maryland’s D. J. Durkin. But recruits do the same thing, with dozens of high school prospects decommitting in the weeks before signing day.
“What’s happening with the word ‘commitment’?” asked Chuck Kyle, the longtime football coach at St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland. “What are we teaching these young people?”
But not all are satisfied. “We’re forcing kids to make decisions before we can accept them,” said Ty Darlington, a former Oklahoma offensive lineman who now works for the university, and who had served on a recruiting working group while he was still an athlete. He had pressed for a summer signing period, which the committee rejected.
While coaches’ reneging on scholarships is not a frequent occurrence, it does happen. Though Edsall and Kiffin pulled offers, each is new to his program and had not recruited the prospect in question. Other past offenders include not only Harbaugh and Durkin but Louisville Coach Bobby Petrino, the former Texas Coach Charlie Strong and Alabama Coach Nick Saban. (In many cases, prospects were offered “grayshirts,” in which they were told they could enroll but would not go on scholarship until the next spring.)
The oversight committee’s proposals, which the Division I Council could vote on as early as April and which could be put in effect by next year’s national signing day, would create a three-day window to sign letters of intent in December — potentially before annual coaching turnover creates incentives for coaches or prospects to change their minds — and to allow official visits, at colleges’ expense, as early as the spring before high schoolers’ senior years.
Noting that all 10 conferences in the top-tier Football Bowl Subdivision were represented on the oversight committee, the commissioner of the Mid-American Conference, Jon Steinbrecher, who is on the committee, said he expected the recommendations to be adopted. The American Football Coaches Association voted in January to support the December signing period.
Steinbrecher said he had seen statistics indicating that the majority of Division I football prospects verbally commit early and that many do so before going on official visits. The current system, which bars official visits until September of a player’s senior year, often during high school seasons, is seen as a disadvantage to teams that are not in recruiting-rich areas where prospects can unofficially visit at minimal cost and with minimal effort.
“It’s hopefully an opportunity for both parties, if they wish to partake of it, to get more information about each other,” Steinbrecher said of earlier official visits.
There remains a fundamental asymmetry between coaches and prospects that Josh Helmholdt, a recruiting analyst at Rivals.com, summed up: “College coaches recruit 20 to 30 kids each class. A kid gets one school.”
Helmholdt added that he was more sympathetic to the prospects who decommit than to coaches who renege on offers. “Most come into this completely green, totally naïve and just trying to keep their heads above water,” he said of the recruits. “They’ve been doing everything they’ve been told to do. They find out in December or January they’ve lost their scholarship — that’s on a totally different magnitude than a college coach having a four-star flip on him.”
“We felt like summer was too early because that meant coaches could change, assistants could leave,” said Mack Brown, the former Texas coach who is a commentator at ESPN.
Plus, he added, “Coaches don’t want to spend all summer recruiting.”
But Darlington suggested that some coaches opposed an earlier signing window because it denied them the ability to evaluate prospects’ senior seasons and because it created the potential for academic eligibility issues. “If there’s not enough academic info, then we shouldn’t be offering them,” Darlington said of the eligibility objection.
Helmholdt agreed, saying the December signing period was largely “redundant,” as it would not solve the problem of players getting offers during their junior or sophomore seasons only to have coaches later change their minds.
“What’s been lost,” added Kyle, of St. Ignatius, “is what a commitment means, both by the athlete and also the colleges.”