In the recruiting world, players and coaches know a ‘commitment’ doesn’t really commit
By Anastasia Orso
Jermaine Eluemunor received his first death threat on Oct. 28, 2013, when he was barely 18 and in his first year of junior college. His phone was flooded with anonymous messages from angry Twitter users slinging racial slurs and hoping that he’d suffer a debilitating injury.
They called him classless, disloyal and stupid.
The change of heart was Eluemunor’s second. He had previously verbally committed to UCLA. Now, he said, he was 100 percent sure he wanted to be an Aggie, and Texas A&M was where he enrolled last month.
Before he committed to A&M, he said, he was pressured by coaches across the nation to play for them. The process was so stressful he considered giving up his dream of Division I football altogether.
“Some nights I was just like, ‘Damn, can I just have an idea of where to go?’ Because I have all the top schools in the country just wanting me to come to their programs,” he said. “Every single day I was like, ‘I don’t care about the business side of picking my college, I just want to play.’ I let the pressure get to me.”
More than 2,000 high school football players will sign with Division I programs in 2014, and many have endured the kind of stress Eluemunor did.
As the revenue in college athletics increases and the technology advances, the game has turned into a year-round competition for the best players. Meanwhile the NCAA tries futilely to regulate a system in which verbal scholarship offers and commitments cause confusion for both the players and the coaches recruiting them.
The fact is that a verbal commitment – a spoken promise or a handshake – doesn’t bind either side. Essentially it is meaningless, even though it is a term bandied about constantly in the culture of college football.
‘It’s the wild, wild West’
Flemington, N.J., linebacker Jason Cabinda said the hardest part about telling Syracuse coach Scott Shafer that he wanted to attend Penn State – instead of playing for the Orange – was just figuring out what to say.
“That’s my decision,” Cabinda said. “I had to man up. This is my life decision, and it will affect me for the rest of my life.”
That same week, Cabinda was joined on the Nittany Lions’ projected 2014 commit list by Johnathan Thomas, a running back who had likewise “decommitted” from Rutgers to bolt for Happy Valley. On the Penn State list, Cabinda replaced linebacker Jared Wangler, who had decommitted from Penn State to play for Michigan.
Each of those players has said he felt pressured to commit to a school in his junior year and to make a decision long before he was ready. Ryan Snyder, a recruiting analyst from Rivals.com, who watches high school athletes being courted by Penn State and the University of Maryland, says the 21st century’s college football recruiting landscape is “the wild, wild West.”
Rich Hansen, a New Jersey high school coach whose teams have won 203 games and three state titles, put it this way: “The game has changed. And by game, I mean the recruiting game.”
Hansen, head coach at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, said, “I’ve been coaching 31 years, and I don’t even know what a scholarship offer is anymore.”
The back-and-forth between big-time college coaches and high school student-athletes is widespread. Last February, 2,406 players signed on National Signing Day with schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision, or FBS, which embraces the largest members of the NCAA’s Division I. (Smaller Division I schools are in the Football Championship Subdivision, or FCS.)
The vast majority of the players who signed had verbally committed to those schools at some point prior to signing. However, the 500 players ranked in the Rivals Top 100 for the classes of 2007 through 2011 were more likely than the others to change their minds; about one in six of those top prospects had decommitted at some point. Overall, one out of every eight recruits ultimately signed with a school other than the one to which he originally committed. In the last two years, decommits have become even more prevalent, Hansen said.
Not all decommits are players’ decisions. Some are driven by the schools, either because they withdraw scholarship offers or change coaches. Both of Jermaine Eluemunor’s decommits were his own decision.
A high-profile player who decommitted is quarterback Tajh Boyd, who most recently led the Clemson Tigers to victory over Ohio State in the Orange Bowl. Boyd committed to West Virginia and Tennessee before eventually deciding on Clemson in 2009. He told Sports Illustrated at the time that his decommitment from West Virginia was his choice, but his offer from Tennessee was withdrawn after coach Phillip Fulmer was fired. Lane Kiffin, who replaced Fulmer, didn’t think Boyd could run a pro-style offense.
Kiffin’s decision to pull the scholarship offer was frowned on by fans, according to SI, but it broke no rules. Boyd never had a written offer from Tennessee. That itself would have been an NCAA violation.
NCAA strategy backfires
In college football recruiting, there is nothing binding about scholarship offers or commitments until the athlete signs a Letter of Intent. National Signing Day occurs in the first week of February of the player’s senior year.
Verbal offers and commitments mean that coaches and players are, theoretically, playing by an honor system, said Snyder of Rivals.com, an online site owned by Yahoo! that uses more than 300 reporters around the country to cover recruiting.
But Snyder and those involved say that’s not really how it works.
In 2010, the NCAA made a rule change that it hoped would reduce the practice of universities recruiting younger athletes and extending early scholarship offers. The rule stipulated that no written scholarship offers could be issued to recruits until Aug. 1 just before their senior year begins. Before the rule change, they could receive written offers throughout their junior year.
Petrina Long, the UCLA senior associate athletic director who chaired the NCAA’s Recruiting and Athletics Personnel Issues Cabinet, told ESPN at the time that recruits and coaches were complaining about the pressure to accept and offer scholarships to younger recruits.
Many analysts said the new rule backfired.
“Now coaches are basically like, ‘Guys, we’re not allowed to offer you a scholarship until your senior season starts, but when your season starts, by God you’ve got a scholarship offer from us,’ ” said Scott Kennedy, director of scouting for Scout.com.
Kennedy said these conversations don’t always lead to scholarship offers. He said the NCAA doesn’t know how to curb verbal, nonbinding scholarship offers, so it doesn’t. Instead, he said, the NCAA restricts how often a coach can text a player or the size of envelopes he sends to recruits.
NCAA spokesman Ketrell Marshall said the NCAA doesn’t recognize verbal scholarship offers, and those offers don’t formally commit a coach to a recruit or a recruit to a school.
He said NCAA members had “expressed concern” over verbal commitments but have not embraced proposals to limit them. Any changes to the recruiting structure would have to be proposed and voted upon by member schools.
Snyder, the Rivals.com analyst, said coaches likely would not support a change that would eliminate verbal offers and scholarships
He said coaches use verbal scholarship offers to get some sort of commitment before the players’ senior year.
But because the verbal offer isn’t legally binding, coaches are not obligated to give a scholarship if a player is injured after making a commitment, or if the coaches find a better athlete.
Daniel Doyle, founder and chair of the Institute for International Sport, was a head basketball coach at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. He said that, from a moral perspective, what players go through during the recruiting process is “horrible.”
He said that blue-chip football recruits often have a false sense of what reality is, as their entire being is associated with their athletic skills. When someone questions that by withdrawing a scholarship offer, the players’ worlds can come crashing down, he said.
“There’s an old saying: ‘Beware of getting discovered too early,’ ” Doyle said. “Being discovered too early in this case means being placed on a pedestal at 15 or 16, which is difficult enough to begin with, but it’s especially difficult in sports because the shelf-life is so short.”
How coaches play the game
Glen Mason, an analyst with the Big Ten Network who held head coaching jobs at Kent State, Kansas and Minnesota, remembers when recruiting took a turn toward recruiting younger players in the mid-1980s.
“Penn State, way back in the day, they started this early commitment stuff,” Mason said. Penn State was running football camps for high school players on a large scale before most other universities got into the camp business, he said, and “they had a big recruiting advantage.”
Since he was fired from Minnesota in 2006, Mason said, the game has changed even more dramatically. Now, he said, there are more decommits than ever, and more recruits are getting misinformation from coaches and third parties such as scouting services and youth coaches.
High school coach Hansen said that “there’s no question” college coaches are playing games with recruits, and that many extend offers to players with no intention of signing them.
“But by offering him, they get in the game, keep him interested,” Hansen said. “He’s their backup guy. And that’s how the game is played.”
Scout.com’s Kennedy called it “an intentional misinformation campaign” by coaches, and he chalks it up to staffs wanting to draw recruits in earlier than ever. Five years ago a verbal scholarship offer meant that a coach wanted that player for his team, he said, but now it can mean nothing more than the coach just wants the player to visit his campus.
Kennedy said many recruits with more than 30 scholarship offers won’t look seriously at a school until they have a verbal offer from the head coach. As a result, the mantra for coaches is: Offer now, evaluate later.
Mason says that’s just how it works today. “I think the nature of the business right now, you’ve got to do it,” he said. “I mean, it’s so widespread that I think if all of a sudden if you’re going to do the righteous thing and stick up for your principles, you’re going to be on the outside looking in. Because that’s not how the game is being played right now.”
As college coaches make verbal offers earlier and earlier, athletes feel more pressure is placed on them to make decisions before they are ready. With verbal offers, coaches can at any time pull the plug, Kennedy said, and athletes are told that if they don’t make a decision by a certain date, they will be replaced.
“It’s just an amazing amount of pressure that these million-dollar salesmen with this billion-dollar industry can put on these 16- and 17-year-old kids to make a decision,” Kennedy said.
Bobby Bowden, the now-retired Florida State head coach who holds the NCAA record for most career wins and bowl wins by a Division I FBS coach, watched the recruiting game change from 1976 to 2009 while he led the Seminoles to a 315-97-4 record.
In a telephone interview in January, Bowden said recruiting younger athletes and pressuring them to commit sooner is “an unfortunate” matter of “keeping up with the Joneses.” But, he defended coaches, saying the abuse of verbal scholarship offers isn’t as pervasive as some recruits and members of the media make it out to be.
“I know that does occur. Not a lot of times, but I know it does occur at some places,” Bowden said with regard to coaches stringing along players they don’t intend to offer scholarships. “But it’s not wise, because once word got out, the boys found out about it and they quit coming. They quit visiting.”
It is increasingly important for recruits to do their research on the institutions making the verbal offer, and many are not equipped to do that, said Jared Shanker, who covers Atlantic Coast Conference recruiting and also monitors the Midwest for ESPN.com’s RecruitingNation.
Shanker said that even if an athlete is someone the coaching staff is interested in, it doesn’t mean the coaching staff won’t find a more talented recruit.
Shanker said that prospects should find out who else is being recruited by the coaching staff. If players are honest with themselves and size themselves up against the competition at a certain position, it’s much easier to tell if a scholarship offer is genuine, he said.
Shanker said coaches “can’t just tell you straight up that your offer is meaningless. They have to string you along as long as possible to see if they’re going to land the guy that they really want.”
Doyle, of the Institute for International Sport, who wrote the book “The Encyclopedia of Sports Parenting,” also recommended that parents or mentors of athletes limit the text messages and other forms of communications that coaches and recruiters can send.
“If you don’t do that, it’s utter chaos,” he said. “It prevents a kid from becoming a true student in many instances, because the kid is so absorbed in the recruitment process. If you’re at home at night and you’re a blue chipper, you’re getting literally 30 to 40 text messages. How are you going to study for your English examination?”
How prospects play the game
Alabama coach Nick Saban, known in college football as a master of recruiting, says he believes in honoring commitments by players and coaches.
“Most of the guys that commit really, really early, you almost expect that there may be some bumpy road ahead because eventually the guy will probably want to go look someplace else or whatever, may decommit, which I don’t think is good for anybody,” Saban said during a press conference in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on National Signing Day in February 2013. “Maybe we should look at some kinds of rules in college football so that this does not become a one-sided sort of deal.”
Hansen, the St. Peter’s Prep coach, encourages his players to wait to commit until they’re 100 percent sure where they want to be. He said he always pushes them to honor commitments, unless they feel strongly that their earlier decision was wrong. A player might need to be closer to his family for some reason, or he’s currently committed to a FCS program but gets an offer from an FBS program.
But there are recruits who play the “early commit” game. For prospects, choosing a college is like choosing a major in college: It’s malleable.
In the last two years, Shanker said, the number of decommitts has increased significantly.
“Coaches can’t really be too upset at a decommitment because they’re pressuring them to commit in the first place,” he said. “You’re kind of playing with fire to begin with, if you’re asking for a commitment from someone who is 15 and 16 and hoping that’s going to stick for another three years.”
Bowden said when players decommit from a program they are essentially telling a lie.
“If a kid tells me he’s coming, I expect him to live by that,” Bowden said. “You said you were coming to my school. I shook your hand, and now you say you’re decommitting? That means you did not tell the truth.”
But before the legendary coach went on, he paused for a moment and said, “But I blame a lot of it on the coaches. Let’s say I commit a kid, and he definitely wants to come to Florida State. Then here comes another school and they’re saying, ‘Hey son, I know you told him you were going there, but you don’t have to do that.’ That’s like saying ‘you can lie.’ We coaches are our own worst enemies by fueling this thing.”
Some recruits game the system so they can take as many official visits as possible, travel for free, eat good food and get free gear, former college coach Mason said. Hansen said some of his players have made “ridiculous” decisions, such as committing to schools they’ve never visited.
Other times, prospects reopen their recruitment as a way to get attention. Hansen said recruits get used to being courted, touted and told from age 12 that they’re “the next best thing.” When they verbally commit to a school, the courting tapers, and sometimes they want it back, he said.
The process fosters decommits. To Mason, it comes back to the NCAA regulations.
In the 1980s and 1990s, recruiting periods were much longer and coaches faced fewer limitations on how often they could visit recruits. During his coaching years, Mason would visit certain recruits every day for weeks until they committed. He said he would visit their home as many times as they would let him in the door.
The NCAA decided that was too overwhelming for recruits, so it placed restrictions on how often coaches could visit. But that inhibited the relationships coaches and players formed with each other. Now, because recruits aren’t as close with coaches who recruited them, they may be less inclined to honor a verbal commitment.
Mason said, “You built a relationship with that kid and his family, plus they built a relationship with you and you get to know them a lot better and they get to know you a lot better. So at least in my memory, very seldom did a kid stick out his hand… and tell everybody that he’s going to X school and then he changes his mind. It wasn’t done because they gave you their word and it meant something.”
Money leads to younger recruits
Hansen said the culture of coaches and recruits gaming the system won’t end until “we’re doing the right thing by the kids and not necessarily by the big dollars.”
Revenue doesn’t go to players, though discussions are underway that could change that. So when those extra millions of dollars aren’t inflating coaches’ salaries, Snyder said, they’re often pumping up recruiting resources.
Ronald A. Smith, a professor emeritus of sports history at Penn State and a noted sports historian, said more television money than ever is going to colleges. It is television, Smith said, that has generated huge sums of money to help pay for recruiting resources and new facilities, which are used to lure recruits.
“There’s more money in college athletics, so there’s more money to do things and you can have more people involved with recruiting because you can pay for more people,” Smith said. He noted that when Joe Paterno launched his Penn State career in 1966, five members of the staff were recruiting. Now, Smith said, more than 30 people – coaches, recruiting coordinators and interns – are involved.
Extra revenue allows coaches to start evaluating players at age 12 and 13, because they have the resources to do it. The consensus is that Division I football recruiting has gotten younger in the last five years
At 11 years old, quarterback David Sills V, of Elkton, Md., had UCLA and USC on the other end of the line. The California football powerhouses were trying to reel in the young quarterback. At age 13, the boy, 6 feet tall and weighing 155 pounds, verbally committed to then-USC head coach Kiffin.
Rivals.com analyst Mike Farrell wrote at the time: “Sills is an impressive-looking prospect with a strong arm for his age, nice touch on his passes and leadership abilities that belie his pre-high school status. Once Sills adds more strength to his upper and lower body, he will throw with less arm than he has to now and his potential is clearly evident.”
That was in 2010. Kiffin is no longer USC’s head football coach, and Sills and his father are mulling over whether or not the now-17-year-old still wants to be a Trojan. Sills has one more year left in high school.
Recruiting younger players can prove problematic for many reasons. Most conferences see two-thirds of its head coaches change every five years, as coaches leave for more money elsewhere or are fired. Sometimes an athlete doesn’t develop to the extent expected. Or he may quit football.
Kennedy said verbal commitments to colleges at such a young age are nothing more than public relations stunts by the player and the school.
When Sills committed, “all I know at that point is this kid likes USC. That’s really it,” Kennedy said.
While young teenagers who commit to PAC-12 and SEC schools remain an anomaly, analysts covering various conferences generally agree that coaches are targeting younger players. The schools with the most money are succeeding.
As recently as 12 years ago, Penn State was considered to be a team that targeted the youngest players. Its coaching staff was landing 20 or more verbal commitments from soon-to-be high school seniors before the football season even started. That practice now is commonplace, and Penn State trails many SEC schools in filling up recruiting classes.
Alabama, which has won two of the last three national championships, secured five verbal commitments for the class of 2015 before the 2013 football season began. LSU, Texas A&M and other programs have seen similar results.
And while Penn State isn’t known for throwing out verbal offers to high school freshmen, the coaching staff will take notice if a 13-year-old is performing well. Snyder said that if a Penn State recruiter is attending a varsity high school game and an eighth grader is standing out, “you better believe they’re going to be watching him.”
Technology’s role in recruiting
Professor Smith, who wrote a book called “Pay for Play: A History of Big-Time College Athletic Reform,” said recruiting has always been an intense facet of big-time college athletics. But with more money and better technology has come greater interest.
“I think the money has done more than anything else,” he said. “But the technology, too. There’s more technological ways of recruiting today than ever before.”
The analysts agree. Hudl, a video-sharing website that lets recruits upload highlight videos after each game, has revolutionized how college coaches evaluate prospects. Not long ago, coaches had to pack their bags and travel to visit high schools to watch an entire game; now they can click a button and view highlights minutes after the game has been played.
Jared Shanker said the use of Hudl and video-sharing websites has resulted in more early offers to athletes because coaches can extend those offers without ever visiting the athlete’s high school. Shanker said he had heard from recruits and their parents who have been surprised to receive offers from schools they had no idea were even interested.
But social media is the technological advancement that has really altered recruiting, Shanker said. Direct-messaging functions on Facebook and Twitter have changed the way coaches and prospects communicate with each other. It also has made it easier to circumvent NCAA rules that limit communication.
Kent Taylor, a class of 2012 tight end from Land O’Lakes, Fla., who was considering Penn State but chose Florida, once posted a screenshot of his Facebook message inbox. Snyder said he was shocked to see that the 17-year-old had received more than 60 messages from college coaches in 48 hours.
The NCAA has rules governing how often a coach can call, text, email or send postal mail to a prospect. But nothing in its rulebook mentions social media.
“Basically the texting rule doesn’t even make sense anymore because people are just messaging through Facebook and Twitter,” Snyder said.
NCAA rules state that there are certain days in prospects’ careers in which coaches can initiate contact with them. But by the time the dates roll around in the players’ junior years, many of them have already been conversing to coaches for months via Facebook and Twitter.
“People think that ‘Oh, you’re only allowed to have one call a week,’ but that doesn’t mean a thing if you can just Facebook the kid and have a 20-minute Facebook conversation,” Snyder said.
Videoconferencing has changed the game, too. Coaches no longer need to travel to speak with prospects face-to-face. Skype is one of the most powerful tools.
South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who graduated from high school in Rock Hill, S.C., in 2011, is regarded as one of the best defensive players to come out of high school in the last decade, Snyder said. Clowney told several publications that while he was being recruited, Saban embraced technology more than anyone in the field. The coach video-chatted for hours with Clowney and his family and begged them to visit Alabama.
Some ideas for reform
Hansen and Mason say the NCAA has lost control of the college football recruiting landscape, and both have ideas for reform.
Some college coaches have considered instituting a “no-visit policy” that their commits must follow. Under this rule, if players make a verbal commitment to a school, they can’t take official visits to another program unless they decommit.
This, Hansen said, would cut down on prospects who are “just along for the ride.” Coaches at Michigan, Oregon and Texas have already instituted a no-visit policy, Scout.com’s Kennedy said.
Glen Mason took it a step further, saying he could see the rules changing to allow players to sign a contract on the spot when they make a commitment to a coach.
“Like you buy anything else, if a kid is committing to you, why not sign a contract, then it be over with?” Mason said. “I’m not saying I’m totally for that, but we have to do something because right now with kids making commitments and then changing their mind … it becomes really ridiculous.”
Hansen also proposed a second, earlier signing day. In addition to the National Signing Day in a player’s senior year, there would be a signing day during the player’s junior year. Hansen said that would significantly reduce the number of decommits. In addition, he said, coaches would be more inclined to be 100 percent sure about a recruit before they offer him a scholarship.
“What that will do is force people to look at it more closely and more seriously, make an earlier, better-educated decision and then, if they feel that’s the best decision for them, then guess what? Sign and end it,” Hansen said. “That ends it for the kid and ends it for the school, and that will end the high number of decommits because the kid will be signed, sealed and delivered.”
Tuning out the noise
On Oct. 29, 2013, the day after receiving a death threat, Lackawanna College tackle Jermaine Eluemunor promised himself to tune out the noise: fans telling him he was wrong; coaches still pushing for his attention.
Eluemunor has bigger goals for himself than those coaches begging for him have. The offensive tackle said he will be the best at his craft in the nation; he will win a Heisman trophy; he will be a No. 1 NFL draft pick.
“I don’t care what other coaches and fans think because they’re not in my shoes,” he said. “If they had to be in my shoes for one day, they would see how stressful it is and how hard it is to be recruited. They would see that I should be able to do what I want, because I earned it. They can say what they want, but at the end of the day, I’ll make them look bad for treating me like this.”
Hansen said one day he hopes the recruiting culture will change, for the sake of his players and for the sake of college football. But the high school coach couldn’t elaborate during an interview. University of Connecticut coaches were on the other telephone line, Hansen said.
They had a verbal scholarship offer for one of Hansen’s linebackers – one who doesn’t graduate until June 2015.