By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
It happens every year during college football’s recruiting season. Top gridiron prospects “verbally commit” to one school, and then change their mind (multiple times in some cases) before attending another school. The infamous “verbal commitment” label that the recruiting services use has sadly become a joke for many kids. They “commit” to one program to hopefully hold a roster spot, and then are still pursued by other coaches and often are swayed to another school at the last minute. We saw a very high-profile example of this trend earlier this week when one of the top quarterback recruits in the AC100, Gunner Kiel of Columbus, Ind., reneged on his promise to attend LSU and changed to Notre Dame at the 11th hour. Of course, his LSU decision came after reneging on his commitment to Indiana back in the fall. The number of these de-commitments goes up each year, as a sadly increasing number of recruits and college coaches show that their word means little to nothing.
So who or what is to blame for all of the recruiting confusion: youthful indecision, egotistical or gullible players, bad parents and/or advisers who put their self-interest above the kid’s, shady football coaches, insistence of ravenous fans and recruiting websites to put a label on prospects or just a lack of character across society? Obviously each case is separate and should be analyzed that way. Kiel’s story will be more publicized because he is a signal caller and it involves major programs, but he is far from alone.
Most football recruits sign a letter-of-intent on National Signing Day (February 1 this year) which officially binds them to that school. Before that, it’s all just a verbal promise. In the case of Kiel and the growing number of top football prospects who graduate high school early and then enroll in college in January, their “official” decision is made when they attend the first class. Kiel was supposed to enroll at LSU this week but then switched to going to classes at Notre Dame. Many have said his mother in Indiana did not want him go far from home, which is understandable. But then why the LSU “commitment”? If the parents had that much influence over the decision, they should keep their son from basically lying (very publically) once again. In the end, LSU fans will probably think that Kiel was scared of their depth chart or SEC defenses, while Irish fans will think his indecision is just a factor of age and no big deal. That’s how these things work.
We do have to remember these are 18-year-old kids, and they have very persuasive and powerful adults — whether it’s parents, coaches from other schools, advisers, etc. — in their ear constantly. That’s not a fun or healthy reality for many of us. We want to trust people and think that their word has meaning, but the world of recruiting seems to take us in a different and sad direction. Many fans direct anger and internet vitriol towards recruits who spurn their school, as they make the argument that you’re an adult at 18 and can make independent decisions. And while the recruits aren’t totally innocent, it’s hard to get too angry at them when you see the example being set by many adults.
There was an uncomfortable story this week in the AJC regarding Alabama coach Nick Saban and running back recruit Justin Taylor from North Atlanta. While recruits often change their commitments, some prominent coaches like Saban are infamous for oversigning recruits (which the SEC has tried to address with new rules), forcing non-contributing upperclassmen out of their scholarships for medical reasons or not honoring their earlier offers. Saban reportedly told Taylor, who had been committed to the Tide since last February, that he could not sign him this year. So Taylor will just attend another school, right? Nope. Apparently Saban had convinced Taylor to not sign elsewhere, to stay at home in Georgia and that Bama would help him find a job. That’s a scary amount influence to have over a player who does not fit into your plans.
Saban is not the only coach with that type of reputation. It has been reported often that new Ohio State coach Urban Meyer will tell prospects almost anything (and the Buckeyes have shockingly spiked in the recruiting rankings since he took over). We all know about the recent scandals at USC, Ohio State, Penn State and North Carolina, and they all show that positively influencing and educating new students is a long way down the priority list for way too many of the adults involved.
Will it ever stop? Probably not. There is just so much money at stake for coaches and big-time recruits that character is going to take a back seat. Kids like Kiel and Vanderbilt’sPatton Robinette need to quit “committing” so early, when they are obviously not sure about what they want. The last-minute changes by these players harms their reputation, and that can be a painful thing to deal with in the internet/college football world. Here’s to hoping that recruits and coaches will find a way in the future to be more honest throughout the entire process. However, for that last thought, I probably need to be committed.