The core problem with recruiting commitments—and how to fix it
I ran into a Power Five assistant last week who had just wrapped his time on the road for this recruiting cycle. He felt comfortable because his program had mostly finished its 2016 class. Only a few undecided players remained, and everyone else seemed solid. But he had plenty of empathy for his fellow coaches at other schools. "Did you see how many decommits there were last week?" he asked. "But how many of them were initiated by the kid?" I countered. "Well, other than Harbaugh …" he said. Then he laughed.
It isn't only those of us in the media who give Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh outsize attention. He is many things—program builder, brilliant offensive strategist, disruptor and innovator—and everyone watches him because of that. So, it absolutely made the rounds in the coaching world when three players decommitted from the Wolverines' class in a week. At least two, Downer's Grove, Ill., offensive tackle Erik Swenson and Cooper City, Fla., defensive end Rashad Weaver, appeared to have been cut loose so Michigan could sign players its coaches considered better. The third, Houston defensive tackle Jordan Elliott, had been rumored for weeks to be flipping from Michigan to Texas. Probably not coincidentally, Elliott's decision to leave the Wolverines' class came after he took an official visit to Austin.
I shake my head every time a player posts to a social media platform that he has "officially" committed to a school. By an oral commitment's very nature, there is nothing official or binding about it. What's official? A signed National Letter of Intent or a signed financial aid agreement. Everything else is fluid on the player side and on the program side. The sooner recruits and fans understand that, the better.
Anyone who followed Harbaugh's recruiting during his tenure at Stanford knows the coach's preferred strategy is to carpet-bomb players with scholarship offers early in the process and winnow his class all the way up to National Signing Day. At Stanford, this was somewhat of a necessity because coaches didn't usually learn which of their recruits would be admitted to the school until relatively late in the process. That issue is not as pressing at Michigan, but the strategy helped Harbaugh dramatically improve the Cardinal program in a relatively short time, so it makes sense that he would continue to use it with the Wolverines.
Naturally, this model butts against a philosophy shared by college fan bases that we'll call The Right Way To Do Things. What is The Right Way To Do Things when it comes to recruiting? Here is a brief primer.
• If a school accepts a commitment from a player, that school should honor that commitment no matter what. Coaching and schematic changes should not matter.
• If a player makes a commitment to a school and later changes his mind and picks a different program, that player is a whiny, me-first prima donna.
Which coaches and players embrace The Right Way To Do Things? Your school's, obviously. Which coaches and players don't? Everyone else's. So, it becomes awfully inconvenient for a fan base such as Michigan's—which appears to value The Right Way To Do Things quite heavily judging by its rhetoric over the years—when its coach clearly has a different definition of commitment than the average fan. These inconveniences typically evaporate in fans' minds as wins pile up. So don't worry, fans who consider college sports a sequel of Leave It to Beaver, any nagging feeling of discomfort should soon go away.
It's easy to rip Harbaugh for this practice, but the fact is that The Right Way To Do Things is an idealistic fallacy. It is, like so many other concepts that college sports fans and administrators talk about, something that doesn't actually exist in the real world. It would be nice if everyone involved in every scholarship deal kept their word, but situations change, and both sides of this equation should reserve the right to make changes. I don't begrudge players their opportunity to change their minds before they enter a system in which all the power—until very recently—sat squarely on the other side of the coach's desk.
I'm also not going to get on too high of a horse about coaches trying to sign the best possible classes so they can win more games and keep their jobs. Harbaugh isn't unique. Alabama's Nick Saban, who just won his fifth national title and his fourth in seven years, has employed several controversial roster management techniques. One of those is to take commitments as they come and then, as National Signing Day nears, tell players the coaches to consider to rate among the bottom of their class that they must grayshirt if they want to remain in that class. What's a grayshirt? It's when a player signs with his high school graduating class but delays full-time enrollment until the following January—when he can be counted forward or back depending on how close a program is to its 25-scholarship allotment in a given class. What makes this practice dubious is when a school has a player sign a National Letter of Intent for a scholarship it doesn't necessarily intend to award in that class. The signed NLI bans other programs from recruiting the player. This is stupid, but the Collegiate Commissioners Association, which runs the NLI program, cares a lot more about protecting the schools than it does about protecting the recruits.
If a school doesn't consider a player good enough for one of its available scholarships, then that program should have to play defense against every other program until it has a scholarship available for the player. This problem would be easily solved by the CCA instituting a rule that bans schools from knowingly signing players for whom there is no corresponding scholarship and that levels a penalty to keep offending schools out of the NLI program for a year. But again, the CCA cares a lot more about protecting the schools than it does about protecting the recruits.
One of those uncomfortable grayshirts apparently happened this weekend between Saban's staff and Oneonta, Ala., linebacker Riley Cole, who had been committed to the Crimson Tide since June.
Cole had two choices in this instance. He could have taken the grayshirt deal like current Alabama offensive lineman Bradley Bozeman did in 2013. Bozeman expected to delay enrollment until '14, but a space opened up in June and Bozeman got to come to Tuscaloosa on time with his class. Cole instead took the route that Justin Taylor and Darius Philon took in '12. After being hit with the late grayshirt conversation, Taylor signed with Kentucky and Philon signed with Arkansas.
This is an issue of timing. It's one thing if the staff at Alabama or another school wants to have this type of conversation in September. That way, a player can leave a program's class, or if he has his heart set on attending that particular school, he can accept the possibility of grayshirting and make plans to kill the six months after he graduates from high school. In a perfect world, schools that have open scholarships would still have a chance after National Signing Day to talk to that player about enrolling right away.
Saban is no stranger to scholarship numbers controversies. In 2011, the SEC changed its rules about how many players a school can sign (25 per year) and how schools use medical disqualifications (such decisions go through the league office) because there were so many complaints from rival programs about Saban's techniques. The rules curbed the practices the other schools disliked; they have not curbed Saban's ability to sign superior players.
Your school's coach probably continues vetting committed players and has likely cut a few loose before signing day. Remember, not every decommitment represents a player changing his mind. Sometimes, a school has learned a player didn't get admitted. Sometimes, the coaches have decided a player simply isn't good enough to play for their school. This may sound harsh, but it could also save the player from several years of frustration at a place where he wasn't really wanted. The key is the timing.
We'll need to hear Michigan's side of the Swenson case before passing judgment, and NCAA rules will keep Wolverines coaches from publicly discussing the specifics of Swenson's recruitment until after he signs. If it turns out Michigan's staff waited until January to tell Swenson—who committed to then-coach Brady Hoke in November 2013—he wasn't wanted, then the Wolverines deserve criticism for being lousy communicators. If Swenson had this knowledge in September or October, he could have reopened his recruitment earlier at a time when other schools would have had more open slots. The well-paid grown-ups here should be held to a higher standard than the high school students, and if Swenson's camp is telling the truth, Michigan's staff might need to learn how and when to break bad news.
It all seems to be working out, though. Over the weekend Swenson verbally committed to Oklahoma. So, after getting cut loose by Michigan, he'll likely wind up playing for a team that has been far more successful than the Wolverines in recent seasons. As for Weaver, his social media recap of his recruitment suggests he knew exactly what was transpiring. Here is Weaver taking an official visit to Temple a few days before he announced he was no longer part of Michigan's class.
Owls coach Matt Rhule is a phenomenal recruiter, but typically players who are certain they have offers from Michigan don't take official visits to Temple. Weaver then showed more savvy with this announcement.
The "little or no contact from the staff" part is key. Coaches treat scholarships like precious jewels. Unless they are about to get fired and are therefore completely checked out, they keep lines of communication open with the players they expect to occupy those limited slots. The recruiting process has an unsettling amount of accurate comparisons to the dating process, and this is one of the most precise. Bud Elliott, who covers recruiting for SB Nation, put it best. "Schools do not play hard to get," Elliott wrote. "If they are not talking to you, even if you are committed to them, they are not that interested in you."
Weaver obviously understands the business. That's why, when Harbaugh got flamed following his exit from Michigan's class, Weaver defended the coach who had, by his silence, told him that he didn't think he was good enough.
Harbaugh is not garbage or trash like u guys are calling him. It his team and he knows what he is doing.— ▲Shad▲ (@R_Weaver80) January 26, 2016
Elliott wrote that an early signing period would reduce these issues. I disagree. That would simply accelerate the cycle of players and coaches committing to one another and then backing off those commitments. There is exactly one way to eliminate the flip-flopping on both sides, and that's to eliminate National Signing Day entirely and let coaches sign players whenever they wish.
I suggested this practice back in 2008, and in the past two years Youngstown State coach Bo Pelini, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson and Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez jumped on the (still sparsely populated) train. While the notion might sound crazy in theory, allowing coaches to sign prospects as young as freshmen in high school would, in practice, slow the offers.
Except in rare cases, no coach would offer a scholarship until a recruit's senior season if the coach knew the player could snatch up a roster spot with an immediate stroke of a pen. There are too many variables to risk offering a sophomore or a junior. Will the player have the grades and test scores to qualify? Will he eat his way out of his projected position? Is he a camp wonder who looks great in shorts but can't function in pads?
With that system—which would require some other tweaks, such as allowing schools to bring in younger prospects on official visits so they could better understand the places they could agree to attend—players would understand just as well as coaches how committed they were to one another. The current recruiting process has perverted the meaning of the word "commitment" so much that we probably should come up with a better term. "Conditional agreement" is a mouthful, but it's more accurate. "Agreement in principle" could work, but it's best to keep the word "principle" as far from college football recruiting as possible.
Perhaps we should call it an "understanding." Let's try it. BREAKING: Safety Joseph Blow and Big State have come to an understanding that if Blow is good enough and if Big State has enough scholarships come February, Blow will sign with Big State.
It may be wordy, but at least everyone involved would understand nothing is official until ink meets paper.
A random ranking
Jeremy Crabtree of ESPN wrote the definitive piece on cookie cakes for prospects on official visits last year, but recruiting is an ever-evolving beast. Several schools raised their dessert game during the 2016 cycle.
1. Florida State
These red velvet cupcakes aren't as pretty as some of the fondant-covered creations below, but they're far more portable. They probably also taste better than the much more expensive options.
New Jersey defensive tackle Rashan Gary is expected to sign with Michigan even though he spent time this weekend visiting Clemson, but the Tigers did their baked-good best. This cake went home with Gary's mom.
T-2. Ole Miss
The Tigers and Rebels appear to use the same bakery.
Bonus points for a football shape.
Sometimes you just want a good chocolate chip cookie cake.
Because cookie cake is amazing.
Fondant looks great, but it isn't that tasty.
This cake, baked in November to celebrate a prospect's birthday, offers a wonderful sentiment but can't be eaten by the recruit. This tease drops the cake to next to last here, just in front of the Michigan staff's less-than-accurate bake of the state of Texas.
1. We won't know until the full text of the NCAA's Notice of Allegations against Ole Miss is revealed, but the Rebels don't seem particularly worried about it with regard to football. Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports reported on Friday that the school had received the notice, but neither Forde's source nor Ole Miss revealed the specifics contained in the NOA.
Forde initially wrote about the investigation in 2014, and it concentrates mostly on one of former coach Houston Nutt's football staffers, a since-fired women's basketball coach and a since-fired track and field coach. From a what-does-this-mean-to-the-football-program-now standpoint, none of this is very interesting. But it creates some buzz when worded this way: "The school has received a Notice of Allegations from the NCAA enforcement staff alleging roughly 30 violations in football, women's basketball and track and field, sources told Yahoo," Forde wrote. "It is unclear at present what the breakdown is in terms of violations by sport. The NCAA does not comment on current, pending or potential investigations."
Naturally, people who hadn't been following the case assumed this was some sort of comeuppance for the Rebels' recent football recruiting success. Those people will probably be disappointed when the NOA is revealed, assuming Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork's statement from Saturday is accurate. "Outside counsel for the University of Mississippi received a Notice of Allegations from the NCAA—another step in a more than three-year process," Bjork said in the statement. "Included in the notice are alleged violations of NCAA bylaws in women's basketball in 2012; track and field in 2012-13; and in football, with many of the allegations dating back to the former football staff in 2010 and the withholding and reinstatement process around Laremy Tunsil in fall of 2015."
Those who responded to the Yahoo! report with the usual mélange of NCAA Death Penalty wishes will be sorely disappointed if this is all the NOA contains. (And remember, Bjork would be crazy to misrepresent it since the school will have to make it public eventually.) The Tunsil part is the only thing that would touch the administration of current football coach Hugh Freeze, and we already know what the NCAA found in that case because it released that information when it announced Tunsil's seven-game suspension in October. That investigation found the offensive tackle—who has since declared for the NFL draft—received three loaner cars over a six-month period without repayment, an airline ticket and a four-month interest free promissory note on a $3,000 used-car down payment.
So, why was the initial story so vague? The logical guess is it was vague by design. If the NCAA didn't really find anything new, a story promising allegations against the football program might potentially plant doubts in the minds of players planning to sign with Ole Miss on Wednesday. Had the leaked story mentioned that the majority of the violations came in women's basketball and track, no one would have cared. But a nebulous story about potential football violations stirs up the conversation. Had the NOA contained some red meat, the specifics likely would have been leaked to Forde as well.
2. I feel for the NCAA's enforcement department. (Sort of.) At this point, almost the entire department has turned over from five years ago in part because many of the people who used to work there realized they were engaging in a fruitless endeavor. The NCAA's enforcement cops must now feel like the Treasury Department's prohibition agents felt in 1933. Most of the country already realized banning alcohol had been a terrible idea, and the wheels were in motion to correct that mistake. But the law was still on the books, and the agents still got paid to uphold it.
In the case of the NCAA enforcement department, the general public won't be shocked or appalled if news breaks that some football player got a few thousand bucks in extra benefits. (Some of us might consider it the market rewarding someone with value.) Remember, that player's coach could make more than $4 million a year. In the case of Ole Miss, the Rebels just played in one game (the Sugar Bowl) that ESPN pays $80 million a year to broadcast. The rules may be the rules, but the perception of those rules has dramatically changed. That puts the enforcement department in an awkward position.
3. Cal officials have acknowledged liability in the death of defensive lineman Ted Agu during a 2014 workout, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Agu previously had been diagnosed with sickle cell trait, a blood abnormality that can become dangerous when a person overexerts.
The university's acknowledgement did not come as part of a settlement in the wrongful death lawsuit filed by Agu's parents. It could, however, be a prelude to a settlement.
4. Cal's acknowledgement of liability has brought renewed calls for required testing for sickle cell trait. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the genetically inherited trait is found in one in 12 black people in America and could be found in other populations, too. The trait is the carrier state for sickle cell anemia, a far more serious condition in which a person's red blood cells are sickle-shaped and do not adequately carry oxygen through the body. Some of the cells of people with sickle cell trait can turn sickle-shaped during moments of extreme exertion, leaving them more susceptible to metabolic shutdown. It's still possible for athletes to play sports with sickle cell trait, but coaches and trainers must monitor them very carefully. Many schools already test for sickle cell trait. A test costs about $75.
5. Negative or positive, Harbaugh never stops making recruiting news. He'll likely generate a big buzz on Wednesday when luminaries such as Tom Brady, Derek Jeter, Migos (the Atlanta rap duo that introduced Dabbing to the wider world), Ric Flair (Wooooooooo!) and country singer Josh Gracin join him at Michigan's Signing With the Stars event.
Instead of charging for tickets to the invitation-only event, the school is encouraging donations to the Chad Tough Foundation, which raises money to help find a cure for Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma, a rare form of brain cancer that strikes children. Chad Carr, the grandson of former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr, died in November. He was diagnosed with the disease in September 2014. Expect the event, which will be live-streamed on the website for Jeter's The Players Tribune, to serve as a telethon of sorts for the foundation and raise a ton of money for an excellent cause.
6. Jay Hopson will leave Alcorn State to take over at Southern Miss, the Golden Eagles announced Sunday. Hopson, who served two different stints under longtime Southern Miss coach Jeff Bower in the early 2000s, will replace Todd Monken, who left last week to become the offensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
7. Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett made an excellent case Friday for a bigger student turnout for the Aggies' basketball team.
8. Todd Sibley, a class of 2017 tailback from Akron, Periscoped his unofficial visit to Ohio State on Sunday. The video has since been taken down.
9. UCLA inked its first signee before National Signing Day.
Read more about Cade Spinello here.
10. Sports. Delicious, delicious sports.
What's eating Andy?
We have yet to see a truly inspired mascot-related commitment announcement during this recruiting cycle. Sure, Georgia-bound running back Elijah Holyfield—son of Evander—gets points for taking Isaiah Crowell's bulldog puppy idea to the next logical level back in September. But I'm thinking bigger. I'm thinking about a recruit tracking down The Weather Channel's Jim Cantore while Cantore is covering a hurricane. The player would then wrestle Cantore's microphone away during a live shot. Then, as the wind and rain blew around him, the player would look into the camera and say, "I plan to spend my next three to four years at The U." Now that would be a live mascot commitment announcement. Of course, we'll probably have to wait until the class of 2017 to see it.
What's Andy eating?
The server had answered all my questions, but I remained paralyzed. The chalkboard menu at Guido's in Daphne, Ala., changes daily and sometimes hourly, and the iteration of the chalkboard facing me on this particular Tuesday lunch was daunting. Almost every offering looked excellent, but there is only so much available space in the stomach and only so much money in the wallet. But how big could these plates be? The most expensive item was a scallop dish that cost $10.95. A sampling of several dishes wouldn't dent SI's budget, and at those prices, it would assuredly be a manageable meal. So, I rattled off three dishes.
"That's going to be a lot of food," my server replied.
I chuckled, because how much would the place really give me when every dish I ordered cost $9.95? Every one contained some manner of seafood. While Daphne's location on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay likely gives Guido's access to cheaper fresh seafood than most restaurants, it still needed to turn a profit. Besides, how could I be expected to choose just one entree? I'd left a lot I'd wanted to eat on the board when I picked the trio I ordered.
Then the plates arrived. My server wasn't kidding. These weren't small plates, and they weren't lunch portions. These were full-on meals. My stomach tightened a little, because even though Guido's—which is ostensibly an Italian restaurant—can fatten up dishes with pasta or rice, how good could they be for $9.95? The row of pans hanging in the kitchen looked well used, but how could this place offer fresh seafood in this quantity, at these prices, without cutting some corner? I remained skeptical.
Then I took a bite of the oyster penne with bacon, mushrooms and spinach in a spicy alfredo. No corners had been cut. I had simply found one of the best deals I've come across in my travels. The sauce had just enough kick, and the bacon provided a savory counterpoint to the oysters. Over the next few minutes, I would learn that the oyster penne, while excellent, was only the third best of the dishes I'd ordered.
The duck jambalaya featured huge chunks of duck breast that combined beautifully with the sausage and crawfish. The triggerfish, pan-seared with a crust of crab meat, took the gold medal. Even though the actual fish is much smaller when alive and swimming, the meat tastes like a thicker, heartier grouper. Any sauce that falls off the fish gets sopped up by the mashed potatoes, and the green beans—also cooked with bacon—provided an excellent palate cleanser as I switched between dishes.
I couldn't finish. I was on my way to cover a Senior Bowl practice, and SI doesn't have the budget to hire someone to push me around in a wheelbarrow. But I know I will be back through Daphne every so often because work takes me that way every year. The next time I'll come armed with friends and a plan. Guido's simply has too many delicious options for one man to tame. So, I'll order the triggerfish—and maybe one more dish because, hey, $9.95—and I'll make sure my friends order one of everything else.