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Going to court over commitment

When the Smith family moved to Boise, from North Carolina last fall, Wanda Smith flew a University of Hawaii flag outside their new house. That caused quite a stir among the Boise State fans living nearby -- the Warriors and Broncos are conference rivals -- but Smith didn't care; her son Daniel had orally committed in April to play for the Warriors.

Before he made the commitment, Daniel Smith claims he had to promise he wouldn't entertain offers from other schools. So when Wanda Smith received a phone call in January -- following coach June Jones' departure to Southern Methodist -- from a Hawaii assistant claiming her son hadn't received an official offer, Daniel had no other scholarship options.

So now, Daniel Smith is taking the NCAA's system of verbal commitments to court by suing Hawaii and former Warriors defensive line coach Jeff Reinebold, who is now the receivers coach at SMU.

"I'm not trying to get any money. I'm just trying to get my scholarship that I was promised 10 months ago," Smith said. "They told me to not talk to any other school, to tell everyone I was committed to Hawaii. I did, for 10 months. And one day my scholarship is gone."

Smith's situation isn't unique. Every year, thousands of athletes find themselves scrambling for scholarships after coaching changes or after coaches simply rescind non-binding scholarship offers because they found more talented players. What is unique is that Smith has decided to take his case to court.

"This is the first one that I'm aware of of this type where an athlete has actually proceeded to file a lawsuit," said Wake Forest law professor Timothy Davis, an expert in contract and sports law. "I've heard of similar cases where there were some rumblings made and some complaints, but they were resolved amicably by the athlete and the institution."

Sports law scholars will watch this case closely, because it could set a legal precedent. If a school must pay after revoking a scholarship offer it may force schools to fundamentally chance the process by which they offer scholarships.

"What's interesting about it is that it's a practice that happens more frequently than universities would like to admit," Davis said. "That's why I think it would be an important case and would establish an important precedent."

Smith, who played his junior season at Providence High in Charlotte, N.C., became intrigued by Hawaii while watching the Warriors' 41-24 win over Arizona State in the 2006 Hawaii Bowl. The following March, Wanda Smith sent a highlight tape of her son for Reinebold to evaluate. Wanda Smith said she received an e-mail on March 15, 2007 from Reinebold inviting Smith to come to the campus on an unofficial visit. The text of the e-mail is included in Smith's complaint:

"ALOHA WANDA,

"YES I DID RECEIVE THE VIDEO AND I DO THINK THAT DANIEL IS A DIVISION 1 PROSPECT AS A DEFENSIVE BACK....WE WOULD LOVE TO WELCOME HIM ON AN UNOFFICIAL VISIT THIS SPRING AND IF YOU WOULD GET BACK TO ME WITH DATES THAT YOU WILL BE HERE I CAN MAKE ARRANGEMENTS FOR HIM TO MEET WITH ACADEMIC PEOPLE HERE AT HAWAII.....

"HAVE A GREAT WEEKEND AND THANKS FOR SENDING THE VIDEO...

"ALOHA

"JEFF"

Reached by SI.com via e-mail, Reinebold, a former Canadian Football League head coach, declined to comment on the case, citing pending litigation. John McNamara, Hawaii's associate athletic director for external affairs, said no one at the university would comment because of the pending litigation.

After they received Reinebold e-mail inviting them to take an unofficial visit, the Smiths spent about $4,000, Wanda said, to go to Hawaii on April 1 and 2. While there, the Smiths said they met with Hawaii defensive backs coach Rich Miano and watched tape of Daniel in Miano's office. Daniel said that on April 26 -- his birthday -- he received a call from Reinebold, who offered a scholarship.

"Right before he offered it," Daniel said. "He said 'If we offer you a scholarship, we want you to be 100 percent committed to us, and we'll be 100 percent committed to you.' ... I told him I was 100 percent committed, and I committed right there."

At the time, Daniel said, he had a written scholarship offer from Division I-AA Portland State. The Smiths never received a written offer from Hawaii. Oral and written scholarship offers are considered non-binding until a prospect signs a National Letter of Intent, in which the school promises to provide a scholarship in return for the athlete enrolling for at least a year.

Because the Smith's never insisted on a written scholarship offer, their case may hinge on that claim. The Smiths' attorney, Mark Valencia, said the legal basis of their complaint is the principle of promissory estoppel, which takes place when Party A relies on a promise from Party B to the detriment of Party A. A written agreement isn't always necessary to prove promissory estoppel.

Matt Mitten, the director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University's law school, said the promissory estoppel claim is the strongest in Smith's complaint, and he believes a judge would allow the case to proceed based on that claim. Still, the Smiths could face problems because they never obtained a written offer. "It's fairly difficult to prevail on an oral promise because of proof issues," Mitten said.

The Smiths must prove Reinebold asked Daniel to refrain from dealing with other schools following his commitment. Terry Duffield, a former Hawaii graduate assistant who worked closely with Reinebold for much of 2007, said such a statement would be out of character for Reinebold.

"After knowing Jeff like I do, there's no way in hell he made that statement," Duffield said. "Jeff Reinebold would encourage a kid to test the waters before he made a lifetime commitment. That's the kind of guy Jeff is."

Shortly after Daniel committed, Rivals.com and the two daily newspapers in Honolulu carried stories trumpeting his commitment. Even after Daniel was cited for several alcohol violations in September stemming from a party he threw when his parents weren't home, he remained in contact with Reinebold. In monthly conversations, Daniel said, Reinebold assured him the scholarship was his.

Daniel said he never spoke to Jones, Hawaii's head coach. And while most schools require the head coach to sign off on any scholarship offer, Hawaii's assistants under Jones sometimes did offer scholarships on their own. Greg Brown, a Las Vegas personal trainer, said Miano offered his son, Corbin, a scholarship last year. Corbin, a safety from Spring Valley High, called Miano in September to commit to Hawaii.

Not long after, the Browns says Hawaii coaches stopped answering their calls and e-mails. In late October, Greg Brown received an e-mail from Miano saying Corbin should "keep his recruiting options open. "They never had the balls to call him" and say the scholarship offer had been rescinded, Greg said. Corbin eventually signed to play at Air Force.

At the same time, Daniel Smith remained convinced he had a scholarship to Hawaii. He tried to set up an official visit -- in which the school pays the prospect's travel costs -- late in the season, but he said he was told Jones did not want distractions on the sideline. Smith said he began to worry when he read on a recruiting site that several players had committed on their official visits.

In college football recruiting, the most talented players have the most options. Jeannette (Pa.) quarterback Terrelle Pryor, ranked by some recruiting services as the nation's top prospect, still has not signed a Letter of Intent. But if Pryor asked, dozens of schools would immediately offer him a scholarship. That isn't the case for players such as Smith, whose talent places them on the border between the Division I-A and Division I-AA.

On Jan. 11, the Smiths say that Reinebold called them to say that because of Jones' departure to SMU, all previous scholarship offers had been revoked. With less than a month until national Signing Day, Smith needed to find a new school. Wanda Smith said she contacted about 40 schools trying to find a place for her son, but no one had a scholarship available for him.

According to the Smiths' complaint, Wanda Smith received a call from offensive coordinator Ron Lee "on or about Jan. 19" in which Lee told Wanda that Hawaii had never made a scholarship commitment to Daniel On Jan. 28, Wanda contacted Valenica, a Hawaii-based lawyer and Warriors season-ticket holder who promised he would make inquiries before filing suit. On Jan. 30, according to the complaint, Wanda received a second call from Lee, who told her the football program had no record of Daniel and that denied that Daniel had met with Miano on his unofficial visit. On the eve of national Signing Day, Valencia filed suit in Hawaii Circuit Court.

Marquette's Mitten believes the damage to Hawaii's reputation may give the school incentive to settle (although in its response to the complaint, Hawaii has asked a judge to dismiss the suit and for the Smiths to pay for the school's legal fees). Mitten doubts any judge would order the school to put Smith on a football scholarship, though. He believes Smith would more likely receive the cost of one year at Hawaii, which is all Smith would have been guaranteed had he signed a Letter of Intent. "Hawaii's got to look at this," Mitten said, "and say, 'What is the negative PR value of this?'"

Wake Forest's Davis said the case will boil down to which side is telling the truth. But it could have farther reaching effects. For years, pre-signing day system of verbal commitments between players and schools has allowed each to exercise freedom of choice, but should the schools be held to a higher standard than the young players they recruit?

"In a sense, it allows student-athletes a degree of freedom, because they can make a verbal commitment and not be bound," Davis said. "The question in this case becomes 'Should universities be allowed that same degree of freedom?'"

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