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A closer look at the small and LARGE print of recruiting letters

Tate Forcier was training at Marv Marinovich's Orange County, Calif., facility early this year when his cell phone rang. Forcier's father was on the line, and he had good news. Stanford had offered the Scripps Ranch (San Diego) quarterback a scholarship. But Forcier, one of the top quarterback prospects in the class of 2009, didn't celebrate immediately. After watching the recruitment of older brothers Jason (who began at Michigan and transferred to Stanford) and Chris (UCLA), Forcier understood the process better than most.

He wanted to see that offer in writing.

Not long after, an envelope arrived at Forcier's home. Inside was a four-paragraph letter from Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh offering a full scholarship. "It kind of didn't hit me until I actually received the letter in the mail," Forcier said. "When you get that first offer, it's one of the best feelings. You know you have a place. You're set. You're not worrying, 'Am I going to get recruited?'"

Forcier has since received 29 more offers, and as the written offers have arrived, Forcier and his family have scanned them and posted them on the brothers' Web site. As of Tuesday morning, the Forciers had posted 21 offer letters on the site, and those letters offer a fascinating glimpse into a key moment in the recruiting process that is often talked about but rarely examined.

Thanks to Forcier, we know that Harbaugh believes Stanford represents "the greatest combination of academic and athletic excellence in existence." We know LSU has yet to order new letterhead since winning the 2007 BCS title. We know that Oklahoma State coach Mike "I'm a man!" Gundy writes the same way he talks -- with ALL CAPITAL LETTERS.

Forcier has offers from schools in all six BCS conferences, so the letters posted on his site offer an excellent cross-section of big-time programs. And like Gundy's all-caps missive, each says a lot about the coach and the program he represents.

All the letters offer to provide tuition, room, board and books, but of the 21 letters Forcier has posted, Harbaugh's offers the most hyperbole. The second paragraph opens with, "As both the top academic institution in the world, and the home of the top collegiate athletic program in the world..."

Penn State, which, like Stanford, has an excellent record for graduating players, also emphasized academics in its offer. In a letter from the desk of Joseph V. Paterno, Forcier is reminded that the Nittany Lions have "maintained a commitment to achievement in the classroom and on the field with unyielding fervor."

Meanwhile, Washington coach Ty Willingham hints in his offer letter to Forcier that in previous years, the program may not have stressed the non-football aspects of the college experience. "The beliefs of the football program are aligning more with the mission of the University than at any time in the history of this great institution," Willingham wrote in a letter dated Feb. 19, a few weeks after The Seattle Times published a scathing series examining the behavior of Washington's 2000 Pac-10 title team coached by Rick Neuheisel. Willingham also seems to consider Forcier a savior of sorts. "With your greatness, we know that the Husky football program will return to being the best in the country," Willingham wrote. "The impact that you have will be immediate and tremendous."

Programs face a bit of a catch-22 when they put scholarship offers in writing. They want to express their dedication to the prospect, but they also must leave themselves an out in case the prospect's skills decline or in case a better player at the same position decides he wants the scholarship. The basketball programs at Davidson and Northwestern got burned by written offers; the schools had to settle out of court with prospects who sued after the programs reneged on written offers. Hawaii may have a leg to stand on in its defense of a lawsuit from former prospect Daniel Smith, because Smith never received a written offer. Still, to avoid any messy legal squabbles, schools now try to include some kind of disclaimer in their offer letters. Of the 21 letters posted to Forcier's site, only the letter from first-year Washington State coach Paul Wulff did not contain any disclaimer.

The letters from South Florida and Michigan specifically mention NCAA bylaw 15.5.5, which limits programs to 85 scholarships total and 25 signees a year. Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, who has had some recent experience with attorneys, must have had a real legal eagle help him with his letter, which contains the slickest -- and one of the most accurate -- disclaimers of the 21. "This letter remains viable until such time as NCAA Rule 15.5.5 regarding squad limits (85 total) would appear to be compromised," Rodriguez wrote. "Therefore, as a necessary consequence, grants may only be awarded on availability."

The award for brutal honesty goes to Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman, whose longest paragraph addresses the possibility that the program may bail on the offer. "We could fill our scholarships before you make a commitment to accept this offer," Sherman wrote. "Also, we could fill our designated allotment of scholarships at your position before you make a commitment to accept this offer. I assure you, if you are one of the first prospects to accept this scholarship offer, we will honor your commitment to A&M, and firmly count you as one of our prized signees. We will keep you informed of our situation as other prospects also commit to A&M."

While some sections of the letters -- the disclaimers, for example -- are pure boilerplate, some coaches made sure to personalize their offers as proof of their true, heartfelt desire to obtain Forcier's signature on a letter-of-intent. Paterno, Rodriguez, Wisconsin's Bret Bielema and Baylor's Art Briles all included handwritten notes beneath their signature. Other coaches offered their cell phone numbers and told Forcier to call anytime. Still others offered the cell phone number of a position coach and told Forcier to call that guy anytime.

To prove they embrace the traditions of the programs they represent, some coaches signed off with the school's catch phrase. Where other coaches wrote "Sincerely," Texas A&M's Sherman wrote "Gig 'em." Bielema wrote "On Wisconsin," Baylor's Briles wrote "Sic 'em Bears," LSU's Les Miles wrote "Geaux Tigers" and Auburn's Tommy Tuberville wrote "WAR EAGLE!"

Some schools also try to impress with fancy letterhead, while others keep it simple. Clemson coach Tommy Bowden's three-paragraph offer letter arrived on letterhead adorned with nine photos. They included images of Howard's Rock, a dance team member, two Clemson players being interviewed by ESPN's Chris Fowler and former Tigers defensive end Gaines Adams being introduced as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2007 first-round draft pick by Bucs coach John Gruden. Penn State, Meanwhile, takes the same attitude toward letterhead as it does toward uniforms. The Nittany Lions need only a navy stripe down their helmet, and their letterhead requires only the name of the school and a simple navy stripe on the top and bottom of the page.

Despite all the flourishes, or lack thereof, the offer letter itself is only a piece of the recruiting puzzle, but it's a corner piece. The letters promise tuition, room board and books, but they also promise a bright future, whether they come from Arizona, Auburn, Michigan or Oklahoma State.

"DURING YOUR TIME IN STILLWATER, BESIDES PLAYING CHAMPIONSHIP FOOTBALL, YOU WILL ALSO EARN AN EXCELLENT DEGREE AND MAKE MEMORIES THAT WILL LAST A LIFETIME," OSU's Gundy wrote to Forcier on Feb. 16. "I WOULD LIKE TO SPEAK TO YOU AS SOON AS POSSIBLE ABOUT OSU AND THIS OFFER. PLEASE CALL ME AT..."

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