"Honestly, I wasn't in a rush. It was more of a spiritual thing, but this hopefully will keep it from being too crazy." -- Bryce Brown, shortly after telling Rivals.com that he had committed to Miami on Feb. 21, 2008.
It wouldn't have been a true recruiting circus without the hat dance, and Bryce Brown didn't disappoint. When the moment came for Brown, the top-ranked player in the 2009 recruiting class, to finally choose a college Monday, the former East (Wichita, Kan.) tailback reached into a bag beneath the lectern and pulled out a Miami hat.
Could it be true? Would Brown honor the verbal commitment he made more than a year ago? Of course not. Miami stopped recruiting Brown last month after he elected not to sign on National Signing Day and allowed the Hurricanes' letter-of-intent to expire unsigned two weeks later. Brown handed the hat to older brother Arthur, a Miami linebacker, and said, "I'm going to let you handle that down there." Bryce then pulled out a Tennessee hat, placed it atop his head and announced his intention to play for the Volunteers.
If we didn't know it already, we should know it now. For all the controversy surrounding new Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin the past few months, he's shown he can stockpile talented players just as well as his former college boss, USC's Pete Carroll. The 6-foot, 215-pound Brown boasts the combination of size, speed and power to become a great back. He could help Tennessee climb back into the national title picture.
Brown also could help college football in general, and he plans to. "I think I can help other recruits out," Brown told SI.com Monday. "I've come up with some goals and plans for the future. I plan on holding seminars where I can talk to recruits and help them make spiritual decisions."
With any luck, Brown's very public, very bizarre recruitment will make everyone -- the prospects, the coaches and the media who cover recruiting -- re-examine the courtship process between recruits and college football programs. Just as the Willie Williams saga changed the rules regarding official visits, Brown's adventure should force the following changes:
• It's time for players and reporters like me to stop using the word "commitment" to describe the moment when a player pledges to sign with a school. Sagas like this have rendered the term meaningless.
• The NCAA can take steps to improve the process for players and for coaches. An early signing period would be a good start. So would a rule that limits the number of written scholarship offers a school can extend.
• We need to get used to the idea of players working with handlers such as Brian Butler, the trainer/mentor/Svengali who guided Bryce and Arthur Brown's recruitments. Top recruits these days are celebrities, and celebrities typically have agents.
On Sunday night, Brown's father, Arthur Sr., told Rivals.com that if he could go back and change one thing about the recruitment, he would have told his son not to commit anywhere. "I would say to a recruit, do not commit," the elder Brown told the site. "If you commit to a university, be absolutely beyond a shadow of a doubt sure that you don't need to see another university. And let that be your stance. If you have the need to visit other schools, do not verbally commit."
The commitment issue really is just a matter of semantics. Go back and read the coverage from Brown's "commitment" to Miami. The day he committed, he said he told Miami coach Randy Shannon he intended to take all five official visits. That's a bit like accepting a marriage proposal and then saying you're going to sleep with four other people before the wedding day. But Shannon didn't pull the offer when Brown said this. He accepted the commitment.
So Brown, Shannon and anyone with half a brain knew Brown really wasn't committed to Miami, yet the media perpetuated this myth for so many months that when it became apparent Brown wouldn't sign with the Hurricanes on Feb. 4, cranky sports columnists everywhere ripped Brown for going back on his word.
Last month, the Miami Herald'sManny Navarro wrote a fascinating blog post about the disconnect between top prospects and the general populace when it comes to the definition of the word commitment. In a more recent post, Navarro placed the word in quotation marks. In this case, the marks didn't announce a verbatim transcription. They were the print version of air quotes. Kind-of, sort-of, but not really.
Navarro has the correct idea. So does the BCS-conference coach who last week, after I asked about some of the ills plaguing recruiting, groused that a commitment isn't a commitment anymore. "They're just making a reservation," he said. "Hold the scholarship for me until I find something better."
If the player reneges on his commitment, fans and media paint him as a flake. If the coach finds someone better and yanks the offer, the press destroys him, and he'll struggle to win the trust of future recruits. So maybe we should take Navarro's plan a step further and eliminate the word commitment from the recruiting vernacular. Maybe we should follow the aforementioned coach's lead and call them reservations. I can see the stories now ...
Jimmy Jockstrap reserved a scholarship at State U. on Friday. As long as he cancels before National Signing Day, his dad's Visa won't be charged.
We shouldn't lay all the blame at the feet of the 17- and 18-year-olds. While some want to stretch their time in the spotlight, others face a genuinely difficult decision. For most, picking a college is the most important choice of their young lives, and the coaches don't make that choice easy. Schools can help themselves and the athletes they hope to attract by encouraging some new NCAA legislation.
First, they can stop fighting an early signing day. The American Football Coaches Association voted overwhelmingly in favor of a December signing period earlier this year, but the measure didn't pass a vote among conference commissioners. Big Ten administrators complained (correctly) that the NCAA needs to allow more communication between coaches and prospects, but other administrators struck it down because such a period would make firing coaches more difficult.
A better idea: a July or August signing period that would allow players who truly have made up their minds to end the process before their senior seasons. If the coach were to get fired, the players would have been warned on the National Letter-of-Intent they signed that they might endure a coaching change.
Also, if coaches want commitments that better resemble engagements, they'd better start holding sizable rocks when they propose. Some coaches pass out written scholarship offers like free hamburger coupons. Some offer more than 200 players for a 25-man class. The NCAA needs a rule that limits schools to 100 scholarship offers per academic year. The NCAA already limits the number of official visits each school can offer. Why not cap the amount of written offers? Then coaches might wait before extending an offer to a player who might leave them at the altar.
Sure, schools might just resort to more wink-wink, nudge-nudge scholarship offers to get around the rule, but consider this scenario. Imagine you're a highly touted recruit from Phoenix and you want to attend college in your home state. Arizona has extended one of its 100 written offers to you, while Arizona State has told you that a written offer is coming, but, for now, an oral offer will have to suffice. Where would you make your reservation? (This is not intended as a slight against Arizona State's staff, by the way. It's just an example. Feel free to substitute Cal and UCLA or Florida and Florida State if you'd like.)
Such a rule might solve some of the problems plaguing the recruiting process, but one issue highlighted during Brown's recruitment isn't going away. Butler, the cell phone company call center manager-turned-trainer who guided Brown through his recruitment, isn't the only handler out there. He's just one of the rare ones who elects to operate in the open. The New York Times has examined Butler and the NCAA has investigated him, but nothing anyone turned up -- not even the fact that Butler planned to charge for updates on Brown's recruitments -- convinced Brown that Butler didn't have his best interests at heart. "Without you," Brown said of Butler on Monday, "none of this would be possible."
Brown had a stable family and a respected high school coach, but he chose to let Butler handle his recruitment anyway. And, to Butler's credit, he has brought exposure to an area not known for producing BCS-level football players. He also has taken some significant lumps during the recruiting process. "It's been somewhat stressful, but I'm just thankful," Butler told SI.com Monday. "The thing that's most important to me is how the parents feel and how the kids feel. I've always had the support of all the parents of the kids I train. ... Nobody wants to hear unflattering things said about them, but I have faith in God. He has my back, and I'll let him judge me."
It will be interesting to see if Butler's Potential Players company has as much luck finding scholarships for players in the post-Brown era. Wichita has one of the best players in the 2010 class (Bishop Carroll quarterback Blake Bell), but Bell's father and his high school coachwill handle Bell's recruitment. Still, Butler said, plenty of parents have called him about training their sons. "It's definitely going up -- not down," Butler said. "I have kids calling me from third grade and up."
Many prospects have unstable families or coaches who aren't helpful, so they gravitate toward street agents or scam artists. Whereas Butler charges for training services, the street agents quietly shop players to colleges, hoping for a payday. The scam artists, meanwhile, soak unwitting parents by promising to publicize players through bogus all-star games or sham Web sites. Compared to those guys, the Brian Butlers of the world don't seem all that bad.
But his commitment process doesn't always have to be such a saga.
A few minutes before Brown revealed his choice, he made an admission. "It was like a roller-coaster ride," he said. "I didn't expect for it turn out like this." Hopefully, it worked out best for Brown. Hopefully, the rest of us learned something, too.