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The Commitment Project: studying recruits, college football edition

During a visit to Clemson in August 2008, I asked then-coach Tommy Bowden why basketball coaches got so much more offended when recruits broke commitments than football coaches did. Bowden laughed, and he explained that most college football coaches understand that a verbal commitment is essentially meaningless until the player signs the National Letter of Intent that forbids other schools from recruiting him.

"Especially in this part of the country," Bowden said, "no means go."

Yet every time a high-profile player flips to another school, the outrage mounts. When Columbus, Ind., quarterback Gunner Kiel -- who had already decommitted from Indiana to commit to LSU -- flipped on the Tigers and enrolled at Notre Dame, Kiel was labeled a wimp (for fleeing from the mighty SEC), an attention seeker (for announcing the two previous commitments) and worse. LSU coach Les Miles, who actually put effort into recruiting Kiel instead of just reading about it on the Internet, cut through his disappointment to offer one of the most mature reactions to the situation. "The only thing I can tell you is there's a guy in the Midwest who felt staying close to home was the right thing, or maybe there's a guy in any number of places where the decision comes down to staying close to family and representing a stadium or team nearby," Miles told reporters. "I understand that very much. If that's the case, then we need to have people that are going to be happy here in Louisiana."

Football players can be recruited from the day they set foot in high school until they sign beginning the first Wednesday in February of their senior year. Between those two moments, they have the option to pledge their undying devotion to as many suitors as they wish. At the same time, football coaches juggle a finite number of scholarships and, typically, offer more scholarships than they have to give.

So recruits seek the best situation as coaches seek the best class. When those goals align, a commitment happens. When a better deal or a better player comes along, sometimes a decommitment happens.

So exactly how often do players break commitments? Inspired by SI.com college basketball writer Luke Winn's Commitment Project, I decided to chart how often the top 100 recruits (using the Rivals.com rankings) in the past five years publicly broke their commitments. I also charted where those players eventually signed and what happened to them after they signed. The numbers were fascinating. (Unlike Winn's project, I did not track how many high schools each recruit attended. This probably will eventually become an issue in football, but at the moment high school-swapping isn't nearly as rampant as it is in basketball.)

Of the 500 players ranked in the Rivals100 for the classes of 2007 through 2011, 73 (14.6 percent) decomitted at some point during their recruitment. Of those, 62 (12.4 percent) ultimately signed with a school other than the one to which they originally committed.

Considering the fact that these are the most sought-after recruits, that isn't very many. To read the Cranky Newspaper Columnist Who Writes About Recruiting Once a Year©, this issue is much more widespread. Why? Simple news values. People don't like reading about the status quo. Aledo, Texas, tailback Jonathan Gray, ranked 15 spots ahead of Kiel in the Rivals.com rankings, committed to Texas in April and has not wavered one bit. Gray is Dog Bites Man. Class of 2010 defensive end Chris Martin, who committed to Notre Dame, signed with Cal and then transferred to Florida all before the fall of his freshman year, is Man Bites Dog.

In fact, recruits are about as faithful, on average, as the schools with which they sign. During the recruiting cycles for the classes examined, schools in the six BCS automatic qualifying conferences and Notre Dame combined to fire 39 coaches who had years remaining on their contracts. (Florida State is not included on this list because the school had no contractual obligation to Bobby Bowden after the 2009 season.) On average, 11.6 percent of the coaches were fired each year. Add the 15 coaches who walked away from jobs with years remaining on their contracts, and the percentage of coaching change jumps to an average of 15.8 percent a year.

The decommitment numbers do tell a story, though. Of the players who decommitted, 34.2 percent either failed to qualify, transferred or were dismissed. The aforementioned Martin left Florida in 2011, transferred to Navarro Junior College and has since left that school. Of the players who made one commitment and stuck to it, only 18.7 percent either failed to qualify, transferred or were dismissed. (I did not include players who earned degrees and took advantage of the NCAA's one-time graduate transfer exception. If a player stayed long enough to graduate, he and the school fulfilled any obligations to one another.)

That isn't to say an indecisive player can't succeed. After all, safety Tony Jefferson committed to Stanford and UCLA before signing with Oklahoma in 2010. As a sophomore, Jefferson finished third on the team in tackles and will be one of the Sooners' top returning defenders in 2012. Meanwhile, quarterback Tajh Boyd committed to West Virginia and Tennessee before eventually deciding on Clemson. In 2011, Boyd threw for 3,828 yards and 33 touchdowns while leading the Tigers to their first ACC title in 20 years.

"It's been a crazy recruiting trip," Boyd told me when he committed to Clemson on Jan. 27, 2009. "I'm glad to have it behind me." Boyd's recruitment illustrates the difference between player-driven decommitments and school-driven decommitments. Boyd's first flip, from West Virginia to Tennessee, was his choice. He considered Tennessee a better destination than West Virginia. Had it been up to Boyd, he probably would be a Volunteer now. Boyd said that days before he committed on Nov. 1, 2008, then-Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton told him Phillip Fulmer would remain Tennessee's coach. "He ended up firing Phillip Fulmer like two or three days after I committed," Boyd said in 2009. New Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin didn't believe Boyd could run the pro-style offense Kiffin planned to use. So Kiffin cut Boyd loose. That was a school-driven decommitment.

Unlike in Winn's basketball project, which attributed 37.4 percent of decommitments to school factors (coaches leaving, NCAA sanctions, etc.), the football players tended to decommit for more personal reasons. Of the 73 decommits, 59 (80.8 percent) changed their minds because of player factors.

Coaching changes played a much smaller role than expected, though two changes in particular had an outsize impact on top-100 players. Nebraska's firing of athletic director Steve Pederson and coach Bill Callahan in 2007 affected the choices of quarterback and future NFL first-rounder Blaine Gabbert (Missouri), offensive lineman Trevor Robinson (Notre Dame), tailback Jonas Gray (Notre Dame) and offensive lineman Bryce Givens (Colorado).

Meanwhile, Kiffin's brief tenure on Rocky Top caused quite a bit of chaos in this sample. In addition to causing Boyd's flip, Kiffin flipped receiver Nu'Keese Richardson from Florida, safety Janzen Jackson from LSU, tailback Bryce Brown from Miami and defensive end Corey Miller* from Florida State. Later, Kiffin's abrupt departure to USC would cause defensive end Brandon Willis to flip from Tennessee to North Carolina. (Willis would later transfer to UCLA, then back to North Carolina, then back to UCLA. He has yet to play a down, but he is expected to play for the Bruins in 2012.) At USC, Kiffin would sign former Tennessee commit Markeith Ambles, a receiver who has since left the program. Of all the players listed above, only Miller -- who never actually played for Kiffin -- is still with Tennessee's program.

* Miller joined the Vols in 2010 and played for Derek Dooley, but Kiffin and his staff initially sold Miller on Tennessee, so Kiffin gets credit/blame for the flip.

It's fitting that Kiffin and Florida-turned-Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who locked horns so memorably on the recruiting trail, finished tied for the title of Top Flipper. Each flipped five top-100 players during the five-year period. Kiffin's flips are outlined above, while Meyer swiped tight end Aaron Hernandez from Connecticut, offensive lineman James Wilson from USC, linebacker Jerimy Finch from Indiana, quarterback John Brantley from Texas and defensive tackle Omar Hunter from Notre Dame. In his first recruiting cycle at Ohio State, Meyer has proven that his commitment-cracking skills didn't erode at all in his year away from coaching. In less than two months, Meyer has flipped offensive tackle Taylor Decker from Notre Dame, defensive lineman Se'Von Pittman from Michigan State and defensive lineman Tommy Schutt from Penn State for the class of 2012.

Thanks to swipes by Meyer and Kiffin's successors, Florida and Tennessee tied for the most top-100 players flipped with six each. Florida and USC, meanwhile, tied for the most top-100 players lost with six each.

Florida can probably add another loss to the list for the class of 2012. Mike Davis, a tailback from Stone Mountain, Ga., ranked No. 63 in the 2012 Rivals100, decommitted from the Gators in December. He has since committed to South Carolina. Meanwhile, all eyes have turned to Berkeley, Calif., since mega-recruiter Tosh Lupoi left Cal to become the defensive line coach at Washington. That move touched off rampant speculation that Cal wouldn't be able to keep its star-studded class together. Perhaps most telling was a tweet from Sacramento safety Shaq Thompson. Thompson, the No. 4 player in the Rivals100, already has committed to, decommitted from and recommitted to Cal. Could he be pondering another change of heart?

"It's a business," Thompson tweeted. " ... have to do what's best for me."

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