Larry Harold had grown tired of the constant text messages, so he simply stopped looking at his phone Wednesday morning. The messages came from the 706 area code, from Georgia coaches trying to get one more crack at recruiting Roquan Smith, the star linebacker Harold had coached at Macon County High in tiny Montezuma, Ga. The Bulldogs knew Smith would announce his college choice live on ESPNU as part of the network’s National Signing Day extravaganza. If Smith said any school other than Georgia, they had probably missed their chance. Smith had turned his phone off as well. The senior was effectively incommunicado when he reached into a bag and held up a pair of UCLA gloves to signal his desire to sign with the Bruins.
But unlike many recruits who sign and fax their paperwork before revealing their decision, Smith hadn’t put pen to paper. So, he remained officially untethered when Harold, who was sick of feeling his phone buzz, finally pulled out his device and saw a screenshot of a FoxSports.com story by Alex Marvez that included a throwaway line about UCLA defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich joining the Atlanta Falcons’ staff as the linebackers coach. A Georgia coach had sent the screenshot because Bulldogs’ staffers knew Ulbrich had been Smith’s lead recruiter. They figured if Smith hadn’t signed a National Letter of Intent, the new information might give them another chance to land him. After all, Smith had no idea the guy who told him he could be the next Eric Kendricks was considering a job change.
“It was the best-kept secret,” Harold said. “Nobody ever mentioned him leaving. But we should have put two and two together. He’s never been shy about the fact that him and [Falcons head coach] Dan Quinn are really good friends. He’s always said that.”
That kind of secret gets kept at a lot of places and revealed after Signing Day, by which point prospects have already signed the worst contract in American sports and relinquished their right to be recruited by other schools. Those secrets were kept this year. At Ohio State, running backs coach Stan Drayton was planning to go to the Chicago Bears. At Florida, defensive line coach Terrell Williams was heading to the Miami Dolphins. The Gators were ready to replace him with Texas defensive line coach Chris Rumph. None of this was supposed to get out until Thursday, but Marvez, who covers the NFL and therefore works outside the College Football Industrial Complex, simply reported the info he was told by a reliable source Wednesday. He gave Smith a chance to do what every top-100 football recruit in the country should every year: Refuse to sign the NLI.
That’s precisely what Harold plans to suggest to Smith and his family. Smith smartly signed with no one Wednesday. He can wait until April 1 to sign the NLI, but doesn’t have to sign it at all (more on that later). Smith is still being recruited hard by UCLA, Georgia, Michigan and Texas A&M. He has options. He also has the chance to be a trailblazer and avoid the NLI entirely. “I’m going to talk to his family and see if that’s what they’d like to do -- if that’s an option they’d like to explore,” Harold said.
Though most players don’t realize it, they do not have to sign the NLI to receive a scholarship. They need only sign a financial aid agreement at their chosen school. The financial aid paperwork provides (almost) the same guarantee of a scholarship as the NLI, but unlike the NLI, it doesn’t strip the player of the only leverage he’ll have until he graduates from college.
Why is the NLI the worst contract in American sports? It requires players to sign away their right to be recruited by other schools. If they don’t enroll at the school with which they signed, they forfeit a year of eligibility. Not a redshirt year, but one of their four years to play. In return, the NLI guarantees the player nothing.
Sure, the NLI claims to guarantee a scholarship, but that simply isn’t true. That is contingent on the player being admitted to the school and on the football program staying below the 85-scholarship limit. A school can dump the player at any point between Signing Day and preseason camp, and he would have no recourse. This guarantee is no different than the one on a conference-approved financial aid form, but it costs the player something the financial aid agreement does not.
If I sign a contract with Sports Illustrated, I would give up my right to negotiate with other companies. But SI would reimburse me by paying an agreed-upon salary over a given period of time. That’s how a contract is supposed to work. Each side is supposed to get something. The NLI gives the schools everything and gives the players nothing.
Why should anyone sign an NLI? Because in the real world, you’re only as valuable as your leverage. The 20th player in Arkansas State’s recruiting class needs to sign an NLI, as he may lack many other attractive options for a free education. In fact, almost every football recruit should sign the NLI. But the best ones should not.
It would be nice if Smith could follow the path of some college basketball stars and decline to sign the NLI. Only that would be terribly risky. He is just one player, and coaches may be more interested in protecting an arrangement tilted ludicrously in their favor than in nabbing a highly touted linebacker. Maybe the Bruins, Bulldogs, Wolverines and Aggies would decide he isn’t worth the potential hit to the system. Of course, given the intensity with which UCLA’s Jim Mora, Georgia’s Mark Richt, Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin recruit, it seems unlikely that all would pass on a player they clearly want. Also, if all these competitors in the market for college football talent did conspire to shun a player they obviously covet, then Smith might get a call from Michael Hausfeld or Jeffrey Kessler. Hausfeld is the attorney who cleaned the NCAA’s clock in the O’Bannon case. Kessler is the attorney who hopes to leave a smoking crater in Indianapolis where the NCAA headquarters currently sit with his Jenkins v. NCAA case.
It seemed possible for a few days that Glen St. Mary, Fla., defensive end CeCe Jefferson could do the same. Jefferson, who committed to Florida on Feb. 4, was also reluctant to sign, but his situation was more complicated than Smith’s. Jefferson tweeted last week that he was tipped off -- he didn’t say by whom -- days before Signing Day that Williams might leave. But Jefferson also tweeted that his delay centered on a disagreement with his parents about where he should sign. On Monday Jefferson tweeted he would send his NLI to Florida shortly.
It’s likely Smith will chose the school he wishes to attend, sign the NLI and go on his way. He didn’t want all this attention in the first place. “I know Roquan,” Harold said. “The only reason why he wanted to go on TV for his announcement is because he wanted to give our small town exposure that it’s never had.”
What would be nice is if every player at the 2016 Under Armour All-America Game or U.S. Army All-American Bowl (or both) got together and made a pact to decline the NLI. The best 100-200 players have the leverage to say no. Coaches won’t refuse to sign them all. Even if Nick Saban doesn’t have to deal with that kind of activism at Alabama, the coaches at Arkansas or Mississippi State would be happy to scoop up any recruit who Saban wanted to cut loose.
This would expose one of the great lies of people who defend the current system. They assume fans root for laundry and not players. They essentially claim there is no market for these players, even though anyone can see this market in action by visiting Rivals.com. If it didn’t matter who filled the uniforms, coaches wouldn’t fight one another so hard to sign the players they want. Schools wouldn’t devote so many resources to recruiting.
Of course the top recruits would get scholarships, because elite college football coaches are not going to let the best players in the country just go elsewhere. (Also because the schools are terrified of Hausfeld and Kessler.) With the best prospects still available to be recruited by anyone, the annual dance of the departing assistant coaches wouldn’t go so smoothly for the schools. This might force coaches to be a little more honest in their dealings with recruits.
Last week Thomas Wilcher took to the radio in Detroit to rip Ohio State’s staff. Wilcher, the coach of Cass (Mich.) Tech, coached Buckeyes tailback signee Mike Weber. Weber was blindsided when he learned Drayton was headed to the Bears, and he was hurt. He also had no recourse. Unlike Smith, Weber signed his NLI.
Harbaugh used this situation to send a thinly veiled shot toward Columbus.
Ohio State director of player development Mark Pantoni responded in kind.
Harbaugh should probably be careful criticizing this scenario, because this is the ultimate glass-house situation for coaches. Every year assistants across the nation announce their departures as soon as the ink is dry on the NLIs for the most recent signing class. It will happen at Michigan at some point. Still, Drayton could have been more forthright with Weber. Even with Drayton on the way out, Ohio State is still the school that just won the national title. It will still run the offense that helped Ezekiel Elliott rush for 1,878 yards with 18 touchdowns last season. It would still be an extremely attractive destination for a tailback. If Drayton let Weber know he might possibly leave, it wouldn’t have changed any of that. Things would be a little more complicated if the coach was bound for another school and not the NFL, but lots of people have uncomfortable conversations when they change jobs. It’s really pretty simple. Here’s a template: “I may not be here, but this is still the same great place I sold you on. The head coach knows what he’s doing.” That’s all a potentially departing assistant needs to say.
The text of the NLI and of every cranky columnist ever reminds players they are signing with a school and not a coach. This is ultimately true, but it’s not the reality created by the coaches for anyone being recruited to play football. “I’m reading these columnists and seeing these sportscasters saying that [Smith] shouldn’t commit to a coach. He should commit to a school,” Harold said. “Well, a school is a building. What separates all of these schools? The things these college coaches sell these kids on are relationships. It’s the people.” Harold, who has obviously heard many of these lines over the past few months, then gave his best college assistant impression. “I can develop you like nobody else,” Harold said. “I’m going to be your coach. I can get you to the next level. I can care for you.”
The result? “The kid,” Harold said, “falls in love.”
From a practical standpoint, no player should ever choose a school based on an assistant. If that coach is good, he’ll get tons of job offers. If he’s bad, he’ll get fired. But most 16- and 17-year-old recruits don’t know that. That’s the beauty of recruiting for college coaches. Each year new players come in who -- unless they come from a prep powerhouse or had an older brother go through the process -- have no clue what the rules of engagement are. They’re easy to manipulate.
Harold doesn’t begrudge the assistants their chance to change jobs. He is changing jobs right now. He’ll be the head coach at Brunswick (Ga.) High next season. He just wishes they’d shoot as straight as they all claim. After news of Ulbrich’s impending move leaked Wednesday, Mora said he would “fight like crazy” to keep him. The Falcons and Quinn apparently fight crazier, because on Sunday UCLA announced Ulbrich’s departure.
If Smith had signed the worst contract in American sports before making his announcement, he would've been blindsided and stuck. Now he has a chance to collect his thoughts and reconsider his options -- including the one to tell coaches that he’ll be happy to come play for them, but they can take the NLI and shove it.
A random ranking
Valentine’s Day is Saturday. Here are the top five classic candy heart messages. (Also, a word of advice for the gentlemen: Don’t blow 100 bucks on Valentine’s Day flowers. Be more creative. Then spend 15 bucks for a dozen roses for your lady on a random Tuesday after the price gouging ends.)
1. BE MINE
2. LOVE BIRD
3. SWEET TALK
4. FAX ME