Fans and coaching staffs from Alabama, Michigan and Florida will wait in great anticipation Thursday for Woodbridge senior defensive lineman Da’Shawn Hand to declare what college he plans to attend. Hand, considered by Rivals.com to be the No. 1 football recruit in the country, and his family have been meticulous about the recruiting process, and the announcement he makes will be the result of careful deliberation.
But no high school football recruit’s college commitment is binding until he signs a National Letter-of-Intent, which can’t be done until the first Wednesday in February. Most observers believe Hand will bring resolution to his recruiting process Thursday, but for many top high school athletes, the decision they announce to the world is anything but final.
Since 2010, 18.3 percent of football players ranked among ESPN’s top 100 recruits withdrew an oral “commitment,” at least once before signing with a school, including 34 of the top 100 players in the 2013 recruiting class. In basketball, 10.1 percent of players over the same span de-committed at least once.
“A commitment has come to be like a dinner reservation,” said Good Counsel football Coach Bob Milloy, who has seen four of his seniors announce commitments to Football Bowl Subdivision schools this fall. “Until you show up and take your place at the school, the player can change his mind and not come, and the coach can change his mind and pull the offer. Most guys stick with their decision, but this is a business and there’s a lot of pressure to change their minds.”
Announcing college decisions months before signing is intended to benefit both sides of the recruiting process. High school athletes can attempt to bring a semblance of closure to what for many top recruits is a taxing process. Conversely, college coaches get an idea of which players intend to come to their schools. But as the reliability of such oral commitments has eroded in recent years — and terms such as “soft commitment” crept into the lexicon — attitudes toward them on both sides shifted.
Other sports have attempted to bring clarity to the process with multiple signing periods during which binding agreements could be made. This year, Division I recruits in all sports except football can sign binding letters-of-intent from Wednesday through Nov. 20, and again from April 16 to May 21.
In football, the only signing period begins on the first Wednesday in February — the increasingly ballyhooed National Signing Day. In August, Atlantic Coast Conference coaches unanimously supported an early signing period for football, with hopes of pushing the topic onto the NCAA agenda.
“It’d be good from a money standpoint to cut down on travel, and it’d allow these athletes to be normal high school students, especially during their senior year,” Virginia Tech associate head coach Shane Beamer said. “Even if you feel completely confident, you never stop recruiting a commit because the minute you let up, some other school can step in.”
Changing commitments isn’t a new phenomenon. Perhaps one of the most memorable instances occurred in 1998, when Ronald Curry, Hampton High standout quarterback and point guard, nixed his commitment to Virginia and signed with North Carolina, setting off a vitriolic response across the state, with some fans labeling him “Benedict Ronald.”
Thirteen years later and about 185 miles up the interstate, DeMatha offensive lineman Cyrus Kouandijo experienced a similar change of heart that played out for 72 hours in front of television cameras and on social media. After announcing his commitment to Auburn on national TV during National Signing Day, Kouandijo never signed or faxed his letter-of-intent. Instead, three days later, he joined Alabama’s incoming class, where he is now a starter alongside his brother, Arie.
“I think a commitment means a lot to some guys, but to other guys I don’t really know what it means to them,” Good Counsel senior offensive lineman and Notre Dame commit Sam Mustipher said. “Maybe it’s a spur-of-the-moment thing; maybe they didn’t think it through all the way, but if you look a coach in the eye, shake his hand and say, ‘I’m coming here,’ that should mean something.”
Before the turn of the 21st century, most college coaches extended offers to recruits via phone call or traditional mail late in their junior season or during their senior year. But as the communication lines have expanded through e-mail, social media and texting, so has access to players and the practices of college programs.
For coaches, it’s a race to be at the front of the line for the next phenom, whether that means extending a scholarship offer to a freshman or working to lure away another school’s commit. For recruits, it can be a question of whether they weigh the decision over a drawn-out process or agree to a scholarship offer before another player snatches it up.
“It should be like marriage,” Paul VI basketball Coach Glenn Farello said. “When you meet the person you want to marry, you don’t say, ‘Hey, you’re awesome, but I’m going to go date these other five women first and get back to you.’ No, if there’s a connection, you pull the trigger. Of course, there are some exceptions, but the goal is to buy in completely and don’t look back.”
Despite initially committing to West Virginia, Paul VI senior Ariana Freeman couldn’t help but be impressed by the efforts of Louisville Coach Jeff Walz, whose friendly yet persistent e-mails increased after she de-committed to the Mountaineers. The All-Met forward ultimately switched her commitment to the Cardinals.
“One thing that social media helped me with was seeing which coaches genuinely wanted me, because a lot of coaches say they want you, but which ones really mean it?” Freeman said.
The belief among many college coaches is that when a recruit commits, that’s when a program discovers its competition. Beamer chooses not to pursue committed players — with one exception. When Calhoun County (S.C.) wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey pledged to play at Southern Cal as a rising senior in June 2008, he told Beamer, then an assistant at South Carolina, to continue recruiting him because his commitment was a soft one. Jeffrey, now a starter with the Chicago Bears, ended up choosing the Gamecocks on National Signing Day.
“I’ve had guys back out of their commitments and then re-commit to us and had no concerns about their character, but then you have cases where it does make you wonder,” Beamer said. “Every situation is different, and until that fax comes across on signing day, the process is never done.”
Given those limited windows for signing binding agreements, high school athletes are discovering that announcing their intentions at any other time can make the flood of inquiries from fans, coaches and media actually increase rather than dissipate.
Ishmail Wainright learned that the hard way during the spring of 2011. Just hours after committing to the University of Missouri during an unofficial visit when “everything seemed right,” the then-sophomore woke up to messages from 10 interested college coaches who had not previously recruited him. A few weeks later, doubt began to creep into Wainright’s mind, leading him to eventually de-commit from the Tigers in a three-hour phone conversation with Missouri Coach Frank Haith.
“That was the longest phone call of my life,” said the former Montrose Christian forward, now a freshman at Baylor. “I was young, there were so many schools and so many things coming at me. I realized I wasn’t ready and needed time to make the best decision for me.”
With fans’ interest in recruiting increasing — and social media making athletes more accessible — announcing a commitment might seem to be a way to escape the bombardment of “which way are you leaning” inquiries. But in fact, it can have a more toxic effect: McNamara senior offensive lineman Damian Prince received death threats via FaceTime after an overzealous fan tracked down his number in an effort to influence his college choice.
“It’s a love-hate relationship in some ways,” Wainright said. “I’ve got coaches like Larry Brown calling me, traveling the country to see schools, doing things you dream about. But with that comes the scrutiny, the pressure and everything coming at you while you’re trying to decide your future. It’s tough, and I’d do it all again, but with more technology and as the rules change, you watch; in about five years, it’s going to be even crazier.”