When the Word Isn't Quite Final
Wednesday, February 7, 2007
Today it becomes official. The nation's top senior high school football players will formally sign letters-of-intent accepting scholarship offers. For many, the ritual only reaffirms an oral commitment made to the college sometime over the past 18 months.
Players make oral commitments early in the recruiting process because they believe it stifles the almost incessant communication between the athlete and the schools vying for his talents. In the NCAA's "contact period" in late November, December and the weeks leading up to signing day, recruits can expect calls from coaches every day, right up until today, not to mention countless text messages from colleges at all hours of the day through the season, and constant queries from friends and family of "Where are you going to go?"
But committing early rarely halts the badgering. Not only do other programs continue to recruit players who have already "verbaled" to a school, but players and coaches say the dynamic between recruit and school changes after the oral commitment is made, and communication that once was warm and glowing can get downright nasty.
"I thought I'd make my decision and that would be it," said Arrelious Benn, who announced his commitment to Illinois on ESPNU on Nov. 9 before graduating from Dunbar in December and enrolling in Champaign last month. After the commitment? "That's when it got worse. These are grown men. Why can't they live with the decision I made?"
Throughout his junior school year, Benn said he had considered Notre Dame his top choice, but when he felt as though the Fighting Irish coaching staff was putting too much pressure on him to commit he stopped considering the school. Once Benn orally committed to Illinois, Notre Dame assistant Peter Vaas continued to pepper Benn with text messages and voice mails, some of which Benn provided to The Post:
"FYI, ILL is telling Robert Hughes that they will build their offense around him? Didn't they tell you that?
Coach Vaas," Vaas wrote Benn on Dec. 17.
Earlier that month, Vaas left this voice message on Benn's phone: "You don't want to do anything except bury your head in the sand. . . . I guess you're not tough enough to compete at the big level."
Vaas, who was let go as quarterbacks coach by the Irish after their 44-14 loss to LSU in the Sugar Bowl, did not deny leaving the messages. He said last night that even though Benn made his announcement on national television, that isn't necessarily a recruit's final word.
"Did he say [he was going to Illinois] to me? Did I see him on TV?" Vaas said. "There's an awful lot of rumors or innuendo out there . . . and kids change their minds after they do that. A lot of times, it depends upon what kind of conviction a kid has about a place. You know how you read between the lines? As a recruiter, I have to hear between the lines."
A Notre Dame spokesman declined to comment last night.
There are plenty of times when the pressure works, and players change their commitments.