When the Word Isn't Quite Final

By Alan Goldenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

"When we find out a kid's orally committed," said Allen Wallace, who founded SuperPrep magazine in 1985 and is now national recruiting editor for the Web site Scout.com, "one of the first things I ask is, 'What are the percentages that the kid is going to follow through?' I ask if he's going to take any more visits or accept calls.

"Some of them treat their commitment as a fall-back position, like, 'At least, I'll have somewhere to go.' " Wallace estimated between 5 and 10 percent of all oral commitments are broken, but added, "It's hard to keep track of because it's so prevalent."

Sometimes a player will make a commitment, but then see his recruiting stock rise, either through strong summer workouts or a standout senior season, which will attract scholarship offers from higher profile schools.

Coaches said an oral commitment only shows a player is in demand.

After the oral commitment "people know who the competition is," Connecticut Coach Randy Edsall said. "Once that kid gives you a verbal commitment, you can't relax and stop recruiting. If you do, someone will say, 'When was the last time you heard from that school?' Then they come in and start recruiting him."

Said Virginia Tech associate head coach Billy Hite, who is beginning his 30th season with the Hokies, "You have to recruit him as if he hasn't committed to you until the national signing day."

An oral commitment is by no means binding, and schools have been known to back out as well. They may lose interest in a recruit, realize they made a poor evaluation before offering him a scholarship, or just recruit other more talented players at that position.

In June 2004, Northwest running back Tony Nelson orally committed to Clemson, and fielded a steady stream of calls from the Tigers' staff throughout football season. But for the last three weeks of December, Nelson never heard from Clemson.

"With Tony, the line of communication was open," Northwest Coach Randy Trivers said, "and then it was a dark period. That's when I knew something was up."

On Jan. 4, four weeks before signing day, Clemson recruiting coordinator David Blackwell called Trivers to say Clemson had withdrawn Nelson's scholarship offer because Nelson had not yet qualified academically. Left with few options, Nelson signed with Division I-AA Massachusetts, where he qualified academically, but redshirted as a freshman.

Pulling offers can be risky for colleges, however, because it can affect the way they deal with future recruits. Wallace said it happens enough, though, that players will continue to talk to other schools after orally committing to a program.

"They can always say, 'Hey, schools can pull my offer,' " Wallace said.

Ballou senior offensive lineman Lamar Milstead committed to North Carolina last June, but he knew it was far from firm. He soured on his top choice, Virginia, when the Cavaliers' recruiter, Ron Prince, left to take over at Kansas State. Milstead said he wanted to orally commit somewhere to be safe, and see how the situations at the other schools that offered him shook out during his senior season.

"I figured I'd get this over with, catch up on my [school] work and then get back to the recruiting later," Milstead said. "I wasn't entirely sure about [my commitment] but I wasn't going to tell [North Carolina] that. Just like they told me what I wanted to hear, I told them what they wanted to hear. It's just to get them off your back. You want the whole pursuing thing to stop. You just want to be the one to make the decision."

After North Carolina fired coach John Bunting during last season, Milstead said he realized he wasn't in the Tar Heels' plans when new coach Butch Davis didn't call him for two months after being hired. Milstead said he called Virginia two weeks ago, and asked if its scholarship offer still stood. When told it did, Milstead accepted it.

Milstead knows he got lucky. The majority of BCS conference programs hope to complete the large majority of their recruiting several months before signing day. Hite said Virginia Tech has 95 percent of its slots filled eight months before signing day. Edsall said Connecticut had 21 players orally committed before Christmas.

"We would have loved to have had those kids signed and off the market," Edsall said, "but now we've got kids who we've got commitments from who are still getting calls."

Said Hite, "Obviously, it's a big problem in college football, and I'm not so sure that they shouldn't have an early-signing period because of it."

Unlike most other sports, football does not have an early-signing period. Basketball recruits, for example, can sign during a week in November, just before the start of their senior season.

"I'm in favor of an early-signing period," DeMatha Coach Bill McGregor said. "That would stop all the nonsense."

Grant Teaff, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, said his membership is considering drafting a proposal to the NCAA for an early-signing period. One stumbling block, though, is when that period should be. Offering it before the start of a recruit's senior season would be tough because NCAA rules prohibit recruits from taking official visits -- all-expense trips paid for by the university -- until the first day of classes of their senior year.

Junior college transfers can sign football letters-of-intent beginning Dec. 20. Edsall said he thinks high schoolers should be allowed to sign at that time, as well. Even six weeks ahead of regular signing day, he said, would make a big difference.

"You're giving a chance to students to end the process in December," he said, "and as a coach, if you have a kid and he doesn't want to sign in December, that should tell you something. Everybody calls each other's bluff a little bit."

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