National signingday is the first opportunity for football players across the country to sign scholarship or financial aid letters of intent with colleges. For some, Wednesday is a day of celebration. For others, it’s a day of suspense.
The letter of intent is in its 50th year, created by the NCAA to “to curb recruiting excesses.” But with football such a competitive and high-stakes sport, there never seems to be a shortage of schools pursuing prep players. The latest troubling trend includes college recruiters reaching down to middle school athletes to offer scholarships. Kids at that age generally aren’t committed to cleaning their bedroom, never mind where to go to college.
“Verbal commitment” might be the most ludicrous phrase in prep sports, and it’s not entirely the prospect’s fault. A senior takes a recruiting trip to School A and thoroughly enjoys it. The recruiter corners the teen and wants a commitment before he boards a plane to return home. He gives it, sensing that this seems to feel right, and wow, he’s practically getting bullied.
Despite his pledge, the prospect goes on another trip to School B. He’s even more impressed. So he “flips” or “de-commits” and announces that – sorry, School A – he’s now headed to School B (colleges strategically want prospects to visit their program last). The “verbal” was designed to lighten the recruiting crunch. It doesn’t always work.
It’s easy to fault a player for backing out of a pledge, but coaches do the same. It’s common for a program to offer 30 scholarships when it really only has 22, or for a coach to pull an offer when a player has committed. For prospects, it’s hard to say no when everything initially screams “yes.”
“I thought I was headed to Northern Arizona and gave a commitment. But then I came home, talked to a lot of people, and things change,” said Franklin High School linebacker Joey Banks, who over the weekend committed to Sacramento State. “I love Sac State. I feel so much has been lifted from my shoulders. It was stressful trying to figure out what to do, and I felt bad about Northern Arizona, and they’re still calling to see if I’m sure about Sac State.”
Roseville offensive tackle Kolton Miller, a mountain of a young man at 6-foot-8 and 290 pounds, burst onto the recruiting scene this fall. He verbally committed to UCLA, but that hasn’t stopped other programs from calling and trying to change his mind.
“Kolton was being tugged all over, and it’s stressful,” said Dan Miller, the player’s father. “He’s ready for this to be over with.”
Recruiting burdens all involved. The player, his parents, the recruiter. Social media continue to play a role with athletes offering updates and delighting in scores of new followers. National recruits are sometimes manipulated by ESPN as to when and where and what time they can announce – to generate interest and ratings, of course.
A year ago, the area’s top recruit was Eddie Vanderdoes, an All-America defensive lineman from Placer High School. ESPN wanted to cover his announcement live. Vanderdoes wanted to have the signing party with two football teammates and a Placer golfer. ESPN was interested in Vanderdoes only, so he declined the cable giant’s offer.
In 2012, my Twitter followers soared by some 3,000 leading up to the announcement by Pleasant Grove’s Arik Armstead, one of the top-rated tackles in the country. Within moments of Armstead declaring he would attend Oregon, hundreds stopped following my account. The same was true for Armstead. He suddenly was old news.
Moments after Vanderdoes initially picked Notre Dame last year, our Twitter numbers plummeted. A dozen or so cursed me for bringing them rotten luck, not Irish luck.
Fans and alumni recruit just as well. They’ll get on social media and butter up a prospect, share how great their college town is and how the recruit can put them in the national championship discussion. When that prospect signs elsewhere, the same fans find no shame ripping the young man they’ve never met. From adulation to savagery based on a signature.
Vanderdoes said picking a college “was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.” He later got out of his letter of intent to Notre Dame and produced a stellar freshman season at UCLA.
Athletes tend to bond with recruiters, too. Armstead and linebacker Shaq Thompson of Grant in 2011 grew close to then-Cal recruiting coordinator Tosh Lupoi. Both were headed to Cal but flipped their picks when Lupoi abruptly left Berkeley in the heat of recruiting season to join the Washington staff. Thompson committed to Washington, a decision that took a toll. He didn’t sleep. He lost weight.
The region’s top recruit this season is Capital Christian lineman Nifae Lealao. He has offers from every Pacific-12 Conference school. He verbally committed to Stanford, then thought de-committing to explore other options was the decent thing to do. The mania started all over again. He visited Cal, and over the weekend he visited Vanderbilt.
Lealao has a rapport with Vanderbilt defensive-line coach Vavae Tata, who was at Stanford last season. Lealao is as affable and chatty as they come, but not this week. He’s gone silent. No Twitter. No Facebook. No recruiting updates. He’ll announce at Capital Christian on Wednesday, when he’s good and ready, ignoring constant phone calls and text messages from programs hoping they’re still in the hunt.