Marshall: Changing "Commitment" Is Nothing New

Columnist Phillip Marshall takes a look at the word commitment and what it means in terms of college football recruiting.

What do Alonzo Horton, Ryan Stamper, Carnell Williams, Ronnie Brown and Devin Aromashodu have in common? They all "committed" to more than one school.

There are hundreds of other examples. A few years back a player called a press conference and actually announced he was committing to two schools. I don't blame the players. The pressure on an 18-year-old high school senior who is being pulled from all sides must be immense.

Horton, a defensive end from New Orleans, backed out on his promise to sign with Auburn on Sunday and said he'll sign with Ole Miss. Stamper, a linebacker from Jacksonville, backed out on Auburn and chose Florida. Those decisions were celebrated by Ole Miss and Florida fans and caused a great deal of hand-wringing among Auburn fans.

The fans see it all through whatever filter they choose. If it's their school getting jilted, the player's word is no good. If it's their school getting the player from another school, the player saw the light.

The word commitment has become a joke. The strange term "soft commitment" has come into vogue. I'm always amused when I see quotes like these:

"I'm committed, but I'm keeping my options open."
"I'm still a (pick a school) commitment, but I could change my mind before signing day."
The fact is, of course, that one who is a so-called soft commitment is no commitment at all. One who is keeping his options open is not committed. And even those who really are committed are under no obligation until they and their parents sign a letter-of-intent. Don't be surprised if Horton ends up being an Auburn Tiger after all is said and done.

Alonzo Horton switched commitments from Auburn to Ole Miss over the weekend.

Teen-age kids who may or may not ever play, who may be good and may not, become celebrities before they are even out of high school, appearing on television shows, doing countless interviews with radio stations, newspapers and Internet sites. Some of them are mature enough to handle it. Many are not. I wonder if anyone could say with any conviction that these young men are better off because of the massive amount of attention they receive before they ever set foot on a college football field.

Through it all, they have to make decisions that will have great impacts on their lives. They talk constantly with coaches who are very skilled salesmen. Reporters and recruiting analysts feed their egos. Their height, weight and usually exaggerated strength and 40-yard dash times become common knowledge. Some come from strong families who provide support. Unfortunately, especially in this part of the country, many do not.

As it gets late in the process, the importance of players who are undecided or who change their minds is blown way out of proportion. Horton and Stamper are good prospects, but they're not going to make or break anyone's recruiting class.

Recruiting is, of course, crucial to every college football program. It always has been. It's no more important today than it was 50 years ago. But not so long ago, only a handful of players were widely known before they got to college. For the fans, it's much better now because of the massive amount of available information, unreliable though some of it is. For the welfare of teen-age football players, it clearly isn't better.

The key to successful recruiting isn't signing the players who get the most attention, the players who are rated highest by so-called gurus. The key is signing players who will fit into your program and your system and help your team win. The best player for one program might not be the best player for another.

That's why we really won't know for a few years who signs the best class next week. The rankings are good for conversation and not much else. I can't remember the last time Auburn had a class rated higher than Tennessee's or LSU's, but the Tigers beat the Vols three times in the past two seasons and beat LSU in two of the past three seasons.

It's very obvious that Auburn had outstanding recruiting classes in 2000 and 2001. Those are the years that supplied the seniors who led the way to a 13-0 record and the Southeastern Conference championship.

Great college football players will emerge from the class of 2005. Some will be those who are getting all the attention now and some won't. Horton may become a great defensive end at Ole Miss. Stamper may become Florida's next All-American linebacker. Or they may both spend their careers covering kicks. There simply isn't any way to know.

If one of my sons had overcome his heredity and been a great athlete, I would have had no part of the recruiting game the way it is played now. I would have told him not to make a commitment until he was sure, and that once he made that commitment, the process would be over. He would take no more visits and talk to no more coaches. There would be no press conference to announce his decision.

But that doesn't mean that Horton or Stamper made the wrong decisions for themselves Sunday, just like it doesn't mean Williams, Brown and Aromashodu made the wrong decisions when they chose Auburn. It doesn't mean their character is suspect.

One can only hope that, when it's over, they can go back to being high school kids for a few more months before they begin to learn about the harsh reality of what it's really like to play college football.

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