Football Recruiting Season

Columnist Phillip Marshall takes a look at the growing interest in football recruiting.

Not so many years ago, recruiting was done mostly away from public scrutiny. When a player committed, there was a story in the local newspaper and that was about it.

That was before high school combines, recruiting analysts and the Internet. Recruiting has become big business, as evidenced by this website and others. I would never complain about information. After all, information is my business. But with the explosion of interest in recruiting and coverage of recruiting, the pressure has grown immeasurably on the young men who have decisions to make. Somewhere along the way, the strangest of terms became popular. "Soft commitment."

A soft commitment, of course, is no commitment at all. I mean, think about it. "I'm committed, but maybe I'm not." That defies the definition of commitment. Athens running back Jason Jude was an Auburn commitment as a fullback until Mississippi State told him he would be a big-time tailback. Maybe he will, but it sure took them a long time to figure it out. I guess his commitment was soft.

Same thing with defensive end Vincente DeLoach and numerous others involved with numerous other schools. Carnell Williams and Montae Pitts both committed to Tennessee before signing with Auburn. It's part of the strange world of recruiting. Hoover wide receiver Chad Jackson announced he was committing to Florida and said it was a soft commitment from the start. Why say anything?

Of course, whether someone who changes his mind is a man who breaks his word or one who sees the light all depends on which side you are on. No doubt, Auburn fans who were angered by DeLoach and Jude have no problem with Courtney Denson committing to Virginia Tech before backing out and saying Auburn is his leader. Alabama fans roasted Williams for choosing Auburn, but they wouldn't complain for a second if one of Auburn's commitments suddenly decided to sign with the Tide. So it is among fans of any school.

Football fans would like for teen-age football players to love their schools as much as they do. That usually isn't the case. Players choose schools for a myriad of reasons. There are just as many reasons why they change their minds. College football coaches are salesmen this time of year, and they are good at it. Some use high-pressure tactics. Some think the rules are just a nuisance. It's not surprising that high school kids find their heads spinning. That's why the advice of a parent or coach is so desperately needed--not to tell him where to go, but to help him sift through the sales pitches.

If my son was a football prospect, we would have a very serious conversation at the start of the recruiting process. It would go something like this: "Son, you can go to any school you choose. I'll be here to help you evaluate and to advise you. Do not commit to anyone without talking to me first. I want you to make sure you know what you are doing before you make a decision, because once you look a coach in the eye, shake his hand and tell him you are coming to his school, it's over. You will not embarrass yourself or our family by not being a man of your word. Once you commit, you will talk to no more coaches at home or at school and you will take no more visits."

I would then tell the coaches not to even think about asking my son to make a commitment unless I was present. In a perfect world, prospects would visit the schools of their choice, see what they had to offer and make decisions without pressure. They would not be called all hours of the day or night and would actually be allowed to be normal high school students. The world of college football, of course, is not perfect and recruiting is the fuel that drives a multimillion-dollar enterprise. You can lose with good players, but it's a certainty that you won't win without good players. Show me a highly successful coach and I'll show you one who usually has better players than his opponents.

For years, there has been talk that there needs to be reform in the process, but no one has come up with any meaningful way to accomplish that. There was a time--and I'm not sure when it changed--that the Southeastern Conference had a December signing period. Schools could sign players to conference letters of intent, though they weren't binding on schools from most other conferences. It was not a good situation for the SEC because other schools could identify prospects by simply checking who signed.

What would be good is to have an early signing period in football like there is in basketball. It has been proposed several times to the NCAA, but for some reason, has never passed. That way, players who already know what they want to do could sign and get it over with. Makes too much sense, I guess.

This recruiting season is almost over. In less than two weeks, players will sign with the schools of their choice. Coaches from coast to coast will talk about how pleased they are with their signees. Then will come another phenomenon of recent years--recruiting class rankings. They are meaningless, of course, but they'll be read and debated for months.

Next fall, players will be introduced to harsh reality. The coaches that were so charming in February won't be charming on the practice field. The hostesses who took such great interest in them will have turned their attention elsewhere. They will learn just how difficult playing college football really is. Meanwhile, more high school seniors who may or may not ever play a down of college football will be hailed as superstars.

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