Actions speak louder than words during recruiting process

2/4/2008 - College Football

What's the only thing in football that's worth less than a big favorite in a big game in University of Phoenix Stadium?

A verbal commitment from a college recruit.

Wednesday marks a national holiday for college football recruitniks, when players sign letters of intent. For fans who have obsessed over the whims of teenagers for months, it should be a day of immense relief.

Those signed letters are binding. Young men who have changed their mind more often than Hamlet finally have to put it in writing. That will be a welcome change after player de-commitments have reached epidemic proportions.

According to Scouts Inc., ESPN.com's recruiting bureau, 156 players have de-committed from one school in favor of another this recruiting season. Fourteen of those players de-committed more than once. Eleven of the de-commits rank among the ESPN 150.

And those are just the ones we know of. Surely there were many more that never were publicized.

About one-third of those 156 de-commitments can be attributed to coaching changes. The other two-thirds can be attributed to the raging insincerity that now flows both ways in football recruiting.

Put it this way: The term "soft verbal" is now part of the recruiting nomenclature. (It means: "I'm kinda committed. Meanwhile, I'll be visiting another school next Saturday.")

School-player recruiting relationships are lasting as long as junior-high romances. Players aren't committing to programs so much as going steady with them for a few weeks, then moving on to the next pretty face. That's why rival recruiters completely disregard commitments and keep on calling and writing.

How bad is it right now? So bad that college basketball recruiting -- a mud fight in the best of times -- looks honorable in comparison. North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams recently said he hopes his sport never becomes as anarchic as football.

"You're not making a commitment," Williams said. "You're making a reservation."

And as every restaurant will tell you, reservations are made to be broken.

Part of the problem is that the recruiting cycle starts earlier now than ever. Players are making more unofficial campus visits in the spring, when they often encounter the hard sell.

Coaches can pressure recruits like car salesmen who get customers onto their lot. The goal is to close the deal before they leave. An impulse buy is the purchaser's problem, not the seller's.

That's why media following recruiting make their phone calls on Sunday nights, to see who committed on the spot. But not all teenagers coming off a whirlwind weekend make a commitment they'll keep.

"Sometimes we bring them in on a trip and they get excited and want to commit," Colorado coach Dan Hawkins said. "I tell them to go back home, get rid of the buyer's high and think about it. I want to shake hands, look them in the eye and feel good about the deal.

"I don't have a halo flying over my head. But I just totally believe the kid's got to do what's best for himself."

The earlier a player commits, the longer he has to wait until he can sign a letter. Which has some coaches pushing for an early signing period.

Basketball instituted a November signing period quite a while ago, and it's been popular. Players have been happy to get a college decision out of the way before their senior seasons begin.

There have been proposals from football coaches for a signing period during the late spring of a player's junior year, and for a December period as well. Junior-college players already can sign in December; coaches want to know why players who have made a decision cannot do the same at that time.

The problem with an early signing period is the ensuing chaos when a coach is fired. Recruits who lock themselves in early, without knowing with certainty who their coach will be, are asking for trouble.

For now, players who commit early and then must wait for months to sign are still considered in play. Whereas most basketball coaches back off committed prospects, football coaches don't always extend their rivals the same professional courtesy.

In fact, the saying is that a player's verbal commitment just shows other coaches where to focus their work. And although that saying has its roots in the Southeastern Conference, it's hardly just an SEC thing now.

At least 11 Big 12 schools have picked up a commitment from a current high school senior who originally pledged to another school. More than half the Pac-10 and Big Ten have done the same. Half the ACC, as well.

The flip side of the pressure sell is the prospect who struggles to say no. Nobody likes to deliver bad news, and that task can be especially difficult for kids. Hawkins saw it firsthand with his son, Cody, a quarterback who turned down overtures from plenty of schools to play for the Buffaloes with his dad.

"He had such a difficult time," Dan Hawkins said. "I'd say, 'You need to call so-and-so and tell them [no].' He had a hard time with that."

It's always easier to say yes than no. But college football players need to reacquaint themselves with the meaning of the word commitment. It doesn't mean you're going steady until something hotter comes along.

Pat Forde is a national columnist for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.