The Mater Dei bench cheers for the starters during the Nike Tournament of Champions. (File Photo by Kelly Kline)
The Mater Dei bench cheers for the starters during the Nike Tournament of Champions. (File Photo by Kelly Kline)

Why, and how, early commitments should be handled

Staff writer
July 1, 2013 - 10:50am

Now you have one and now you don't.

That's life in the world of college coaching when it comes to early verbal commitments. What at first glance sounds like a simple, pain-free process has become a magical mystery tour in all too many cases.

If you follow football, boys' basketball or girls' basketball recruiting, you regularly hear about underclass (sometimes even eighth-grade) players making oral commitments to various universities. For the most part, the casual fan may make a mental note of the commitment and then move on to whatever is next at hand. 

What that fan may not hear is the de-commitment that may follow months and sometimes even years later.  Often the coach only gets a text message announcing the de-commitment as it has become in vogue to hide behind the wall known as the Internet rather than speaking to someone directly.

What’s happening more and more often is this: Players verbally commit to a college, park there until something deemed better comes along, and then take that newer offer leaving the first school high and dry.

Why commit very early?

To start at the beginning, why do some players choose to commit very early (even before getting to high school)? The most common time for commitments is the so-called “early signing period” in November of the player's senior high school year, which seems like plenty of time. But for many, there are reasons to make a choice earlier:

1.  My “dream school” has offered me and I want to look no further. Usually, in the world of women's basketball, these are high major programs and are less likely to be victimized in the process.

2.  Some players (probably the minority) do not like the somewhat artificial world of recruiting in which adults, often at least twice their age, pander to these young ladies’ egos in order to get them to strongly consider the recruiter's school.  These players find something they like (location, campus, academics, coaches, future teammates) and end the process pretty quickly.

3.  The perceived pressure from the constant badgering by friends and media about which colleges the player is considering becomes too annoying and the player just wants it to stop.

4.  Insurance against injury. Any player who has essentially made up her own mind should strongly consider pulling the trigger and commit. Why? Injury and in particular, the dreaded ACL -- once a player commits to a program it is very rare for the school to pull the offer if a player gets hurt. It would simply bring too much negative publicity for a coach to punish a player for getting hurt. Instead, these coaches will usually do all they can to make sure the injured player gets the best medical treatment possible and if worst comes to worst, a player no longer able to function athletically, still gets a scholarship from the school via 'medical reserve'.  Conversely, seriously injured uncommitted players are often told "we will re-evaluate you again when you start playing post-injury." In the interim, these players are often 'back-burnered' as damaged goods.       

What has gone wrong with the process?

Players, sometimes urged on by others around them, are verbally committing and then quietly testing the waters elsewhere via contact with other schools' recruiters, or even more boldly,  attending another college's elite camp (where prospects come to audition for the host school). In the recruiting process, players do not realize the effects a de-commitment has on a program stripped of its commitments. Typical is the comment one Division I coach recently made to me. 

"We lost five months in recruiting the position [referring to the de-commitment in question].  When we committed to A, we passed on B, who was about as good. Now we are just starting to recruit our fifth choice at the position."

Getting less talented recruits can lead to poorer results, which in turn can lead to a coach getting fired. Both the student-athlete and the school represented by their recruiting coaches have responsibilities and rights in the process. What appears to be happening is that the balance between the two sides has shifted too far to the side of the recruit as opposed to the university recruiting them.

What is at stake? 

A college scholarship is worth between about $100,000 to something in excess of $250,000.  Many students (including this writer) labor for years after graduating to pay off student loans taken out to cover college costs. Others work their way through college with part-time jobs. Meanwhile, student-athletes receiving full scholarship should come out financially ahead upon graduation. That's a nice jump start on post-educational life.

So what can be done to protect both sides in the process of committing very early to a college?

1. Players can still make verbal commitments (give their word) to a college any time they want in response to a scholarship offer.  Of course one should do so only after plenty of thought and consultation with family, advisers and coaches who they wish to be involved in the process.

2. During the sophomore and junior years, a player can officially notify the NCAA she would like to sign an early letter of intent.  An early letter of intent would give both sides time to evaluate their decision and back away should an extremely early (say freshman year) commitment prove to be unwise.  Also, the early letter of intent would be optional, no one is forced to undertake this step, but a failure to do so indicates to the college that the recruit is in truth already wavering at least slightly as to the commitment.  At the same time, this will lessen the pressure on the player and her family about her eventual destination.    

3. From 30 to 90 days after the notification to sign early, the player may take a paid visit to the college she wants to sign with. This gives the prospect an up-close look at her intended school before pulling the trigger.

4. From day 91 through day 120 after the NCAA filing, the player may sign a binding letter of intent that would have the same force as the one that now can be signed in November of the player’s senior year. Again, more time is given for further reflection (self-examination, discussions with friends, coaches, family) by the recruit before making the final commitment.

5. If after 120 days, no letter of intent is signed, the player is considered no longer verbally committed to college. The player, though, has now used up one of her five official visits, and has just four left.  This tells the college that the recruit is now intending to look elsewhere and it should too. Nothing, however, would prevent the two sides from getting together again at a later date.

6. If the head coach of the school should for any reason leave the college, the signed player has 45 days to void the letter of intent after being notified that a new head coach has been selected.  Many colleges are already regularly allowing players to go elsewhere should the head coach move on, so let's put that in writing rather than having some schools make it difficult on the recruit while others do not. On the other hand, the school must still honor the agreement if the student-athlete continues in her desire to attend college.

7. If a signed player fails to graduate high school or otherwise not be admitted into the college, the letter of intent becomes null and void.

The goal is to put greater security into the “very early” commitment process, and just as current procedures do, it protects the school and the player. This proposal would not affect the recruiting process after a player’s junior year, and it’s likely that most recruits and schools would not notice much of a change.

But it is important to acknowledge the reality of early commitments, and give them some status with the NCAA, if only to make it easier for both sides to navigate a complex and incredibly important process.