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Husky Football Blog

The latest news and analysis on the Montlake Dawgs.

January 28, 2011 at 12:52 PM

On stealing, poaching, changing of minds, and decommitting

I’ve been asked by a few of you to comment on the recruiting topic of the week — “stealing,” “poaching,” or a “kid simply changing his mind,” depending on what side of the aisle you are on at any given moment.

It’s a subject I wade into with some trepidation since it’s obviously pretty emotionally charged, and I probably won’t offer the black-and-white response some of you want.

The way I see it, just about everybody involved is alternately guilty and blameless — including fans, whose demands that their team go 12-0 every year or else helps lay the foundation for what recruiting has become (if you work on the assumption that it’s really changed all that much, which I’m not sure I do).

I’m not even sure any of this is really a “problem.” Letter-of-intent day is always the first Wednesday in Feburary. Until then, all decisions are subject to change — always have been and always will be, and everyone involved knows that (or should).

College athletics is a multi-billion dollar business that rewards highly competitive coaches million-dollar salaries — coaches who rose to their status by winning a lot more battles than they’ve lost, and by knowing little else in their lives but to compete until the second the gun goes off. To expect that to be any different when it comes to recruiting is naive.

I’ve covered college sports for almost 30 years now, and I can’t count how many times I’ve talked to players who had all kinds of twists and turns in their recruiting process that maybe today would be viewed as another team stealing them away from their initial choice.

But obviously, one of the major changes in the perception is the way recruiting is covered now. With Twitter the latest medium to emerge, it’s literally a 24-7 deal nowaways, with every single detail made public. I think that coverage helps lead to the idea that things have changed drastically in terms of kids reneging on commitments and coaches stealing players away — I think in the past a lot of this stuff simply went uncovered. Would anyone have even bothered to call Bishop Sankey in the December of his junior year 20 years ago to ask him where he planned to go to college? If they did, it certainly wouldn’t have spread to every reach of the country at a moment’s notice the way it does now.

Recruiting analysts I talk to, however, insist it is a little bit different these days, that the word commitment doesn’t mean quite the same thing that it used to.

“That’s what the game is now,” said Scout.com and FoxSports.com recruiting analyst Jake Worthen this week, saying the goal for coaches is to hang on to what they’ve got and make a run at potentially wavering players elsewhere.

It’s obviously easy for local fans to focus on the recent switches of Sankey and Stephan Nembot from WSU to UW, but followers of every school can cite multiple examples of such battles won and lost (Keanon Lowe? Alejandro Maldonado?) And I’m not trying to turn this into a “they do it, too” post, but another that comes readily to mind is Alex Brink, who was all set to go to Boise State until WSU came with an offer a week or two before signing day.

And make no mistake, for most kids there is still a pecking order of conferences and schools — they’ll take the WAC offer unless a Pac-10 school comes calling; for California kids, they’ll take the out-of-state offer unless USC suddenly comes calling, etc. So a lot of kids commit to the first offer that’s good enough, knowing all along that they might change their mind if their dream school gets into the mix. Coaches know this, as well, so they have to keep multiple irons in the fire at all times to make sure they are covered (would UW have gone after Sankey had Brendon Bigelow not changed his initial commitment to UW and instead decided to go to Cal?)

If athletes do indeed view the word commitment a little differently these days, one reason could be the emergence of youth travel teams in the last few decades. With kids of my own now, I’ve seen first-hand at even just a pretty minor level where kids as young as eight or nine years old commit to play with a soccer or baseball or basketball team for one season, then spend a few weeks at the end of that season trying out for new teams and essentially being recruited all over again. They grow up accustomed to playing with a lot of different teams, unlike maybe 30 years ago when all kids knew was playing for their school teams.

Coaches, meanwhile, are making more than ever — thereby feeling more pressure than ever before to justify their salaries; while also having a shorter career lifespan than ever (or at least feeling that they do), thereby feeling even more pressure to turn over every stone to make sure they are safe. (And somewhere in here we need to mention the role of assistants, who do the grunt work of recruiting, forming the deepest relationships with kids, then sometimes leave in between commitment and signing day, another factor causing players to look around again).

And it’s obviously a well-worn topic that administrators send mixed messages, saying publicly they want clean, well-run programs populated with good kids who graduate, but usually firing coaches solely for winning and losing (with fans sending the same signals — when’s the last time there was a big message board fervor over low graduation rates?)

So you have kids (almost all of whom also believe at the time they are being recruited that they are headed to the NFL and want to make sure the school they choose gives them the best route) looking for the best deal they can get (usually aided greatly by parents); and coaches feeling the pressure to put together the best class they can with no real direction from above other than to win at all costs. Inevitably the recruiting battles will get a little messy at times.

You also have TV networks looking to capitalize on the interest in recruiting enticing kids to make decisions on air. And you have high school coaches and ADs looking to maximize their moment in the sun enticing kids to call press conferences at their schools (i.e., Terrence Jones, of whom it’s forgotten that that was a school-wide press conference that he felt some pressure to participate in even though it was obvious he had yet to make a decision, something someone higher up there should have realized).

An early signing date in football might prevent some of this, and I imagine that’s coming at some point down the road. Some argue there should at least be a gentlemen’s agreement within a conference that if a kid commits to one school in that conference, other coaches back off. But then what’s to stop other conferences from coming in? (In Sankey’s case, Minnesota and Maryland were apparently the initial schools that got him thinking about opening up his recruiting.)

If any of this is really all that new, the only wonder is what took so long.

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