On Feb. 5, the madness known as college football recruiting will cease - for next year's freshmen anyway. The best players will be handed a National Letter of Intent, sign it, and in some cases end a courtship that has lasted for more than four years.
It’s a great moment for those with desired athletic skills. They are envied by major universities who offer free educations just for a pledge to play football on Saturdays. But signing day can also be terrible for those kids who aren't equipped to handle the adulation, let alone make one of the biggest decisions of their lives.
College football recruiting has been compared to dating. Some matches seem perfect and work out. Others get off to a good start until one partner gets a wandering eye.
Before National Signing Day, student athletes may commit to a university. Their declarations sound permanent, even though we have learned they don't carry the force of law or even the stamp of one’s integrity. Social media is inundated with stories of “flippers and switchers,” ones who commit to one school, then jump to another.
One website that follows college football, Saturday Down South, reports there have been 60 de-commitments among prospects involving Southeastern Conference teams this fall - with more to follow. It’s no different for other conferences in other parts of the country.
Tom Lemming, a nationwide recruiting analyst, said the practice of de-commiting has become epidemic. There's no single explanation as to why.
Can you blame the high school phenom who just can’t get enough all-expense-paid trips to college campuses? Or do you blame recruiters whose teams' success - and their own livelihoods - depend on getting the right players?The answer is both.
Highly touted players are easily swayed by coaches with winning personalities and strong sales pitches. Absent the guidance of a parent or high school coach, a young player can quickly succumb to the pressure to commit.
But just because a player gives that pledge - and sticks to it - there’s no guarantee of a scholarship on National Signing Day. Coaches have been known to withdraw offers if they've kept recruiting and landed a better player.
Other scenarios complicate the recruiting campaign, as well.
If a coach is fired or moves to another school, recruits will reassess their compatibility with the new coaching staff. When James Franklin stepped down as head coach at Vanderbilt, for example, the Commodores were hit with 10 de-commitments. Three came from players who switched to Penn State with Franklin.
Sometimes players commit to a school, but the offer is predicated upon a player meeting academic standards. Failing that, a player may end up at a junior college, where the recruiting process will be replayed in a couple of years.
Once in a while, a school intentionally signs more players than it has scholarships to give, perhaps believing not all will prove eligible. Or maybe a coach falsely expects some recruits to change their minds. Over-signing may leave some recruits to be brought in as “gray shirts,” meaning they’ll be placed on scholarship when one becomes available.
Recruiting is a big, expensive business. The pursuit of gifted athletes - once a closely guarded secret - is no longer. Internet sites focused on recruiting rank, study, compare and assess players as never before.
Some players may hold onto old ideas and honor their word. For others recruitment is a process where rules - except those imposed by the NCAA - are murky.
The chase for athletic talent, in the meantime, plays out in its own strange way, and future collegians are making their commitments – whatever that means.
Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at email@example.com.