At the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, Tim Irvin announced on national television that he would attend the University of Texas “for the next three or four years.” He put on a Longhorns hat and flashed the “Hook Em Horns” symbol with both hands.
Less than three weeks later, the four-star athlete from Westminster Christian School in Miami was enrolled for the start of the spring semester … at Auburn.
“When I first came on the campus I felt like the coaches and the players, they brought me in like I was their child,” Irvin says of his official visit that preceded his enrollment by four days. “I felt like I was at home.”
As National Signing Day approaches Wednesday, it has become the Year of the Flip in college football recruiting. Almost daily since mid-December, a prominent player has decommitted or switched commitments or scheduled an official visit to a school other than the one he had given his verbal commitment. Instead of being a harbinger of a player’s college destination, the commitment has become an indicator of which school a competitor needs to beat.
Verbal commitments are non-binding for both the player and the school. Until a letter of intent is signed, a player could change his mind just as a school can rescind a scholarship offer. An NCAA spokesman said the organization “does not recognize nor enforce verbal commitments.”
“It’s more prevalent than it has been before,” Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell says of the flips. “I haven’t seen anything like it. It seems like every day you’re tracking something you thought was done a while ago.”
Adds Barton Simmons, the national recruiting analyst for 247Sports, “It doesn’t seem to matter how solid a commitment is. Once January rolls around, it seems like all bets are off.”
The increase in prospects changing schools comes at a time when a working group in the Collegiate Commissioner’s Association is finalizing a recommendation for a 72-hour early signing period for football to be held in mid-December. The recommendation could go to the CCA for a vote by this summer, and the Class of 2016 could be the first impacted.
The early signing period would presumably decrease some of the pressure on prospects in the weeks before signing day. Many top prospects – both uncommitted and committed – are making multiple campus visits during the three weeks between the end of the dead period in January and the start of the signing period in February. No in-person contact with recruits or campus visits are allowed from mid-December to mid-January.
For college coaches and recruiting coordinators, the message has been: Keep recruiting a player until his name is on the dotted line.
“That’s something that’s never changed. … You’re always going to have to recruit a prospect till the very end,” Mississippi State assistant recruiting coordinator Neil Stopczynski said. “At this level, it’s extremely competitive. You have to fight and really scratch and claw to get the guys you want.”
Stopczynski said he’d like the terminology changed from “commitment” to “reservation.”
“The word commitment, the word itself, it’s been extremely watered down,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that a lot of kids don’t take to heart the definitional meaning of the word …
“There are all sorts of legitimate issues that would affect the committed status. But those kids that just say, ‘Oh, hey, I’m just changing schools.’ That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about, it messes with the sanctity of the word, and that’s where it gets frustrating.”
Among the reasons that players change their minds is because coaches change jobs. Irvin cited his relationship with former Florida head coach Will Muschamp, now the Auburn defensive coordinator, and cornerbacks coach Travarus Robinson, who was on Muschamp’s staff at Florida. They had been recruiting Irvin when they were with the Gators.
“There’s no loyalty being shown among coaches, so the kids learn from that,” Farrell said. “I’m not slamming the coaches, but there’s so many moves at the assistant and coordinator levels that these kids don’t know what to do. … It just causes confusion.”
Torrance Gibson, a quarterback from American Heritage in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., committed to Ohio State in early November. The four-star player is considered the sixth-best dual-threat quarterback prospect in the nation.
Since his commitment, Ohio State offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Tom Herman has become the head coach at Houston. Herman was Gibson’s primary recruiter.
Gibson is taking official visits to Auburn and LSU, but says he remains strongly committed to play for the national champion Buckeyes.
“Basically my mom wants me to see what’s out there because she wants me to make sure I’m 100% making the best decision,” he said. “She doesn’t want me to decommit or anything, she just wants me to have seen everything.
“Ohio State fans shouldn’t worry at all. Just let me enjoy this process; it’s the only time I’ll be able to do this in my lifetime.”
Simmons says players such as Gibson, who are committed to schools outside their home region, are more susceptible to have programs continue to recruit them even after they have committed.
“Elite players like Torrance Gibson are continuing to get opportunities and be heavily recruited, particularly as other staffs begin to get desperate as their board starts to dwindle,” Simmons said. “He’s a player who doesn’t have a really strong tie to a program from out of the region.
“It’s the age we’re in. Kids are very open with taking visits and exploring options and enjoying the process. It’s becoming par for the course.”
But that doesn’t mean college coaches like it. Some schools have policies that once a player commits, they are considered decommitted if they visit elsewhere. Other schools take a more low-pressure approach.
Stopczynski said Mississippi State has discouraged verbally committed players from taking visits, but never told a player that the program considers him decommitted if he visits elsewhere. He did concede taking other visits “breaks the trust a little bit.”
Curtis Blackwell, Michigan State’s director of college advancement and performance, said the Spartans don’t have a policy on visits after verbal commitments. Michigan State takes a famously low-pressure approach and has very few decommitments annually. Blackwell said they tell recruits to think about where they want to be and then make the decision.
“I wouldn’t say we have a policy, but when you commit to Michigan State, you commit to Michigan State,” he said. “And guys that do tend to be locked in on Michigan State. That’s what it is. There’s no policy where we’ll tell a person, ‘Don’t do this’ or ‘Don’t do that.’
“We don’t force anyone to commit, we don’t pressure anyone. So when you do commit to us, you’re ready to end your process.”
For some players, a commitment is more a safety net than an end to the process, especially depending on how coveted a particular player might be.
“If you look at top of the ESPN 300, that’s where most of the guys who are uncommitted are and those guys probably feel like they can control their destiny and programs will leave a spot for them,” said Craig Haubert, a national recruiting analyst for ESPN. “The further down you go, you have players who say, ‘I like this school, I feel like it’s a good fit’ and almost seems like they want to save their spot and then really see what the right fit is. Let me find my spot where I’m comfortable, but shop around and make sure it’s comfortable.”
Scott Kennedy, the managing editor of Scout.com, said the commitment has become a “placeholder.”
“There is pressure by multimillion dollar salesman in a multibillion business for kids to make decisions before they are ready to make them,” he said. “The recruiting cycle is 12 months a year and starts as a freshman.
“I got pressured to take this offer or lose my spot, but I can go where I actually want to go later when I have time to make an informed decision. As the recruiting calendar moves up, more kids are going to make decisions they are not read to make.”
Irvin had to break the news to Texas coach Charlie Strong that he would not be joining the Longhorns, and Irvin said the word “comfortable” came up in the discussion.
“He said do what’s best for me, go somewhere where you feel comfortable,” Irvin said. “He wasn’t mad at all.”
Contributing: James Crepea (Montgomery Advertiser), Joe Rexrode (Detroit Free Press), Riley Blevins (Jackson Clarion-Ledger), Jason Jordan.