All part of the game?
Tide both won and lost in the commitment flipping arena in 2013
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- No one is immune to the discombobulated nature of recruiting. Not the University of Alabama, despite back-to-back No. 1-ranked classes. Not Nick Saban, who has coached college football for the better part of three decades.
Rules? There are few. Honor? There's very little.
At least, not according to football lifers like Saban. There was a time when a person's word meant something. It was the same time when John Wayne ruled the silver screen and a deal wasn't done until you shook on it.
Now, a person's word is less than a promise, a handshake less than a polite formality. Meanwhile, football coaches like Saban are left to wonder what to do about it. When a recruit shakes his hand and says he's coming to school at Alabama, he's inclined to believe him.
"We believe in commitments," Saban said on signing day. "Maybe we have some old-fashioned values."
Old-fashioned because those verbal commitments don't always hold. Old-fashioned because that wasn't always the case in college football.
Alabama saw Andy Dodd, Artie Burns and DeMarcus Walker go back on their pledge and sign elsewhere in 2013. Reuben Foster committed to Alabama before his junior season then flipped to rival Auburn only to flip back to Alabama on signing day.
"Most of the guys that commit really, really early, you almost expect that there may be some bumpy road ahead," Saban said, "Because eventually the guy will probably want to go look someplace else or whatever, may decommit, which I don't think is good for anybody."
Saban, like many coaches distressed by the increasing number of decommitments, said he'd like to see a change in the way commitments are handled.
"Maybe we should look at some kinds of rules in college football so that this does not become a one-sided sort of deal," he said. "Right now, we make commitments to guys. If we ever change those, that's like taboo -- can't do it. But [the media is] happy when guys decommit and change commitments because it creates news. And you're happy to write about it and give somebody attention for doing it."
In a way, he's right. When a player changes his mind, the media is quick to jump on it and explain it away. For coaches, the situation isn't such an easy explanation. Staffs often withhold committable offers in hopes of signing a more desirable recruit. The practice of grayshirting a prospect, of having him sit out a year before enrolling, has become commonplace. Alabama told 2012 running back Justin Taylor he couldn't sign until 2013 after being committed for nearly a year. Rather than wait, he choose to go to Kentucky.
Just a few weeks ago, Alabama wrapped up the No. 1-ranked recruiting class in the country, according to ESPN. However, the 25-man class did not include offensive lineman Bradley Bozeman, who was the first of the class to commit to Alabama in 2011. The three-star prospect agreed to delay signing while he recovers from a torn ACL he suffered during his senior season.
And, of course, all the commitment flipping works both ways. The Crimson Tide didn't turn down the letters of intent on national signing day from Derrick Henry, Dee Liner and A'Shawn Robinson just because they had been committed to another school at one time.
Maybe it's because a grown man's word ought to mean more than a teenager's that makes coaches out to be villains in these situations. And maybe that's wrong. If a commitment can't be binding, then why expect it to be treated as such?
"None of that really is good, in my opinion, for the game," Saban said. "It's not really good for the development of young people in terms of the kind of responsibility that you'd like to be able to sort-of have as part of your principles and values to their development, but it happens. It's a part of the game so we all have to deal with it."
Unlike Texas head coach Mack Brown and others, Saban isn't going so far as to ban committed players from taking visits elsewhere. He might not be thrilled that his recruits are looking around, but he's not about to put limitations on teenagers with a mind of their own.
Most of the guys that commit really, really early, you almost expect that there may be some bumpy road ahead.” -- Alabama coach Nick Saban
Class of 2014 Running back Bo Scarbrough (Tuscaloosa, Ala./Northridge) went to Knoxville, Tenn., this past weekend to see new Volunteers coach Butch Jones. He said the UA coaching staff knew and didn't object.
"Coach Saban told me that I could have fun with it," Scarbrough told TideNation. "That's why I'm taking my visits.
"I'm having fun with it before I go up to Alabama because Coach Saban said playing for Alabama is a business. I want to have fun now, so when I get ready to go to college, I can take care of business."
Luckily for Alabama, Scarbrough lives within earshot of the UA campus. If he were to decommit, it wouldn't happen easily. Not when coaches can check up on him on a regular basis.
But that's not to say the next year won't be without a few sleepless nights. Though Scarbrough has given his word, Alabama has to rely on something more than that. Until he and the rest of the 2014 class sign their paperwork on signing day, nothing is certain.
"I think we're all relieved when it finally gets done," Saban said before wrapping up his signing day press conference on Feb. 6.
The 61-year-old head coach was a little tired in the eyes as he stood at the podium. He didn't sleep well the night before. It was the anxiety, he said. Even he gets tired of the game.
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