Proceed with caution

Coaches wary of potential NCAA rule changes

Updated: January 13, 2013, 1:42 PM ET
By Mitch Sherman | ESPN RecruitingNation

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- In the wake of the American Football Coaches Association convention this week and the NCAA's explanation to college coaches on several proposed legislative changes that threaten to impact recruiting significantly, I've repeatedly heard one question.

Why?

Why would the Division I Board of Directors consider a vote to deregulate all private electronic communication, including text messaging, from coaches to prospects, as it will do next week at the NCAA convention with Proposal 13-3?

Why would the NCAA, with Proposal 13-2, consider giving coaches more off-campus access to prospects, adding six potential home visits from every school during a prospect's junior year to the six already allowed in his senior year?

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald thinks lifting the text-message ban would cause problems for both recruits and college assistants.

Coaches say they're already stretched too thin. If these proposals pass, quality of life for assistants, in particular, will take a huge hit. How are they supposed to coach their teams while keeping up with hundreds of text messages and twice as many home visits?

Currently, each school is allowed one call per week to every prospect during non-dead periods. The new legislation would set no limits and no dead periods after July 1 before a prospect's junior year. So instead of watching film on an upcoming rival opponent, the linebackers coach at your school may soon need to make that third call of the day to a recruit -- just in case a coach from the same rival school is thinking about a fourth.

Why do it this way?

Well, NCAA president Mark Emmert wants to reduce the rule book. He wants the governing body to focus on issues that are meaningful, impactful and enforceable. Technically, if a recruit chooses to receive email as a text message on his phone and a coach sends that recruit an email, the coach just unknowingly broke a rule.

The NCAA wants to wash its hands of enforcing such trivial regulations. It wants to put the responsibility on schools to set policy.

Good luck with that. You think recruiting is cutthroat now? Just wait.

I visited with dozens of coaches -- high school and college -- in Nashville, and not one fully supported Proposals 13-2 and 13-3. Not publicly, at least. Some coaches of the young and unattached demographic, no doubt, would thrive in such an environment.

But at what cost to their colleagues' sanity, not to mention the privacy of the recruits?

"I'm a fan of where we're at right now," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "I do not believe the system is broken. I think we need to consider the quality of life for the kids and their families and the quality of of life for my assistant coaches."

Fitzgerald recalls life as a coach before a text message ban was instituted in 2007. Coaches carried second cell phones just to text recruits. Schools employed staffers solely to text kids, posing as the coaches.

"I don't think it's healthy," Fitzgerald said. "Before we do all that, I hope they reconsider or at least put some parameters on there to protect the student-athletes."If the proposals pass next week in Dallas, the NCAA working group has proposed a two-year period to digest the rules. If it's determined after two years that the deregulation had unintended consequences, changes will be considered.


So what do coaches want from the NCAA in the area of recruiting?

Almost to a man when asked this question in the lobbies and hallways of the Gaylord Opryland Resort, coaches said they're hoping for reform in two areas -- evaluation opportunities and official visits.

Instead of sending coaches into the homes of junior prospects and draining cell phone batteries nationwide, how about allowing coaches to attend summer camps and combines to get a look at kids in person at a minimal cost?

"They did it in basketball, and their recruiting lasts three weeks," a BCS conference recruiting coordinator told me. "Ours last all year."

Basketball opened the summer circuit to coaches in an effort to minimize the impact of non-scholastic third parties -- the AAU organizers and coaches who are sometimes corrupt.

Third parties are emerging as a big issue in football, too. The NCAA said so in its recruiting seminar in Nashville. By allowing college coaches to attend a few big events in the offseason, it would minimize the problem.

As for official visits, several coaches mentioned that they'd like the NCAA to let schools pay for trips to campus in the summer before a prospect's senior year. Currently, no official visits can occur before Sept. 1.

Today in recruiting, many prospects foot the bill to take unofficial visits in the summer as the expectations increase to commit early.

The lack of official visits in the summer leads to shaky commitments. Recruits pick schools without seeing them closely. Many decommit late in the process.

"To me, that's vital," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "That's important. If they're able to have an official visit or two or three in the summer before their senior years, that would be phenomenal. It takes the expense away from them.

"Come to our campus. We'll show you around, introduce you to professors, to our team. We'll have a chance to sit down and talk."

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PresswireStanford coach David Shaw believes recruits should be able to make official visits the summer heading into their senior year.

And it's not just schools like Stanford, which recruits nationally from a small pool of prospects, that favor an earlier date for official visits. One of the most ardent supporters to whom I spoke was a coach whose program sits in a major metropolitan area that produces many recruits who can easily get to campus any time of year with little cost.

Not long ago, the thought of an early signing period had coaches abuzz. The topic seems to have lost some steam, though I still heard support for it from coaches when they were asked. If nothing else, an August signing date, for instance, would simplify matters if 13-2 and 13-3 pass.

"Even if a kid commits in the summer," a major-college assistant said, "there's a prohibitive cost and time of continuing to recruit that kid after he commits."

In other words, if he signed early -- and many would -- the coaches could stop calling and texting the recruit every day.


The NCAA addressed two major issues with the coaches in addition to the proposed legislation:

First, the approaching changes to academic standards for initial eligibility set to go into effect for the high school graduating class of 2016. The new standards increase the minimum GPA from 2.0 to 2.3 and require a more stringent progression of core course completion through high school.

The changes also introduce a new term: academic redshirt, which would apply to recruits who met the old standards but not the new ones. Academic redshirts would be ineligible for competition as freshmen.

The NCAA stressed to coaches that now is the time to educate prospects on the standards. Too many prospects affected -- the freshmen class in high school -- are not doing enough to prepare.

Second, the enforcement staff reviewed Bylaw 11.2.1, which goes into effect in August and straps head coaches with responsibility for the recruiting violations committed by their staffs. Head coaches can no longer plead ignorance. They will be required to promote an environment of compliance, which marks the ushering of a new era in some programs.

The NCAA reviewed with coaches the changing definitions of violations. Notably, intentional, minor violations previously labeled as "secondary" that came with little consequence can now lead to penalties for the assistant who commits the violation and his head coach. And starting in August, these "Level 3" violations will be made public.

Interestingly, the AFCA membership wanted the penalties heightened for these violations. Too many rules in recruiting were broken, coaches apparently felt, with no more than a slap on the wrist.


Two thoughts to close from Nashville:

• Penn State coach Bill O'Brien addressed the convention on Monday, hours after he held a press conference back home to discuss his motivation for staying at PSU despite calls from NFL franchises.

O'Brien captivated the audience of coaches, who stood in the aisles to hear him speak. Over 50 minutes, he laid out his philosophy -- not X's and O's, but a plan for connecting with kids and developing a culture of accountability at Penn State. Impressive stuff, especially from a first-year head coach.

After listening, I understand more clearly the commitment to O'Brien and Penn State of top recruits Christian Hackenberg and Adam Breneman even after learning last summer of the massive sanctions they will encounter in the program.

• I talked to a Division II assistant who recently acquired his first full-time coaching position. As an elite prospect out of high school, he committed to a perennial major college power, began his career at a second and transferred to a third.

"Man, I was a jerk back then," he said.

A bit harsh, but words worth revisiting as we follow the ever-changing whims of recruits over the next three-and-a-half weeks before signing day. Try to remember -- they're only kids.

ALSO SEE