By Travis Stewart/Texas Football -- The NCAA's new rule could change the landscape of college football.
Just a few weeks ago, the whims of fate and 120,000 miles on a set of rear Jeep axles saddled with me a hefty burden: a new car purchase. Like any smart consumer, I did my homework. I price-checked, haggled, price-checked again, annoyed the bejesus out of a beaten-down Honda salesman and eventually made a choice that (hopefully) I'll be happy with for the next decade or two. Am I nervous? Heck yeah. Tens of thousands of dollars don't just roll out of your wallet without a little friction. But at least I know I was insanely thorough. I've always got that, even if I'm broke.
And at least I know I'm in better shape than most collegiate football programs.
True story. After all, what do colleges really know about the kids they're offering college scholarships to as freshmen and sophomores? You know what I see when I look at a promising 15-year old, just up from 8th-grade football, with his pads still hanging a little loose here and there? A raw car chassis. A steel frame, plain and simple. Unless I've got a pretty discerning eye, I couldn't even tell you what that car will grow into. Sure, it looks good. Shiny. Strong, I guess. But is this thing an SUV or a Crossover? A sedan or a coupe? And forget guessing a paint job or comfort packages. It's all total conjecture. How could I possibly cut a check for that kind of vehicle?
Call me crazy ... but doesn't it make more sense to shop for finished cars?
For once, the NCAA might be on the verge of installing sanity instead of purging it. Multiple outlets are reporting that there could be a ban coming on early scholarship offers, essentially limiting recruiting pledges to a seventh-month period from the July between an athlete's junior and senior years and February's National Signing Day (for football, of course). NCAA legislation doesn't always have the bark to go with the bite, but this is one bit of bylaw that could substantially shake-up the way major FBS institutions go about modern-day recruiting.
Why not start at the top? Near the turn of the century, Longhorn coach Mack Brown realized that, down here in the South, schools were attacking potential superstars early, handing out offers at ludicrous ages (15 and 16 years old), but getting great reward out of the risk. Coming from North Carolina, where such practices were incredibly rare, Brown was slow to follow the trend. But once his Texas staff adopted the new creed, the payoff was immediate. The Longhorns started targeting kids as freshmen and sophomores, hoping that by the time they were juniors, they'd be so integrated into the burnt orange thinking that pledges would soon follow. They were right — in 2010, for the second (third? fourth?) year in a row, Texas had wrapped up the vast majority of its next pledge class within two weeks of the previous year's signing day. Within one week, Texas had 13 pledges. So, essentially, the Longhorns now had 11 months and two weeks to start planning for 2012, '13 and '14. Every other program in the state was not only left behind to shape their 2011 hauls, but to do so with the scraps Texas deemed unworthy.
This new legislation will at least install a five-month hiatus between Singing Day and Pledge Day. But forget what happens in that five months. What's truly important is that schools no longer have to hand out scholarships to freshmen and sophomores in the hopes that they turn out to be the stars "experts" say they will.
Or the fear that conference rivals will get them first.
Because this is really what this practice is all about — an arms race, a desperate scramble to secure next year's elite prospect. And, truthfully, it's hurting everybody. Colleges are hurting, guestimating talent and maturity in kids who can't even legally drive and pinning a program's hopes on Fruit Loops-eating, cartoon watching youngsters. Kids are hurting, inundated with overexposure, clever sales pitches and false promises that rob him of a chance to really understand what's important in one of the most important decisions in his life. High schools are hurting, forced into positions where they have to feature "college recruits" at too early an age at the behest of parents who have been unfairly saddled with managing a 15-year-old's career. It's too much. Too much for everyone.
Colleges, wether they want to accept it or not, deserve the chance to hold off on offering scholarships until kids have more or less established themselves as players, students ... and most, importantly, people. Kids deserve the chance to develop at a far more normal rate without being brow-beat into hasty decisions by "once in a life time" offers. Schools like Texas and Oklahoma swear that the current setup works. Of course they would — it's netting them incredibly potent recruiting classes that have solidified their programs atop the national rankings. But then, when a kid flames out, or fails out, or ends up in trouble off of the field, the programs more often than not suspend (or expel) and forget, as if they weren't a central piece of the problem not two years ago.
Some kids, despite their great athletic talent potential, don't deserve scholarships. And, most of the time, it's impossible to tell which kids fall in that category when everybody still needs lunch money for chicken fingers. Soon-to-be high school seniors are far from finished products, but they're a hell of a lot closer than freshman are. If this law passes — which is no sure thing — it won't fix everything overnight. In the end, it may fix very little. But at least it's a step in the right direction.
Some parents are going to argue against a law like this, and I sympathize. The first time a kid lights the world on fire in his sophomore and junior years, drawing recruiters like flies, then watches them scatter over a senior year flameout, someone is going to toss a lawsuit out there. You watch. But you know what? The NCAA is right. At some point, some college coach opened Pandora's Box with a way-too-early offer (don't even get me started on Lane Kiffin's middle-school offer), and everyone else has been forced to dance to that tune to keep pace. But if schools refuse to do due diligence, if they refuse to control themselves and make good, informed decisions on who they want representing their program, then someone has to do it. Might as well be the NCAA.
Kids are still gonna get phone calls and texts and emails and countless letters, begging them to visit here and visit there and keep So-and-So University in mind when July 1st rolls around. But short of rule-breaking, under-the-table promises, they'll be forced to wait to finally choose. And a lot can change in a few months ... meaning less broken pledges.
Funny. During my aforementioned car shopping adventure, I was convinced I had found the best option pretty early on. Good price, good ratings, good mileage. In my mind, i was sold. But at the urging of another, I checked out one more car. It didn't take me long to realize I'd made a mistake. One look at my previous choice and I knew I wasn't buying it, and I never did.
Good thing I didn't give an early pledge.
And good thing we might be requiring our schools and athletes to do the same thing. To slow down. To think.
To look at finished products ... and not fledgling ones.