For Potomac High School's Quadree Smith, it was a coach's contract extension. For Damascus' Zach Bradshaw, it was NCAA sanctions. For Suitland's Taivon Jacobs, it was a daughter. For Montrose Christian's Justin Anderson, it was a coaching change.
For other college recruits, from Division III to Division I, it could be one of an endless list of reasons for reneging on a verbal commitments to sign with another college.
For now, Smith remains loyal to the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, but he has since reopened his recruitment as he waits a possible contract extension for coach Wes Miller. Bradshaw first said he would play football for Penn State, but switched to Virginia after the school was hit with severe sanctions that would keep them out of bowl games for most of his time there.
Previously, Jacobs reneged on his verbal to play football at Ohio State and is now playing for Maryland. After Gary Williams retired in 2011, Anderson signed with rival Virginia rather than the Terps, where a new coach — Mark Turgeon — who hadn't recruited him would be taking over.
Some coaches, take former Montrose Christian coach Stu Vetter, Our Lady of Good Counsel offensive coordinator Tom Crowell and Suitland football coach Ed Shields, see this as a growing trend as the recruiting process begins at earlier and earlier ages. Others, such as Riverdale Baptist basketball coach Lou Wilson, say it has been happening for as long as he's been involved in the business, but is only now beginning to become so exposed as the media continues to dedicate staggering amounts of attention to the college recruitment process.
“I'd say this has been something that's been going on for awhile,” Wilson said. “And I tell you, there are so many reasons to verbal with one school and then at the last minute sign with another school.”
Of all the various explanations local coaches offered in explaining why an athlete would rescind a verbal commitment — personnel changes (Quadree Smith's and Justin Anderson's reasoning), proximity to home, having a child (Taivon Jacobs'), a sick family member, what have you — each eventually circled back to one distinct reason: pressure.
Athletes are under it from their very first conversation with their very first college coach. It is then upped a notch when a verbal offer — sometimes as early as middle school — is extended their way. And then things can begin to spiral out of control when dozens more throw their name into the mix, each with their own attractions and incentives — playing time, championships, professional development — to consider.
“One of our receivers just got offered by Michigan State,” said Crowell, who also coaches the boys' basketball team at Springbrook. “So let's just sign the papers right now. But it doesn't work like that anymore. He's got to wait until next February to sign and now he thinks he's got to live up to these expectations. If they offer you right now, the kid should be able to sign right now if he wants to. It's out of control.”
“Personally,” Vetter added, “I would eliminate the verbals and have a signing period in April. If a player didn't have to make a decision until April there wouldn't be much pressure.”
Shields, though he feels for the athletes under the ever-watchful eye of the college coaches, says it's also a wise move on their part to begin talking to kids before they can even drive a car or take their SATs.
“You want to be the first to offer, which makes sense,” he said. “You want to be the one who discovered them. That's the smart thing for the coaches because you want them to commit.”
But when coaches offer too early, it could just as easily backfire. Athletes oftentimes get overexcited or want to shed the pressure of recruiting so they hastily pledge before realizing that bigger universities or better fits could also come calling. Such was the case for Nigel Johnson, a former Riverdale Baptist guard. Now at Kansas State, Johnson had been verbally committed to play for George Washington for nearly a year. About a month prior to signing day, he took stock of his talent and figured he could go someplace higher, so he reopened his recruitment with GW as a firm backup plan. Within a week he had switched to Kansas State.
“He thought his opportunity to play at the next level would be greater playing at Kansas State, playing in the Big XII,” Wilson said. “And the point guard situation was up in the air so he thought he'd be able to play right away.”
So, is there a solution? Recruiting — and therefore commitments of all kind — is an inevitable part of college sports. Shields believes Crowell is onto something when he suggested if a college extends an offer — verbal or physical — that the athlete should be able to sign that day rather than wait until designated signing periods. Vetter believes verbal offers and commitments should be removed entirely. Either way, reneging would become all but a moot practice.
“Once you're signed, you're locked,” Shields said. “I think you should be able to move [signing] up. It would settle things down very quickly.”