The Loop

Has 'early' become too early?

__COLUMBUS, OHIO--__I've heard many college coaches lamenting about how for the past two years top high school golfers are making verbal commitments to colleges at younger and younger ages. (Cody Gribble, a talented 16-year-old from Dallas, already has said he's going to Texas and he isn't even a junior in high school yet.) I have to admit, however, I didn't really appreciate just what was happening until I arrived last week at Ohio State's Scarlet Course for the 30th AJGA Rolex Tournament of Champions.

There the tournament staff provided me a list of participants that included what year in school they were and, if applicable, where they say they're going to college. I couldn't believe the number of teenagers, boys and girls alike, who haven't yet started their senior year in high school but already essentially have ended the recruiting process by pledging allegiance to a school.

Indeed, of the 36 boys from the class of 2008 in the field at the T of C, 16 already had made verbal commitments to schools, including top-ranked Peter Uihlein (Oklahoma State), third-ranked Morgan Hoffmann (Oklahoma State), fourth-ranked Wesley Graham (Florida State), sixth-ranked Sang Yi (LSU) and eight-ranked David Chung (Stanford). Of the 26 girls, 10 had made early verbals, not counting the top-ranked girls' player, recent U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links champion Mina Harigae, who skipped the tournament after making the cut at the U.S. Women's Open but already announced her intention of playing at Duke.

Most recruits say that they're making the early decision--usually in the spring of their junior year--because they want to make the recruiting process less chaotic and be able to stay focused on developing their games. That's no doubt true, but there also seem to be other factors at play. No recruit would say it publicly, but some admitted privately that they committed during unofficial visits to schools because they believed (whether flat out told by a coach or implied by the coach's actions) the scholarship being offered would be pulled off the table if they left campus without agreeing to go to the school.

There are a variety of potential problems that stem from kids committing to schools before July 1 of the summer prior to their high school senior year, the day college coaches officially can begin calling teenagers after being able to write them throughout their junior years. For the recruits themselves, the issue is whether they have really done enough homework to find the school that's right for them? Or have they just heard about a school from friends and decided, yeah I want to go there too.

Fewer and fewer players are going on "official" school-paid visits, a two-day trip to campus that used to be considered the make-or-break tool for a teenager to decide where he or she was heading. Without this visit, getting to see school in session and meeting your future teammates in a day-to-day setting, how much do teens really know about a college or university?

For the coaches, as I wrote in Golf World this week, sure there's security in knowing you have players lined up a months in advance but do you know if the player you've recruited will be the same one that arrives on campus? "In this sport, just because a kid is good in ninth grade doesn't mean he's going to be good as a freshman in college," Coastal Carolina men's coach Allen Terrell told me last week. "You're running the risk that a girl friend comes along or that driver's license comes along or he grows a foot and his swing totally changes."

Bruce Heppler, Georgia Tech men's coach, said that he only made two phone calls on July 1 in large part because the other players he had been looking at in the Class of 2008 had made verbals to other schools.

"The kids themselves have already recruited the other kids," Heppler said. "You know in the old days a kid from Seattle might come to the Rolex and play with a kid from Florida and they might become friends. They might call each other two weeks before a tournament and say 'Hey, you want to play a practice round?' and that was that. Now with text messaging, they're talking to each other every single day. And what you have is you have these kids who have started to run in groups, and they're recruiting each other. And if you don't have one of these guys, by the time you write a letter in September [of their junior year] you're done."

Other coaches echoed similar concerns. Sure, it's better to know if you're out of the running for a player in July than in November, because you've got time to pursue other players. But at what price?

Heppler had an interesting idea of how to address the new phenomenon: Change the NCAA recruiting rules to allow coaches to talk to parents of prospective student-athletes at tournaments regardless of the age of their son or daughter (currently you can't talk to parents of recruits before they're senior year).

"I'm all for not talking to the kids ever at a tournament," Heppler explained. "They're here to do their business. But I've spend $2,000. And those parents have spent $2,000 or more to come [to a tournament]. Well, why can't you then talk to them when they're [child is] in the eighth grade, ninth grade? Because [parents] can always say 'Hey look, we appreciate it but we're not interested.' In essence you've come for the same reason. They've come to expose their child to college golf. And you've come to expose them to you program. I can sell my [program].

"How uncomfortable is it that you're recruiting this kid and nobody else is and you're out there with this mom, it's you two for four hours and you're not going to talk to them? It's stupid. Because they want to. You're not bothering anybody. I've thought about this for a long time because you're spending a lot of time and money to just walk around and be quiet. If commitments have moved a year and a half, why not move the contact up?"

Of course, such a change won't ever get passed by the NCAA. Still, it provides food for thought.