In mid-October, Eric Gordon, a standout high school basketball player from Indianapolis North Central High School, reneged on his earlier commitment to the University of Illinois to commit to Indiana University.
Gordon had committed to the Illini last spring. Coach Bruce Weber and his staff felt they had attracted the best scoring guard in the class of 2007. However, Kelvin Sampson, the new coach at Indiana University, and his staff continued to recruit Gordon.
What truly went on behind the scenes no one but the parties involved really knows. But the trend toward early commitments, with kids deciding on colleges while in their sophomore and junior years of high school, has opened up a Pandora's Box regarding the ethics of how coaching staffs handle the recruiting process once a kid verbally commits.
Recruiting is the lifeline of college athletics. The best head coaches in the game not only know their Xs and Os but also how to recruit. Assistant coaches build reputations in recruiting that help them to become head coaches. Getting a top recruit to sign a letter of intent can make the difference in a team and coach going to the NCAA tournament and getting a big raise or having a losing season and getting fired. The pressure of recruiting is as intense as a high-stakes poker game. It creates an environment where many coaches will stop at nothing to get a kid to choose their program.
I don't know what college recruiting was like 40-50 years ago, but I do know that in the last 30 years, it has become a truly ugly, dishonest business. Any college worth its salt could run a smear campaign worthy of any high-paid political spin team against schools with which it's competing for recruits. I said could, not would. But when the stakes are so high, many people forget what's right and wrong -- or they just don't care.
My take on verbal commitments is that they are just that -- verbal and non-binding. Until a recruit has signed a national letter of intent, most programs feel that recruiting him is fair game. While many programs back off as soon as a player verbally commits to another school, there are just as many that keep coming after the kid until the moment he signs.
Many coaches and media members get indignant when a young man changes his mind about what school he wants to attend, but unfortunately, coaches aren't always held to the same standard. Many coaches are not straight with kids, changing their minds about making an offer to one kid if they think they can get someone better. Coaches often tell a kid they will not recruit anyone else at the same position but then do when they find someone they think is better. Do you think they tell their first recruit about this? Coaches also sign players in the early signing period, then take another job in the spring. The players are left holding the bag, because they cannot get out of their letter of intent. Do you think the coaches told their recruits they might leave at the end of the season? So why should we expect an 18-year old recruit to always tell the coaches everything?
The fault in all of this is not with the recruit. It is with the coaches, administrators and alumni who have created an environment of unreasonable expectations and priorities. College coaches' salaries have risen exponentially over the past 20 years due to television exposure, sneaker companies and camps. Because of these factors, the window a coach has to create a winning program has become smaller and smaller. Today, a coach has only 2-3 years to turn a losing program around. This short time frame creates a "win at all costs" attitude that permeates the college basketball scene.
Could the Eric Gordon situation have been handled differently? I think so. Sometimes head coaches need to pick up the phone and call each other. If Sampson had called Weber after he got to Indiana and said that Gordon's father had asked Sampson to recruit his son, that might have smoothed some waters. At that point, Weber and his staff would have been put on alert that they had more work to do to secure their player. And Sampson and Weber could continue to have the utmost respect for each other's honesty and character.
When you get to be a coach at a top-20 program, it should be about more than just who has the best recruiting class in the country. How can coaches teach their players about ethics, character and leadership if they do not display it themselves in their daily lives?
Weber has been around a long time, and he has seen it all when it comes to recruiting. He has won and lost his fair share of recruiting battles as an assistant coach at Purdue and as a head coach both at Southern Illinois and at Illinois. Gordon is a hard player to lose, because he might be the best high school player in the country, but life will go on for Weber and his staff. Yet on Jan. 23, 2007, when Sampson walks into Assembly Hall in Champaign, Ill., to take on the Illini, the question is, will Weber and Sampson's lives go on with a pre-game handshake?
My guess is there will be no handshake, period.
John Carroll spent nine years as an NBA coach, including seven with the Boston Celtics. Before joining the NBA, Carroll spent six years as head coach at Duquesne and seven years as an assistant at Seton Hall.