NCAA eyes ban to certain early offers

If Alabama basketball coach Anthony Grant needs any perspective while recruiting, he need only look to his own family.

"I'm a parent of a 14-year-old, and I know right now my son is in no position to make a decision mentally or physically in terms of what he wants to do when he turns 18 or 19," Grant said. "For me, I'd be a coach that would rather wait a little longer and see a kid mature a little bit better and see where he's at academically and where he ends up physically before any of those life-changing decisions are made."

The NCAA is looking at the same issue. Last month, the Division I Recruiting and Athletics Personnel Issues Cabinet backed a proposal to ban scholarship offers to recruits before July 1 in the summer between their junior and senior years in high school.

The rule would apply to all sports if passed, and some coaches are hopeful it could slow an arms-race mentality that has led to earlier and earlier commitments by unproven prospects.

Just this year, the father of a seventh grade quarterback from Delaware said his son had already committed to Southern California. Such statements are nonbinding, along with anything else a recruit does before signing a letter of intent, but many coaches clearly feel pressure to secure even a verbal commitment from a potential program-changing prospect.

Barry Gebhart, the athletic director at Fayetteville High School in Arkansas, said one of his athletes was recently offered a scholarship as a ninth grader.

"On one hand, it's good for that young man, but what does it really mean? Are we to think that if he breaks his ankle in his senior year or he has a career-threatening knee injury, that they're going to honor that commitment? I don't think so," Gebhart said. "To me, it's a gimmick. That might be too harsh, but it's something that college coaches do so they can go back to that young man and say, 'Hey look, we were the first to offer you.' "

When a young recruit is offered a scholarship, there's plenty of wiggle room, but although there are no official consequences for backing out, a coach and a recruit can end up in a tough spot.

"It actually happened to us where a kid committed to us early," Villanova basketball coach Jay Wright said. "By the time he was a senior, we both knew he hadn't developed to the point where we thought he would. We both agreed on that, and he was able to go elsewhere."

Two years ago, the National Association of Basketball Coaches said it opposed accepting commitments from students who had not yet completed their sophomore seasons in high school. Jim Haney, the group's executive director, said membership hasn't had much time to discuss the NCAA's new proposal, but he understands the reasoning behind it.

"It can be cool to be able to say as a sophomore, 'Hey, I committed to so-and-so,' " Haney said. "But a couple years, a year passes, and his whole attitude toward where he's going to go can change."

The proposal would also require coaches to receive a high school transcript documenting at least five semesters or seven quarters of academic work for a recruit before offering a scholarship.

Not everyone is enamored with the proposal. West Virginia basketball coach Bob Huggins isn't buying the idea that early scholarship offers are a widespread problem.

"What are you supposed to do if a kid says he wants to come? You have a state like ours where we pretty much are the predominant university, and a kid comes up following Mountaineer sports and says he wants to come. I don't know what we're supposed to say." Huggins said. "There's 360-some schools. How many of those 360-some made offers to eighth graders? A couple? ... Nobody should be recruiting eighth graders. That shouldn't happen.

"It concerns me that we continue to make legislation for a couple people."

For his part, Grant said prospects and their families should still have some say over when to start the recruiting process.

"If a kid is in a position early in his career, to gather information, to visit campuses and get a feel for where they fit and what's a good situation for them ... I think some of that needs to be left up to the individual families," he said.

There's also the question of how the new rule would be enforced. Any scholarship offer is unofficial until a letter of intent is signed, so it would be difficult to monitor what coaches are saying to prospects in private.

Petrina Long, the recruiting cabinet's chair, said the plan can still be modified and feedback is welcome. At the very least, she figures the rule might postpone the hype surrounding a recruit's choice until he's a bit older, meaning there could be less pressure on the athlete to commit early -- and on coaches to offer him that chance.

"I think that's unfortunately been what the coaches have been complaining to us about," she said. "They don't want to do it, but other people do it, so they have to."