Most high school prospects aren’t granted the courtesy of a phone call.
A face-to-face meeting is practically unheard of, but Colony High School senior Robert Wagner found himself sitting across from Rich Rodriguez as the new University of Arizona football coach explained why the scholarship offer issued the linebacker by the previous coaching staff was being taken away.
Arizona offered the three-star middle linebacker his first scholarship in March before coach Mike Stoops was fired midway through his eighth season. The Wildcats were a mainstay at the top of the Wagner’s list until two weeks ago, when they were forcibly removed.
“Arizona was my No. 1 choice and the only reason I hadn’t committed was to work things out with my family,” Wagner said. “When they told me they wanted to go after some other dudes it brought me down. I mean, it was big of them to come and tell me but it wasn’t easy to hear.”
Wagner, who lost both of his Pacific-12 offers, received the more common treatment from Arizona State. The new coaching staff never returned his calls.
Despite the high stakes for both college programs and incoming recruits, there are no certainties until a letter of intent is signed. Without the ability to secure binding agreements before pen is put to paper, navigating the recruiting cycle is hardly a strait and narrow path.
Players and coaches are forced to rely on unwritten rules like the fact that it’s generally understood a verbal commitment to a previous coaching staff will be honored by the new one. Prospects like Wagner yet to declare their intentions are left out in the cold, unsure of a once seemingly secure future.
“If Rob would have jumped on the Arizona offer the new staff said they would have honored it,” Colony coach Matt Bechtel said. “When they tell you this is business, it really is. It’s cutthroat. And in the end, the only ones who end up getting hurt are the kids.”
Dylan La Frenz did everything by the unwritten rule book and still got burned by the firing of Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson.
The Los Osos High School three-star offensive lineman, who received interest from most of the Pac-12, committed to the Sun Devils Oct. 27. Exactly one month later Erickson was fired. Incoming coach Todd Graham, who infamously informed his former players at Pittsburgh of his departure to Arizona State via text message, didn’t begin his tenure by opening the lines of communication with La Frenz.
After a tenuous period in the dark ended when La Frenz finally made contact with the new Arizona State coaching staff, he wasn’t given any answers, rather, simply told to wait. A couple nerveracking weeks later La Frenz was informed by the offensive line coach he would’t be a member of the Sun Devils 2012 recruiting class.
“I don’t know how they’re supposed to fix this, but something needs to be done,” La Frenz said. “I was talking to a bunch of schools and after I committed, they all went and filled up their scholarships with other players. It’s tough to be king of the hill and know you can go anywhere then have everything fall out from underneath you.”
Given the massive turnover in the big business of college football, coaching changes close doors every year for recruits. But not all the stories have unhappy endings.
Upland High School’s Christian Powell, rated the nation’s No. 3 fullback by espn.com, was considering Texas A&M before Mike Sherman was fired in December and new coach Kevin Sumlin’s offense eliminated the need for Powell’s position. Texas A&M was willing to honor the scholarship offer but the Upland senior is well aware his 5-foot-11, 250-pound frame isn’t what the new regime is envisioning for its spread offense.
Powell was on the verge of committing to Colorado when UCLA hired Jim Mora, who promptly discarded Rick Neuheisel’s pistol offense for a pro set including a fullback. Powell wasn’t hard to find, particularly with the addition to the UCLA staff of assistant coach Demetrice Martin, who months earlier offered Powell a scholarship while at Washington.
“So Mora probably asks Demetrice Martin, ‘You recruited the Inland Empire. Who’s the best fullback in the Inland Empire?'” Upland coach Tim Salter said. “Christian wanted to be recruited by UCLA all along but he knew he didn’t have a chance because of their offense. Now all of a sudden he has high interest from them.”
Powell was offered by the Bruins on Jan. 4. He verbally committed nine days later.
Martin, who coaches defensive backs by trade, had double the influence on Colony three-star cornerback Bryan Harper, from whom he induced a verbal commitment to Washington during the summer. Martin was not only his position coach but the the recruiting coordinator responsible for the Inland Empire from which Harper hails. When Martin departed Washington for UCLA, Harper immediately de-committed from the Huskies.
“I had been building a relationship with coach Martin, as a player and a person, since he offered me,” Harper said. “He had a plan for me so without him (at Washington) I wasn’t comfortable going there.”
In an ironic twist, Washington wasn’t without a familiar face for long. Keith Heyward, the defensive backs coach who recruited Harper to Oregon State, was hired by Washington three weeks ago.
In the end, Washington didn’t make the cut. Harper will choose between Arizona, Oregon and UCLA on national signing day. UCLA, however, wouldn’t be on the list if not for a certain assistant coach on the staff.
Wagner, who is weighing offers from New Mexico State and Idaho, likely won’t sign on Feb. 1 in hopes that some new offers will come his way in the signing day shuffle. La Frenz has since been offered by UC Davis and Northern Arizona. He plans to sign with the latter.