COLLEGE RECRUITING: Verbal Commitments versus Letter of Intent

I gets lots of queries all the time when it comes to the arcane world of college recruiting, and one question comes up all the time:

How can a college coach offer an athletic scholarship to a kid in 8th or 9th grade — is that offer really legit,or just some sort of publicity stunt? And in addition to that first question, others follow right away:

1 – Can the athlete count on that scholarship money being there when they graduate HS?

2- What happens if that college coach who made the offer has since moved on, or has been fired? Is the university and the subsequent new coach on the hook for the scholarship for the kid?

3 – And what about the athlete? Suppose they change their mind about going to that college which offered the scholarship….are they legally bound to go there because of what they decided when they were in 8th or 9th grade?

I thought it was relevant to explore this subject on the air, once and for all. But in truth, some of this discussion came up the other when a top HS football player in NJ was suddenly blindsided by the new football coach at UConn who told the kid that yes, the previous UConn head coach coach had promised you a scholarship as a verbal commitment, but that coach is gone now, and I’m the new coach, and sorry….but I don’t have that scholarship for you.

Or as the coach, Randy Edsall, put it, “We’ve decided to go in a different direction”….meaning that he wanted to offer that football scholarship to another player. Meanwhile, the kid who was counting on going to UConn was hugely disappointed.

Fortunately, the young football player (and his parents) learned a harsh lesson. The verbal commitment he made to UConn really didn’t amount to any kind of obligation from the university. All it really told other potential college football coaches was that the youngster was really set on going to UConn, and as such, they shouldn’t even bother to pursue him.

But when Coach Edsall delivered the bad news – that he had given his scholarship to another HS player – the NJ kid was the odd man out. And since this happened just a few weeks ago, it appeared that the football player was out of luck. Fortunately, as word got out about the kid’s predicament, some other college football programs contacted him, and now he’s looking at offers from other schools. But no, after being psyched to play for UConn, that dream went away, thanks to a short phone call from the UConn coach.

Even worse, this kind of thing happens more than you might think.

LEARNING THE ROPES FROM AN EXPERT

In any event, when it comes to athletic scholarship do’s and don’t’s, I always invite long-time Sports Edge contributor Wayne Mazzoni onto the show.

Wayne has been dispensing advice to scholar-athletes and their parents for many years, and he also serves as the pitching coach at Sacred Heart University.  (For more information about Wayne and his speaking engagements, go to his website: GetRecuited.net).

Wayne made it very clear that these so-called verbal commitments from college coaches to young HS athletes really have no legal binding whatsoever on the college or on the kid. Rather, it’s nothing more than a way for a college coach to basically “stake their turf” to announce to other college programs that “we really like this kid, and we want him or her to go to our school when they graduate.”  But beyond that, the college is not obligated to give the kid a scholarship, nor is the kid obligated to attend that college when he or she graduates.

So, in effect, it’s a nice boost to the kid’s ego, but beyond that, it’s not more than that.

Things change, though, when the kid is entering their senior year, and the deadline comes to sign a national letter of intent. This process is carefully monitored by the NCAA, and they make it clear to the university tendering the athletic scholarship that they are now officially locked in to giving the kid what has been promised. At that point, in most cases, the young athlete is thrilled to sign the letter, which formally acknowledges this is a done deal (however, I should point out that there are various loopholes when the letter of intent, for example, if the college coaches leaves for another program; this kind of thing happens all the time.)

But by and large, it’s that written letter of intent that binds the university to offer the scholarship to the kid. From what I can tell, it’s more binding on the school than the youngster, who retains the right to change his or her mind before actually matriculating at the school.

And just as a reminder: there are three divisions in the NCAA: D-I colleges, which can offer the maximum number of athletic scholarship by sport. Note that a D-I school doesn’t have to offer any scholarships, but they can if they choose to. D-II colleges are allowed to offer athletic scholarships as well, but at a much reduced level from D-I schools. And D-III colleges are not allowed to offer athletic scholarships at all.

It’s a generalization, but usually only football and basketball give out full rides, and that’s because thanks to attendance and TV contracts, they provide enough revenue for the college to do that. With other sports, like baseball, soccer, field hockey and so on, those athletic scholarships are usually sliced and diced considerably. For example, a baseball player usually receives only 1/4 full ride as compared to a buddy who is on a baseball team.

The point is, if your son or daughter is lucky enough to be recruited, you need to educate yourself on the rules and regulations. The NCAA handbook is a very thick and complex book, so before tackling that, you might want to check out GetRecuited.net.

 

  • chris

    My daughter just finished her senior year of a fall sport. She was watched by many schools at every division level. She attended her “dream schools” camp, was followed for 2 years by the coach, told her they wanted her but couldn’t give her any scholarship money her freshman year. We couldn’t afford the tuition even if they gave her academic money. As luck would have it she brushed it off and a D3 school came in at the last minute and it was a career move. She had the time of her life, won many academic and sports national accolades, and set many school records. Most of all, he got a great education and played the sport she loved. And oh yeah, that D1 coach at the dream school was fired a year later.
    I have said this to MANY parents: Unless you’re a national talent in basketball or football that big time D1 scholarship is a myth to 95% of students.

    • Rick Wolff

      Great, great story and lesson here Chris! The truth is, from the athlete’s perspective, it’s always a lot more fun to play, regardless of whether it’s D-III. And if your daughter had gone to that D-I program as a non-scholarship player, she would have really been in a financial mess when the coach was fired a year later. Thank you for sharing this story with a happy ending – Coach Wolff