College football’s letter of intent day is typically so full of compost that only farmers with large trucks should be present to load up the rhetoric and the results.
As nearly everyone with the common sense any deity gives to fenceposts knows, recruiting is the lifeblood of big-time college sports, but the public information around it is rich with guesswork, hyperbole and irrelevance.
But occasionally a bit of candor makes an unexpected appearance. Amid the standard breathless accounting of the stupendousness of young manhood about to don purple Wednesday, Steve Sarkisian couldn’t help himself.
Regarding the intersection of social media and recruiting, the University of Washington coach said, “In my opinion, it’s an absolute mess. We’ve got to figure something out.”
He even said he was going to put in a call to his former boss, Mark Emmert, who left UW to run the NCAA. Didn’t sound like he was going to talk about the fishing in Lake Washington.
Asked about what he thinks needs fixing, Sarkisian said, “I don’t know, but I don’t like it. It kinda leaves a bad taste for me, for whatever reason.
“I feel for these kids and their families who have to read things about themselves. They’re trying to make lifelong decisions, in the ultimate team game, and they’re forced into a very personal decision that puts them out there. Then we (coaches) have to break them back down and put them into a locker room. It’s unfortunate in a sense, but exciting in that fans care that much. We have to find out where to embrace and where to limit. We’re kind of in uncharted waters.
“It’s not there yet, but we’re getting to the point where it’s getting a little bit out of control.”
Actually, it’s been out of control since the time before leather helmets. It’s why the NCAA rulebook has developed the density of the sun. But what Sarkisian appears to be talking about — and he was non-specific Wednesday as he announced his 25-player class of recruits — is the intensified pressure upon recruits with the advent of universal, relentless and unfiltered contact and attention.
The surmise here — and again, Sarkisian was non-specific — is that his pique developed over the number of recruits who changed their minds late, or often, or both. While there is no reliable accounting, it seems that Washington was victim and perpetrator of more changes than the front runners in the Republican presidential nomination circus.
The Huskies seem to lose and add numerous names from the increasingly meaningless list of oral commitments. Even Sarkisian and his staff can only guess at the truth of why players change their minds. But his point seems to be that fans, media and players have, through Facebook and Twitter, unlimited access among themselves to share information that may or may not be true. Which makes him feel utterly out of control. No feeling is worse for a college football coach, who nearly by definition has to be a control freak.
While the annoyance is understandable, it must be said that he and his contemporaries are direct beneficiaries of the curiosity surrounding their industry. The reason he is getting $2.2 million a year, and a couple of his assistants make more than three times what Don James made in his best year, is because people care — way too much.
The intensity is ratcheted much higher because social media gives fans and websites a chance to influence the game by manipulating the hearts and minds of kids they can easily contact.
Coaches these days generally know better than to trash or lie about an opponent, because the dissembling eventually will bite them back. But many fans and websites care only about their teams’ success, and are not subject to NCAA rules, civil law or retribution. As to the possibility that shame might have an influence on them, well, that died out in the college sports populace sometime before raccoon coats and straw hats.
The sad truth is that, despite Sarkisian’s presumed pipeline to the NCAA president’ office, almost nothing substantive can be done about it.
Sarkisian mentioned some tweaks involving an earlier letter signing date, but there no changes by the NCAA that will supercede the First Amendent’s insistence on free speech that allows a person to be as foolish and feckless as desired when it comes to spreading disinformation about another college, coach or player. Nor is there any requirement that a recruit check his facts.
And really, Sarkisian helped induce apprehension about the UW program with several changes to his staff. No matter the real or perceived need for such change, the short-term effect on recruits is to foment an opponent’s whisper campaign of disarray instead of certainty, although Sarkisian went out of his way to diminish the consequences.
“Change in a staff intrigues kids,” he said. “You pitch something new and interest perks up; the energy level goes up. Not to discount the previous (departed coaches).”
Maybe, except Sarkisian disclosed that the first meeting of the full UW staff happened Tuesday. He also described “the somewhat awkward situation” of staffers meeting each other for the first time on the recruiting trail. He said staff newbies weren’t allowed to meet recruits for the first time without the presence of a holdover staffer or Sarksian — presumably to avoid the embarrassment of revealing they didn’t know, for example, that half of Husky Stadium has gone missing.
Sarkisian admitted he was exhausted, and obviously was irked at some developments. He was predictably enthusiastic about the players he did get.
But about the dramatically changed and insanely pressurized industry of college football, he sounded a bit like a grumpy old man.
Hard to blame him. Hard to feel sorry for him. That’s how the game rolls now.
Upon reading Sarkisian’s laments, Emmert will probably decline to take his call, instead tweeting back, “LMFAO.”