Even if you’ve wearied of the overcooked Signing Day “ceremonies” that many big-name recruits seem to feel are both their due and duty, you have to admire what Roquan Smith has done. After going live on ESPN — hey, doesn’t everyone? — to announce that he would attend UCLA, he has chosen to attend Georgia not because he’s a flighty teenager but because he’s a teenager who was, he has claimed, misled by adults.
The Bruins’ chief recruiter on Smith was defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich. Rumors were circulating before Signing Day that Ulbrich was bound for the Atlanta Falcons. Jake Reuse of the Rivals site UGAsports.com quoted Smith as saying that Ulbrich told him he’d declined the Falcons’ offer.
As the world now knows, Smith signed a national letter of intent with UCLA on Feb. 4 but didn’t fax it to Westwood. (Credit Georgia’s coaches for inundating Smith with messages suggesting that Ulrich might still be outbound for the A-T-L.) This led Smith to recant his pledge to the Bruins and reopen his recruiting, with a notable twist: He said he wouldn’t sign — and fax — a letter of intent with any school.
As Macon County coach Larry Harold told esteemed colleague Michael Carvell: “The reason why is because what he went through last week. This just gives us flexibility in case something else unexpectedly happens again.”
This led to some writers suggesting that Smith could become a trailblazer. Kevin Scarbinsky of AL.com suggested Smith might be “the Rosa Parks of college football recruits.” And Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post wrote:
Smith’s decision, almost certainly, will change how top recruits handle the process. No coach would turn away one of the best players in the country, even on the player’s terms. Lesser players may face pressure from coaches who tell them to sign an NLI or risk losing their scholarship offer to a player who will. So it may affect only the top tier of high school players.
For all the fervor with which it’s followed, recruiting remains a seamy business. Coaches press recruits to “commit,” and rival coaches press them to “de-commit.” A teenager builds a relationship with a coach and/or coaches who might not be in place for the entirety of his collegiate career. Coaches are free to jump between jobs even if they’ve signed long-term deals — it’s amazing how such contracts are ritually ignored — but a recruit who signs (and faxes) a letter of intent and changes his mind risks having to sit out a season.
Today Roquan Smith of Montezuma, Ga., announced via Instagram — hey, doesn’t everyone? — that he would be attending Georgia. Soon came an email from the Bulldogs’ athletic department stating: “This will confirm that we have received the signed SEC and UGAAA Financial Aid agreements for Roquan Smith. And they have been certified.”
But no national letter of intent was involved, and it makes it wonder if any such letters need to be. Would signing a simple scholarship agreement, as Smith just did with Georgia, suffice? Then again, a recruit could sign scholarship agreements with a dozen schools and leave everyone not knowing where he was bound until he actually enrolled, which would mean recruiting could continue into August, and who wants that?
If nothing else, Roquan Smith has started a conversation nobody figured we’d be having. Like the BCS, the letter of intent could well have outlived its usefulness. If not quite Rosa Parks, Smith might one day be remembered as the collegiate equivalent of Curt Flood, who challenged baseball’s archaic reserve clause and loosed free agency on the Grand Old Game, which hasn’t been the same since.
Update: On cue, the administrator of letters of intent for the NCAA has told Michael Carvell that the absence of such letters would put schools “in a bad position.”