The pomp and circumstance of signing day is a rising college football tradition as the media fragments into ever-more niche subjects and high school players see their fame rise in response, but one question I've had for a while: why bother signing at all?
The letter of intent is great for coaches. It locks the player into your school and prevents anyone else from offering him financial aid. It does almost nothing for players. In exchange for locking themselves in, players are guaranteed one—one!—year of scholarship money and room and board. In most cases this is an acceptable tradeoff for players, but what if the coach you signed up for gets axed? What if you've committed to a team that may or may not get hammered by the NCAA infractions committee? What if you're a high level recruit who's going to get a spot somewhere, anywhere? In that case, signing a letter of intent makes no sense.
Bob Huggins basketball recruit turned Kansas State one-and-done Michael Beasley found himself in that situation a couple years ago. Huggins bolted KSU after just one year, leaving Beasley and the other three members of the recruiting class in the wind. Beasley stuck it out at Kansas State and the parties made nice publicly, but K-State could have refused to release him because they knew he was headed to the NBA after a year. Sitting out his freshman season somewhere else was not an option. (Paying Beasley AAU coach Dalonte Hill 420k to be an assistant also helped.)
Meanwhile, UAB lost the services of Kentucky one-and-done (and future lottery pick) Demarcus Cousins because they refused to write a rider into his LOI stating they would release him if they fired Mike Davis. Why is unknown: Cousins would have been a game-changing recruit at a Conference USA school and Davis was entering just his second season with the Blazers. Cousins decommitted, signed a rider-laden LOI with Memphis, and followed John Calipari to Kentucky. There is one righteously principled person in the UAB athletic department.
Cousins was the first of what will probably be a wave of similarly contract-averse players. Basketball Prospectus notes that new Calipari signee Brandon Knight (pictured above) won't sign a LOI at all:
Tonya Knight, the mother of Kentucky recruit Brandon Knight, described the preference for signing a financial aid offer rather than a National Letter of Intent as “Just a precautionary measure.”
During a telephone conversation Tuesday, the player’s mother noted the greater freedom a financial aid offer allows should a prospect change his mind.
“You always want a way out in case the coach leaves,” said Tonya Knight, who added that she expected no problems with her son’s commitment to Kentucky.
Recruits like Knight have all the leverage. Why give it up for nothing?
Football has no one-off players for whom school is a brief distraction from their real jobs, so similar LOI boycotts are rare. Even Seantrel Henderson—by some accounts the #1 recruit in the class of 2010—signed a letter of intent after announcing he'd wait for the results of the NCAA's investigation into Reggie Bush, et al. Why? Who knows. All Henderson did is lock himself into a situation that might turn unpleasant.
Athletes beneath the top tier are never going to turn down an opportunity to lock a scholarship up, but when you're Henderson or Knight or any of the players who could literally attend any school you want to at any time you decide, the LOI provides nothing.
This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.