ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 10: Head coach Paul Johnson of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets argues a call with an official against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at Bobby Dodd Stadium on November 10, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Does visiting another school really mean that a prospect is uncommitted?
Recently, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney pulled the commitment of an offensive line commitment for visiting another school, per the Post and Courrier:
Offensive lineman RJ Prince of Albemarle, N.C., became the third Clemson commitment in recent seasons to cross that line and lose his Clemson commitment when he visited North Carolina last week. Prince said he's now favoring the Tar Heels. He has offers from South Carolina, Mississippi State, N.C. State, East Carolina and Duke.
With signing day still a year away, this tactic seems harsh. But Swinney is hardly the only coach in the ACC to employ this practice. Paul Johnson of Georgia Tech is notorious for pulling offers from commitments. His philosophy, as told to the AJC:
"We tell kids all the time in our office ‘Look around and make sure this is what you want to do,'" Johnson said. "I am not trying to keep kids from looking around. I think they need to look around. But when you decide and commit, then you're giving people your word that you're coming. It's not a game. It's not ‘OK, I'll take this one unless I can find something better. Or let me lock this down there so I can shop around for some other spots.' If you're doing that, you're not committing."
"Why don't you say this school is leading? Or this school is way out in front? It's the same thing with Dontae. Had Dontae not committed, we would've continued to recruit him probably up to a point where we would've said something like ‘Hey we've got to know something or we have to move on.'"
"I view anybody that's still visiting [other] schools as not committed. That's just me. That's just the way I do it. Well, people say ‘That's a double standard because you let other kids visit [Tech] who are committed [to other schools]. That's not my problem. Maybe it's a soft commitment. There may be a [college] coach somewhere else saying ‘Give me a soft commitment and go ahead take your visits.'"
In 2009, Johnson revoked the commitment of athlete Dontae Aycock after Aycock visited Auburn. That move didn't cost the Yellow Jackets much, as Aycock has since transferred twice and seems unlikely to pan out.
But in the 2011 cycle, Johnson made a costly move revoking the commitment of Tre Jackson, who garnered offers from Florida State, Alabama and Georgia in the final two weeks of the recruiting process. Once Jackson took a visit to Tallahassee, Johnson pulled his offer. Jackson had some excellent moments as a freshman in Tallahassee and is almost certainly better than any line recruit brought in by Tech in the last few classes.
Technically, it is not the offer that is being revoked, but rather the commitment. And that's an important designation because, as far as I can tell, the option to recommit to Tech after visiting elsewhere is still on the table, provided Tech has not already filled the spot. I am unaware, however, of any prospect doing so.
Is this a smart strategy?
Ultimately, while Johnson's philosophy seems fine in theory, it is out of touch with the current status of college football recruiting. A verbal commitment is not binding. Recruits often make commitments to hold their space in a class. In effect, a verbal commitment is nothing more than a reservation. Like restaurants, most college football teams realize that these reservations are subject to cancellation at any time. Johnson undoubtedly knows this, because Georgia Tech continues to pursue kids committed to other schools.
And further, this approach seems awfully insecure. It's one thing to tell a recruit, "if you look around, so will we," but it's another altogether to pull the commitment for a simple visit. Recruiting visits are incredibly fun. Some recruits have never been on a vacation or eaten at a nice restaurant. They hear the stories of the fun had on recruiting visits by other recruits and want to enjoy the experience themselves. It's as if Georgia Tech is scared of recruits seeing what else is out there.
The insecurity might be warranted, however, as the programs to which the cited prospects were considering visits (Auburn, Alabama, Florida State, Georgia) are on another level than Georgia Tech in terms of commitment to football. Johnson is probably justified in being afraid that the prospects will not stick with their commitment to Georgia Tech upon visiting better schools. Perhaps he believes that his only chance to keep the prospect is to scare them into not taking the visit, and thus keeping them from seeing the better programs at all. That might be true, but it's also possible that the recruit will pick up on Johnson's lack of confidence in Tech's own product. You don't see this tactic being employed much, if at all, by the top recruiting schools. There's probably a reason for that.
If Johnson tries this approach with prospects considering a visit to an equal or lesser school, it might be very effective. You just won't hear about it. The media only reports when Johnson pulls the commitment. There are likely unreported instances of Johnson threatening to pull a commitment, and the prospect, realizing that his options are not much better than Tech, elects to stay a Yellow Jacket and not take the visit.
Coaches all want to have greater certainty in the recruiting process. It's the major reason why many argue for an early signing period in college football, similar to that of college basketball. Threatening to pull a commitment is a great way to test the strength of a commitment, but as a strict policy, it can also drive away solid commitments who are turned off by a coaches indignation over a recruit wanting to have a good time on a visit.
Every coach must decide on a recruiting strategy that works for him. Johnson has chosen this one, and he has won at every school for which he has coached. But dealing with elite recruits is still something new for Johnson, and it might be a better idea to use this strategy on a case-by-case basis, and not as a rule.