May 18, 2008

Coaches, others gather to discuss changes

DALLAS - An early signing period and player conduct were two of the biggest topics discussed at a recent two-day Football Forum held here at the Grand Hyatt.

This is the first year of the event, sponsored by the National Football Foundation, College Hall of Fame and the Football Writers Association of America. It's hoped the Football Forum will become an annual event a think-tank of discussion on some of the biggest issues facing the sport and grow in range and scope, with possible inclusion of a players' panel in the future.

An early signing period generated lots of discussion among a group of panelists that included Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, Washington coach Tyrone Willingham, Kansas coach Mark Mangino, TCU coach Gary Patterson, Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White, Army A.D. Kevin Anderson, Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe and Florida State president T.K. Wetherell.

"With the inevitability - we think - of an early signing coming, one thing that we as a Big Ten coaches took to our administrators ... is we're recommending that our assistant coaches be able to have one contact in May," Tressel said. "They can sit down and if the parents want to come to the school or whatever, to get to know more about them.

"Because right now they can't have that contact with them; it's just evaluations. And to really get to know more about them, we're going to try to sponsor some legislation to have a contact in the spring."

When would the early signing period be? Likely in the middle of December, but a consensus has to be reached among the conferences. The feeling is schools could sign a portion of their class and then focus energies on their remaining targets without having to continue to woo players who already have committed.

"My point is there's disinformation," Mangino said. "There's misinformation, because the kids even play games with these guys now and stroke them about they're going to take a visit here when the school is not recruiting them, and saying that they're considering Kansas and we talked to the guy the night before and we can't get to first base with him.

"That's one area that I think kids get too much exposure in this recruiting process, and it's brought out all the Little League dads, and it makes it a little bit more complicated, I think, for coaches."

Willingham is guilty. He has taken an unprecedented step for him: offering a scholarship to a ninth grader (WR Kenon Williams of Skyline High in Sammamish, Wash.). The trend of offering freshmen and sophomores has been around in basketball for a while, but it seems to be growing in football.

"We always have a bunch of schools from out of state come in and offer sophomores in Ohio," says Tressel. "That puts pressure on us to get on the kids and evaluate them even earlier. Everything has gotten faster."

Wetherell thinks maybe schools should be allowed to work with a prospect who is a high school underclassman.

"Suppose you were able to go in and take that freshman and he was able to commit to Florida State or Washington or Ohio State," says Wetherell, "but at that point the university could start working with him on an academic program, et cetera.

Participants in the 2008 FOOTBALL FORUM: College football today and tomorrow
Kevin Anderson, Army athletic director (Panelist)
Dan Beebe, Big 12 commissioner (Panelist)
Mark Mangino, Kansas coach (Panelist)
Gary Patterson, TCU coach (Panelist)
Jim Tressel, Ohio State coach (Panelist)
T.K. Wetherell, Florida State president (Panelist)
Kevin White, Notre Dame athletic director (Panelist)
Tyrone Willingham, Washington coach (Panelist)
Chris Rose, FOX Sports (Moderator)
Bill Hancock, Bowl Championship Series
Archie Manning, National Football Foundation, chairman
Chuck Neinas, Neinas Sports Services, Inc.
Amy Perko, Knight Commission
Grant Teaff, AFCA president
"Now, if he changes his mind, he can't play as a freshman wherever he goes. He gives up that season or something. There is some penalty process where you may be able to take five or 20 or two or some number and sign early and start working with him academically to have him ready to come to that particular university, but the penalty is you're on the hook for the scholarship. Kid gets hurt, you still owe him a scholarship."

Still, the entire notion of such young high schoolers getting offered early didn't sit well with the coaches on the panel.

"Is a kid who already has an offer going to listen to his high school coach?" says Patterson.

PLAYER CONDUCT

Coaches also discussed the issue of insulating their players from agents, fans and others who don't have their best interest at heart - which all can lead to trouble.

"It is one of our toughest things, though, the people that try to get around our kids," says Tressel. "We're in a pretty good sized city, 15th largest city in the country, and we've had some good fortune to have some good, talented kids, and it's one of our biggest issues. Everyone wants to be their friend, everyone wants to get around them. It's probably why we've closed things a little more, which bothers the media at times, because we want it to be a little closed. We don't like the runners or those kind of folks around.

"Even the eBay people, we put a gate around our player locker parking lot because the eBay people would be sitting out there with their footballs for them to sign."

But the coaches know there is only so much they can do to protect their players from bad influences. When the star quarterback gets arrested, it's going to be front page news, which rankles Wetherell. But other panelists are more realistic about the scrutiny big-time athletes receive for misdeeds.

"The kids live under a microscope," says White. "I think we all work really hard to let them know that's the environment that they're kind of coming into.

"Our basketball coach at Notre Dame, Mike Brey, uses an expression that I love, 'This is what we signed up for,' and I think we've got to reinforce the fact this is what they signed up for. This comes with it."

Coaches can prevent a lot of potential problems by recruiting good kids. But with prospects getting offers earlier and earlier and contact periods being more limited, schools sometimes give scholarships to players they may not know as well as they'd like.

"It's very difficult," says Mangino. "It is something that I'm concerned about, the limited amount of contact and evaluations you have with these kids, yet you have to pick the right kids that are going to have character, you're not going to have problems with, they can win games, they can earn a diploma. I think it's a real challenge for coaches nowadays. You have to put a lot of time and effort into it to find the right kids."

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.



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