Yesterday was the recruting Super Bowl if you will. Some call it National Signing Day. Others call it National Letter of Intent Day. I just call it a sad commentary on the state of the American society (which is why I couldn’t stop watching the damn thing). Avert your eyes unless you enjoy seeing bloody body parts littered along the roadside.
Every year, 18 year old kids keep millions of people hitting the refresh button on their browser just hoping they will bring their game to a college near them soon. Recruiting has become a big business these days, with websites and publications, live television coverage of the event (I think it’s on one of the Evil Empire’s 19 channels) and with average ordinary people taking time off from work to follow the madness. And if they were watching yesterday, they weren’t disappointed.
If you are unfamiliar with the process, it works like this. High school kids are courted by men mostly in their forties and fifties hoping to convince the kid to come play ball for them (in most other arenas we would consider this a criminal offense. I mean, fifty year old men calling teenage boys at all hours of the night?). These days, coaches begin showing up at the high school to watch these kids play ball, visit them in their homes, and talk to them on the phone all hours of the day (yeah I know the NCAA regulates these activities, but let’s have an adult conversation here). At times, these kids will say anything to keep a persistent coach at bay, as the elite athletes often have many coaches calling them. If a kid gives the coach a verbal indication that he intends to play ball at that coach’s school, the commitment is deemed a “soft commitment” because the kid hasn’t put anything in writing. NCAA rules dictate that a player can not do this until National Letter of Intent day (NLOI day hereafter), the circus that took place this year on February 3, 2010. Once a kid signs one of these letters, the commitment is deemed a “hard commitment,” and fans everywhere start bragging about some kid that some service told them was good at “ballin’,” as a famous Ohio State University recruit once proclaimed. On NLOI day, athletes fax over their signed letters, a contract whereby the school guarantees the kid a four year scholarship, and the athlete promises the school he will in fact matriculate at their fine institution. Players, however, are not required to make their decision by NLOI. They have until April 1 to make their final decision; if they have not picked a school by that date, then they can not “ball” for any of the schools for that calendar year.
And thus, the drama that unfolded yesterday. This is a story of two men. One name Seantrel Henderson, a behemoth 18 year old offensive lineman from the State of Minnesota. The other, a man named Lane Kiffin, the coach of the University of Southern California (at least at the time this was written anyway).
First, a little on Mr. Kiffin. Lane Kiffin made his mark in this business as the offensive coordinator under uber-coaching legend Pete Carroll, who transformed the once proud USC football program from doormat in the late nineties to national powerhouse. Carroll amassed better than an .800 winning percentage, earning one outright national title, one AP title, and another title game appearance in his tenure at the helm of the USC football program. The ambitious Kiffin left the USC ranks to coach the Oakland Raiders, and after a stormy 4-12 season, was fired having amassed a 5-15 mark in the professional ranks. On the way out, as the door swung and hit Kiffin in the place where God split ’em, Davis called the prodigal coach “a flat-out liar” and added that Kiffin was guilty of “bringing disgrace to the organization,” quite a statement if you know anything about the current state of affairs in Raider Nation. Al Davis claimed he fired Kiffin for cause and refused to honor the contract. Possibly in an act of revenge, Kiffin began hiring away assistants from the Raiders’ staff for his new gig, head coach of the University of Tennessee Volunteers (UT hereafter).
Kiffin signed a six year deal with UT for an average of $.2.375 million dollars with a bonus should UT play for a national championship. In his first (and what would be only season at UT)., Kiffin amassed a 7-6 record and a loss in a bowl game. He will best be remembered for accusing Urban Meyer, the coach of the then champion Florida Gators, of a recruiting violation, and the subsequent NCAA investigation into alleged minor recruiting violations of his own which include sending young hot coeds to visit recruits in order to get them to play for the Volunteers (the claims against Meyer were unfounded and the claims against Kiffin are still part of an ongoing NCAA investigation). When Pete Carroll took an NFL job for the Seattle Seahawks, Kiffin bolted UT after one season, calling a hastily planned one-minute press conference on campus before getting ushered off the grounds with an armed escort. No sooner was the dust settling on his departure, Kiffin began working the recruits he convinced to play for the Volunteers, convincing a number of them to travel west and play for him at U.S.C. Thousands of students rioted in Knoxsville, the home of the University of Tennessee, many angry with what they felt was a broken promise by Mr. Kiffin and his merry band of idiots that followed him in toe to Southern California. A veritable snake oil salesman indeed.
Enter stage right, Mr. Seantrel Henderson, by all accounts a great young man with unrivaled football skills. Mr. Henderson is a 6’8″ 338 pound offensive lineman from Cretin Durham Hall H.S. in Minnesota. The consensus best lineman coming out of high school, Rivals.com rated him the number two overall player coming out of high school. For weeks, the Henderson family was tight-lipped as to where this kid would play his college ball, with several schools listed as candidates. It was rumored that Henderson was initially interested in playing at U.S.C., but his interest allegedly waned when Pete Carroll took the Seahawks job. It was also reported by various media outlets that Seantrel’s was concerned about an impending NCAA investigation regarding alleged violations stemming from perks purportedly given to two high profile U.S.C. running backs, Reggie Bush and Joe McKnight. Given these circumstances, it was widely reported by media outlets (that know Jack Squat) that it was all but a done deal; Seantrel Henderson would join Jim Tressel in Columbus and play his college ball for The Ohio State University.
Then all hell broke loose. In an all too familiar trend, Henderson announced that he would announce his decision of which school to play for at 5:30 p.m. EST on NLOI day, at a scheduled press conference (when I was deciding on whether to attend The Ohio State University or the University of Akron, I contacted local media outlets about scheduling a press conference but no one was interested. Their loss, I play a mean game of ping-pong). Few of the junkies that follow the recruiting trail will forget the spectacle that was the Terrelle Pryor announcement in 2007 that he would play ball for the University of Ohio State ( a school for which I can find no information on-line). The spectacle included the all too familiar hat grab, where the future footballer teases the audience by placing hats on the table of each of the Universities he is considering, ultimately grabbing the cap from the school of his choice. While Seantrel added a jersey to the hat dance, this would not be the most bizarre twist in the Seantrell Henderson recruitment.
Moments before the announcement, while bowling with his father, Kiffin got Seantrell on phone. Kiffin was concerned because stories were coming out that Seantrell had decided that he was going to play ball for the University of Miami, as various media outlets reported that Seantrell had visited the “U” in the weeks leading up to NLOI day. Also, Kiffin reassured Seantrell that the NCAA wouldn’t hand out any serious sanctions for U.S.C’s conduct. Kiffin made these assertions even though a hearing on the matter has been set for February 19 and that it’s unlikely that any decision on sanctions would be reached for several months following the hearing. In other words, there simply is no basis for Kiffin’s unwarranted optimism. During this phone call, Seantrell allegedly told Kiffin “nothing has changed coach.” Hearing this, Kiffin hung up the phone believing that Seantrell was going to be a Trojan.
Just after 5:30 P.M., Seantrel announced that he would in fact play for U.S.C. His father danced around flashing signs and making bold predictions that his son would return here in a few years to claim college’s top prize for its best player, the Heisman trophy. In a rare glance into the thoughts of a recruit, Seantrel was asked if he had a clear second choice. As it appeared that tears were welling up in the kid’s eyes, he said “well yeah, Ohio State.” Whether Seantrel was genuinely torn about his decision, pressured into it, or still undecided but compelled to go forward with the scheduled circus, we’ll probably never know. Trojan nation celebrated as it appeared that one more recruit had bought the wares peddled by Kiffin and company.
Except this wasn’t the end of the story. The following day, the New York Times reported that Seantrell Henderson didn’t return his letter of intent, meaning that the spectacle that was the press conference was nothing more than entertaining television. According to the N.Y. Times, Seantrel decided to not sign the letter of intent, at least until after the hearing, so he could get a sense as to what consequences U.S.C. will face in the wake of the NCAA investigation. As it stands, Seantrel Henderson is free to sign with any team he chooses until April 1.
In the end, Seantrel’s promise to Kiffin and U.S.C. was as good as Kiffin’s promise to Tennessee recruits. It was as good as Kiffin’s promise that the NCAA would not impose any serious sanctions on U.S.C. for their role in alleged NCAA violations. In the end, Lane Kiffin got exactly what he deserved, an empty promise. And for an eighteen year old kid jerked around by college coaches, the media, and possibly his parents (or was Seantrel jerking them around), he still doesn’t have a scholarship in hand and appears no closer to making the most important decision of his young life, where he will get an “education” to secure his future career opportunities.
But hey, at least it made for good television. Only in America.
Categories: College Football