A GRIP ON SPORTS
It may be summer, but we have recruiting on our mind. And it is all Christian Caple's fault. Read on.
• Open up The Spokesman-Review's sport section this morning and there is a multi-story package from Christian on the oft-mentioned-but-little-understood national letter of intent. You know what I'm talking about. That contract just about every high school basketball and football star signs with a school, sometimes accompanied by pomp and circumstance formerly only accorded to visits from popes and kings. It binds the school into paying for attendance (and associated costs) for one year (though longer commitments may be made now under NCAA rules). And it binds the athlete (not yet, officially, having earned the role of a college student which leads to the NCAA's favorite phrase "student/athlete") for a year as well. Of course, nothing is that black and white, as revealed by the case Christian details in his main story, that of basketball player Tanner Lancona (pictured in Tesoro uniform). Lancona had signed a letter of intent with WSU in the early signing period. After a visit with WSU coaches Ken Bone and Ben Johnson, Lancona "mutally agreed" with Washington State to go elsewhere. He was free to attend another school and WSU was free to use the scholarship earmarked for him for someone else. Except, if you read all that Tanner's father, Sean, had to say after all this occurred, you would know there was nothing "mutual" about it. Tanner still wanted to go to WSU but the Cougars' recruiting priorities had changed. Another 6-foot-8 forward wasn't what they needed. So, according to Sean, it was made clear Tanner wasn't wanted anymore. The kid whose dad had a WSU tattoo on his wrist (fixed from earlier) had to improvise. He was free to go wherever he wanted and he ended up at St. Louis University, where he signed a financial-aid agreement a few weeks later. All's well that end's well, right? Well, no. WSU's reputation took a hit and Tanner Lancona had to scramble to find a place to play during a time when most scholarships had already been doled out. But, honestly, it doesn't have to be this way.
• The solution lies, oddly enough, in the paperwork Tanner Lancona signed with St. Louis. A financial-aid agreement. It binds the school to money for the soon-to-be student/athlete but doesn't bind the athlete to the school. If UCLA had jumped into the picture in, say, May, Lancona could have decided to enroll in Westwood with no penalty. So why didn't St. Louis sign Lancona to a letter of intent? It couldn't. Only one per customer, as it were, each year. That's the rules. So why don't more athletes just sign financial-aid agreements? I really don't know. Take the recent case of Florida State-bound linebacker Matthew Thomas (pictured from his signing ceremony). He signed a LOI with the Seminoles in February but a couple of months later he decided he would rather go to USC (insert your own joke about better pay here; I'm not going there). But FSU wouldn't release him from his LOI, meaning Thomas had to either attend Florida State this fall or pay his own way to school and lose a year of eligibility. That was a penalty he couldn't afford. His family announced earlier this month he would honor his commitment to FSU. But what if Thomas hadn't signed an LOI and had just inked a financial-aid agreement? He could have changed his mind and made the switch to wherever he wanted to go. Of course, many of you are thinking schools wouldn't go for this, they would tell the recruit to get lost, they'll sign someone else who wants to play the game by the rules. Ya, right. If Matthew Thomas had told FSU – or anyone else for that matter – he wasn't ready to sign an LOI but would be willing to enter into a financial-aid agreement, coach Jimbo Fisher, while not happy, would have accepted it. Thomas is expected to be that good. And coaches always believe they can win, so Fisher would be sure he could keep Thomas in the fold. You think Jim Hayford would have said no if Andrew Wiggins had told him he would sign a financial-aid agreement but didn't want to be bound by an LOI? Sure he would. The great high school football and basketball players could dictate in such a manner if they wanted. And after watching the hell Matthew Thomas or Wes Lunt went through, I'm not sure the great players don't start utilizing this option. Think about this. Say you are the best high school quarterback in America. The best. Every school wants you. But you want to play for Steve Sarkisian. You think he is the be-all and end-all as far as quarterback coaches go. You decide to head to Seattle. You sign a letter of intent with UW in February. And in March, Sarkisian decides to accept a $75 million, three-year offer from USC. Sorry, you're stuck. See, the NCAA believes, wrongly in a lot of cases, you are attending a certain institution because of the academics. But that's often not the case. For the best athletes, the college decision is made through prism of the sport they are going to play. The head of the economics department isn't in the living room recruiting, the football coach is. That coach can leave for whatever reason (more money, better facilities, sun in the winter) and coach at his new school right away. After you sign that LOI, you can't follow for at least a year – and even then, in most cases, you'll be sitting out another one. So why sign? Just agree to attend the school, agree to accept the financial aid money and make sure circumstances don't change. It makes sense. And it wouldn't shock me to see the top recruits begin to examine this route. All it takes is one or two trailblazers to explore the path and the way could open up for even more.
• Gonzaga: Former GU pitcher/first baseman Marco Gonzales won the 2013 John Olerud Award for the best two-way player in college. He deserved it.
• Hoopfest: Some high school coaches enjoy Hoopfest. Others don't like it. And the players? They have to make their own decisions. Greg Lee has a feature on thoughts about playing in the street-ball tournament. … Greg and Jim Allen combined on this notebook.
• Mariners: A combination of circumstances, the main one being the limiting effect of injuries, forced the Mariners to use Joe Saunders as a pinch-hitter in the 11th inning last night. It didn't work and the M's lost to Chicago 5-3. … The latest to be bitten by the injury bug? Dustin Ackley, who injured his thumb diving for a ball in centerfield. … The losses and injuries won't derail the M's commitment to their youth movement, as Larry Stone examines in his weekly column. He also has his power rankings and awards. … That commitment is epitomized by Tacoma's rotation and the Brad Miller for Brendan Ryan change at shortstop. … A former Mariner farmhand died this week.
• Seahawks: You know who might hold the Hawks' Super Bowl hopes in his hands? Guard James Carpenter. If he stays healthy (a big if), the Hawks will be that much better.
• Yesterday wasn't the best day at Hoopfest. The intermittent (and somewhat unexpected) rain made the playing conditions tough (and seemed to have an effect on the sound system which was in-and-out all day). The cool temperatures, though, were welcomed by most. Today isn't going to be like that. Until later …