February 2, 2011 in Sports

Blanchette: Sankey’s change of heart stokes Apple Cup rivalry

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Perhaps the mutually damning part of Gonzaga Prep running back Bishop Sankey wriggling off the hook of Washington State in the most overwrought recruiting derby in our city’s history was the young man’s explanation as to why he’d “committed” to the Cougars in the first place before reversing field this last week and throwing in with rival Washington.

“At the time I committed to Washington State,” Sankey told ESPN 710 Seattle on Wednesday, “I didn’t have any other offers.”

Oh.

He probably didn’t mean to imply that the Cougs were worthy of a pledge only if no other school were in the picture, nor to come across as being so easily wooed himself. We would have asked him for clarification, but messages and texts requesting an audience went unreturned.

In any case, Washington gets the most coveted Spokane football player in more than a decade, and the Cougars got some other guys that they’re all charged up about – and so it’s done.

That is, it’s done until Sankey becomes an active principal in an Apple Cup. Then you’ll never hear the end of it.

Still, even Apple Cups have been surpassed in silliness by Signing Day, which is attended by a national flurry of de-commits, teenage intrigue, school hats being plucked off tables during wincingly inane press conferences and now wall-to-wall coverage on ESPNU. All so our institutions of higher learning may replenish their medium-wage work forces, and build character by subverting it.

At Wazzu, the cupboard restocking included no fewer than five junior college linemen, a tactic that – four years into coach Paul Wulff’s mission – seems oddly similar to the doomed final stage of his predecessor. His explanation that several will be redshirted, however, suggests Wulff is still thinking long-term no matter how tepid the message was from the athletic director last fall in bringing him back.

Meanwhile, at UW, handsprings were in order for bagging what self-anointed recruitophiles deem the top five prospects in the state – the gifted Sankey among them. This was assigned all manner of symbolic weight, even by coach Steve Sarkisian himself.

“It’s not just about getting the top five, it’s about getting the top 10 players in the state to stay home,” he insisted. “Hopefully, we’re setting a precedent in what we’re about when recruiting the state of Washington.”

Oh, yes, it’s all so very important, this recruiting. Of course, there were years upon years when the Huskies mined the best the state had to offer and the program still could not avoid cratering, and years when the Cougars went to bowl games on the backs of the discarded and overlooked.

“It’s more important to develop what you have,” said Wulff, “than what you get on that signing date.”

Funny, it doesn’t say that on “Signing Day Central” on wsucougars.com.

Still, there is no argument that your chances are better with better players, and so when the likes of a Bishop Sankey – or linemen Stephan Nembot and Brandon Tuliaupupu, who also annulled their Wazzu commitments down the stretch – get away, it’s bound to sting. All the more when it’s a kid from the backyard you’d had in your win column for more than a year.

For all the jawing between the WSU and UW factions, there have been few recruiting tug-of-wars in our town this fractious. The Cougars landed Jeremey Williams in 1998, but he actually eliminated the Huskies – who had just replaced Jim Lambright with Rick Neuheisel – before picking Wazzu over USC. A decade before that, Cheney’s Steve Emtman was thought to be headed to Pullman to play for Dennis Erickson – until an anonymous Cougar booster’s letter suggested he’d get “lost” at UW, steeling Emtman’s resolve and breaking Erickson’s heart.

But in neither of those cases had the athlete “committed” to either school. Now we know there are varying degrees of the term, to the point that it’s meaningless.

Naturally, there are going to be different views of this, whether you are the coach being poached, or the poacher.

“It’s the nature of the beast right now,” Sarkisian said. “If you’re not playing the game, you’re getting beat.”

Wulff, who proposes an additional earlier signing date to bind players, sees it differently.

“We expect players to be accountable, to honor their word, to do the right thing when they’re in our programs,” he said. “Now some coaches are telling the same players, ‘Your word doesn’t mean anything, you should switch your commitment.’ It’s a double standard and it’s hypocritical.”

Yes, it is. Not unlike a coach entertaining recruits in his home, then excusing himself to take a call in the next room and dicker with another school for a new job. That also happens every year.

And no one’s proposing legislation to curb that.

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