Changes benefit coaches, not players

By David Mullen

At the postgame press conference on November 27 after a 37-33 loss to in-state rival Oklahoma State, Oklahoma head football coach Lincoln Riley sheepishly addressed a reporter’s question about his future. “I’m not going to be the next head coach at LSU,” Riley said. 

He told the truth, but he knew the genuine answer — dare we say –—“sooner” than he led on. The next day, it was announced Riley was headed to Southern California to become the new head football coach at USC, leaving the legacy of coaches Bud Wilkinson, Barry Switzer and Bob Stoops and players Lee Roy Selmon, Billy Sims and Sam Bradford behind for the former home of coach John McKay and NFL Hall of Famers Marcus Allen, Ronnie Lott and O.J. Simpson. 

He also left a slew of existing Oklahoma players and several committed high school athletes stunned and searching for answers. Under new NCAA rules, current players can transfer once without penalty, but it is not as easy as it sounds. Scholarships and academics are a major factor. It is different for high school recruits.

“The impact on players is often overlooked as the coaching carousel turns,” said ABC and ESPN college football analyst Rod Gilmore. “I opposed the Early Signing Period for this reason. It just never made sense to me to give a high school student less time to commit to a school — especially during the period in which coaches are hired and fired.”

Top high school recruit Malachi Nelson decommitted from OU.
Photo courtesy of TWITTER

The Early Signing Period, where the nation’s top high school players make a commitment to a college or university, is Wednesday, Dec. 15. National Signing Day, which has become a fan and media spectacle, is Wednesday, Feb. 2. A high school senior who signs a National Letter of Intent on either day is bound to play for the school by the NCAA for at least one year. 

Often, because of the fanfare, many top athletes will wait until early February to commit to a school. But coaches begin showing interest in a promising high schooler early in their career, often selling the benefits of the school, the athletic program, the facilities, location and noted alumni. They also make the all-important verbal promises like scholarships and playing time.

“The old Signing Day was the first Wednesday in February,” Gilmore said. “By then, all the coaching moves were usually done and some places were about to start spring practice. The move to the Early Signing Date of December 15 leaves players trying to make decision in the middle of coaching changes.

“For example, several elite Oklahoma recruits have already decommitted from Oklahoma and now are looking at other places — likely USC,” Gilmore said.

Sports Illustrated graded Oklahoma No. 10 in the nation in their November football recruiting rankings. The magazine noted that 16 of America’s top high school football players had made verbal commitments to the Sooners program, including some yet to complete their junior year in high school.

According to reports on November 29, senior five-star quarterback Malachi Nelson has already decommitted from Oklahoma after the news that Riley had accepted the USC job. Nelson lives in Southern California but was on the way to Norman before Riley bolted for the beaches of LA.

“I want to start by thanking all the coaches and staff at OU for seeing enough in me and recruiting me to be a part of the Sooner Nation,” Nelson said via Twitter. “One of the things that attracted me most to OU, other than the rich history and amazing fans, was the stability in the coaching staff and their ability to develop the QB position. In light of the recent events and changes, my family and I believe it’s best if I de-commit from OU at this time. I want to thank all the Sooner fans for the relentless love and support they’ve shown.” Sooner fans will never see Nelson play in crimson and cream.

“They want to follow the coach who recruited them and built a relationship with them over the last couple of years,” Gilmore said, who was recruited by Stanford University as a cornerback and played on the college team that included NFL Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway. 

“But not all players are that lucky. Most schools have committed all their scholarships so a player who is unhappy with a late coaching change might not have the option to go elsewhere.”

Notre Dame was ranked fourth in the Sports Illustrated list of 2022 recruitment rankings. On November 30, head coach Brian Kelly shocked the college football world by leaving the Fighting Irish for LSU, agreeing to a 10-year deal worth $9.5 million per year, plus incentives. Kelly was the winningest coach in Notre Dame history, which included legends Knute Rockne, Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz.

Locally, on November 29, it was formally announced that former SMU head coach Sonny Dykes would head west on Interstate 30 to take over the rival TCU football program in Fort Worth. Reports are that the Dykes deal is for six years and worth $30 million. Former University of Miami offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee will take over as SMU head coach.

Coaches can go for the dough. Young, impressionable players are faced with potentially life-changing decisions after everything seemed set for the immediate future. Welcome to the surreal world of college football. 

If a player has formally committed, they risk a new coach bringing in an entirely different philosophy. A top-flight wide receiver may be plugged into a “run-first” offensive scheme. Players may be told to move positions. And assuming a scholarship is in place, it may be good for only one year and can be pulled at the discretion of a new coach.

“The elite recruits will have choices — not the typical recruit,” Gilmore said. “Coaches force players to sign by the Early Signing Date or tell them there won’t be a scholarship available. But we will see massive changes in coaching staffs between now and late January. 

“These rules benefit the coaches — not the players.”