Thursday, January 14, 2010

Down To The Letter.(SPORTS).


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GAINESVILLE - The parent of a prospective University of Florida football player came to Jamie McCloskey's office Thursday with a question.

Just what exactly will my son sign his name to next week?

McCloskey, Florida's associate athletic director in charge of compliance, gladly explained.

"I wish more parents would ask," McCloskey said.

Across the nation Wednesday, high school football stars will sign the national letter-of-intent, a four-page form that binds player to school and school to player for one academic year. But do the players - and their parents - understand the agreement their signatures seal?

Those who run the NLI program - which has no affiliation with the NCAA - believe the letter protects the athlete and the school by guaranteeing a scholarship in return for an athlete's pledge that he will attend that school.

Opponents argue the letter protects schools' interests but doesn't allow athletes any wiggle room if, for example, the school fires the coach who recruited the athlete.

Jennifer Brinegar, the assistant athletic director in charge of compliance at Indiana, believes schools could offer "tender letters," which would guarantee an athletic scholarship but wouldn't force the athlete to sit out a year as punishment for a change of heart. Brinegar, a former attorney, believes a commitment should be just that - with no paperwork necessary. But she also believes 17- and 18-year-olds need the flexibility to change their minds, especially during an era in which coaches come and go freely in search of a fatter paycheck.

"Speaking as a parent, I don't know if I would have my child sign an NLI," Brinegar said.

Paragraph 19

Mike Slive, another former attorney, recommends signing the form. Slive is the Southeastern Conference's commissioner and has chaired the NLI steering committee since 2002. During Slive's tenure, the committee voted to simplify the process for gaining a release from the NLI.

Slive believes in Paragraph 19. That section of the letter has come under fire as coaches - especially in men's and women's basketball, which have a November signing period that allows players to sign a full season before coming to college - hop from job to job more often and as schools give coaches less time to succeed before dropping the ax.

If Coach leaves: I understand I have signed this NLI with the institution and not for a particular sport or individual. If the coach leaves the institution or the sports program, I remain bound by the provisions of this NLI. I understand it is not uncommon for a coach to leave his or her coaching position.

"That question gets discussed fairly regularly," Slive said. "There doesn't appear to be any sentiment to change the concept that an athlete signs with an institution. a That's sound philosophy."

Slive contends that prospects should consider more than their future coach when they select a college. Academic status, desired major, proximity to home and other factors also weigh into a prospect's decision. But for athletes who hope to play professionally, the coach's identity usually carries more weight than a school's U.S. News and World Report ranking.

Florida men's basketball coach Billy Donovan understands that, and he said he could sympathize with a prospect squeamish about signing an NLI.

"There's no penalty on the coach or the school if they choose to make a different decision or to go somewhere else or to make a change, so why should a kid be penalized by signing a national letter-of-intent?" Donovan said. "Now, what it does say in the national letter-of-intent that you're not signing with a coach; you're signing with a school.

"But yes, there have been some guys who have said, 'Listen, we're not signing until after the Final Four, after college basketball is over and after we see what's going to happen.'"

Any athlete can refuse to sign an NLI, but the coach recruiting that athlete may pull the scholarship offer. Most interviewed agreed that a blue-chip prospect might have enough bargaining power to get a guaranteed scholarship with a handshake agreement.

"If you want a kid bad enough a" Indiana's Brinegar said.

Origins Of The Letter

The NLI program is run by a body called the Collegiate Commissioners Association and comprises more than 500 schools, including every NCAA Division I conference but the Ivy League. At each school, coaches in every sport ask prospects to sign an NLI in addition to scholarship forms. Most of the athletes comply, ending the sometimes hectic and draining recruiting process thanks to the provision that bans other NLI member schools from recruiting signed athletes.

NLI program director Torie Johnson can only imagine the wild frontier that was recruiting before 1964. That year, Texas Tech NCAA faculty representative William Davis drew up the first document designed to guarantee a scholarship in return for a pledge of attendance. Before, a coach could recruit an athlete until the second he set foot in another school's classroom.

"There was nothing to let [the school] know that [athlete] was going to show up," Johnson said.

Norm Carlson remembers those days. The former Florida sports information director worked at Auburn in the early 1960s, when the SEC held its signing day months before other conferences. A signature made a prospect off-limits to other SEC schools, but nothing could stop Notre Dame or Michigan from dropping in and swiping the player.

"A lot of times, the SEC coaches felt like SEC schools were identifying prospects that the national schools could come in and cherry-pick," Carlson said.

The most recent major change to the NLI came in October 2004, when the steering committee altered the process by which an athlete can seek a release from an NLI. Before, the athlete had to petition the school, which would grant a conditional release that cut the penalty from two years to one. Then the athlete had to go to the steering committee, which could grant a full release and allow the athlete to play at another school.

Now, athletes need only petition the school with which they signed. Schools can grant a full release or deny that athlete's request and keep the one-year penalty intact. Athletes can appeal to the steering committee or - if they have yet to attend class - sit out without losing a year of eligibility from the NCAA, provided they don't enroll in another school during the penalty year.

But how many athletes and parents know all this when they sign? Not enough.

Johnson said she encourages coaches to educate parents during the recruiting process.

"It is important to talk to prospects about the NLI during the recruitment," Johnson said. "They may know what the NLI is, but they may not be 100 percent sure what it means."

Education Sometimes Lacking

On Friday, Coletta Piurowski added another item to her weekend to-do list. As the mother of Land O' Lakes tight end and future Florida State signee Caz Piurowski drove with her family to Tallahassee for her son's FSU official visit, she made a mental note to ask Seminoles coaches exactly what Caz would have to sign Wednesday.

"It had never even occurred to me to question what he's signing," she said.

Sunday night, Caz Piurowski's father, Paul, said FSU coaches answered all the family's questions about the NLI and the scholarship forms Caz will sign Wednesday.

Florida's McCloskey said many athletes and parents forget to ask what the forms mean, assuming they already understand the process.

"We get a document, we sign it," McCloskey said. "No one really reads what the document says."

McCloskey said coaches can help clear up misconceptions.

Bonnie Wheaton, the mother of Hillsborough High defensive lineman Leslie Stirrups, said USF coach Jim Leavitt personally explained the paperwork Stirrups and Wheaton would sign. Leavitt pointed out one particular NLI benefit: Even if the athlete is injured between signing and arriving on campus, the school can't yank his scholarship.

McCloskey can think of another clause in the NLI that would please parents who paid monster cell phone bills as coaches, taking advantage of a form of communication the NCAA has yet to regulate, bombarded their sons or daughters with text messages. The NLI's recruiting ban dams the river of text messages and ends a process that can grind down prospects and their families.

"If there was not a national letter-of-intent, recruiting would never end," McCloskey said.



No more $800 cell phone bills, Mr. Star Tailback. The text message river has run dry.


Tell that to the 3-point bomber who just learned his future school's coach got canned in favor of a guy who runs the 45-point-a-game Princeton offense.

Tribune graphic by BRIAN McGILL

Keyword: Sports to view a sample letter-of-intent.

Photo: Billy Donovan

Photo: Coletta Piurowski

Photo: Norm Carlson

Photo: Leslie Stirrups

Copyright 2006, The Tampa Tribune and may not be republished without permission. E-mail

CAPTION(S): GAINESVILLE - The parent of a prospective University of Florida football player came to Jamie McCloskey's office Thursday with a question.

Source Citation
"Down To The Letter." Tampa Tribune [Tampa, FL] 31 Jan. 2006: 1. General OneFile. Web. 14 Jan. 2010. .

Gale Document Number:CJ141611757

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