M bball: To sign or not to sign

By Gus Bode

Carlton Fay’s phone still rings with inquiring coaches on the other line.

Fay, a senior at Putnam County High School, gave a verbal commitment in May to play for the SIU men’s basketball team.

Yet, that hasn’t stopped other coaches from actively recruiting him.

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Until players sign their National Letter of Intent, though, any school is open to steal them from their prior commitments.

Head coach Chris Lowery and staff will be able to breathe a sigh of relief today, NLI signing day, when they get their recruits to sign the dotted line.

Fay, along with Brandon Wood, a 6-foot-3-inch guard from Kokomo, Ind., and Nick Evans, a 6-foot-11-inch forward who recently transferred to Carbondale Community High School, all said they would sign during the early signing period, which starts today and ends Nov. 15.

Even though Fay has stayed faithful to his commitment and reiterated that he would sign with the Salukis, other student-athletes decide to jump ship, which has created anxiety nationwide among college coaches.

Former SIU and current University of Illinois coach Bruce Weber found that out firsthand. About a year ago, Weber scored a verbal commitment from Indianapolis guard Eric Gordon, considered by many as the top prospect in the nation. But in mid-October, Gordon declared he would attend Indiana University instead.

All the stock placed in Gordon and the resulting hype placed around the Illini program deflated.

Given NCAA rules – recruiting is fair game until a player signs- Weber said there wasn’t much he could do to prevent schools from snatching prized recruits such as Gordon.

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“You recruit kids, get them committed and hope they sign,” Weber said. “That’s all you can do is trust people that their word is worthy of your trust.”

Trust is the key to bringing potential players to SIU, Christian Spears said.

Spears, SIU’s assistant athletic director of compliance, said no student-athletes have taken back their verbal commitments in the three years he has been at SIU.

Spears said that has a lot to do with how coaching staffs recruit. They don’t take any chances on players who may not qualify academically or who may look elsewhere.

“We recruit kids who want to be here,” Spears said.

Still, there’s a fear lodged in the back of coaches’ heads, wondering whether their recruits will sign.

Case in point: Lowery said three members of his coaching staff missed a call from the same recruit during a recent practice.

Fear set in.

“We were terrified at that,” Lowery said. “But he just wanted to know where the papers were being sent.”

Lowery had reason to worry – only two days before, Mike Bizoukas, a Missouri Valley Conference recruit, backed out of his verbal agreement with the University of Northern Iowa and later announced his intent to play at DePaul University.

“Hopefully that doesn’t continue to happen,” Lowery said.

The NLI’s Web site, national-letter.org, lays out the guidelines of a verbal commitment. It states that a verbal commitment is a “non-binding, oral agreement between you and the institution. The only binding nature of the commitment is your word and the institution’s promise.”

In other words, albeit frowned upon, it is acceptable for a player to back out of a verbal commitment.

MVC commissioner Doug Elgin said it’s a tough situation. There’s nothing the coaches in the conference – or any conference – can do about it.

“Up until the time when a young man or woman signs a National Letter of Intent, they are more or less free agents in a sense,” Elgin said.

The prospect of a high school athlete jeopardizing a recruiting class has sparked debate among some college coaches, calling for stricter rules when it comes to verbal commitments.

Still, nothing has changed. Until something does, coaches have to cross their fingers and hope their recruit signs.

SIU, along with colleges across the nation, will find out today.

“It’s perfectly permissible to renege on it,” Spears said. “Coaches have to hold a kid accountable to a verbal commitment.”

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