Recruiting doesn't work like you think it does, or like you want it to — it doesn't work like I think it does, or like I want it to, either. Recruiting happens in the light and in the dark, and it's in the dark where Tre Bell either decommitted from or was released by Florida before committing to Vanderbilt this weekend.
Zach Abolverdi of The Gainesville Sun relates Bell's plight:
A source close to the situation told The Sun that UF’s coaches wanted to see Bell in action this summer so they could critique his play, something several of Florida’s commits were required to do. But Bell never attended any of Florida’s camps in June and didn’t work out when he came down for Friday Nights Lights on July 27. The source said Bell refused to participate because his coach, Rich Hansen, advised him against it.
With many more highly rated corner prospects still left on the board, the Gators decided to part ways with the 5-foot-11, 170-pounder during his unofficial visit to UF on Aug. 2. Bell has not spoken to any media outlets since that time.
That sure sounds like yanking a scholarship offer from a commit. And, to be clear, that's not exactly a morally correct thing to do, much less a good look. But whether it's wrong is less clear, and to find the answer, it's important to look at the dark side of recruiting.
When coaches extend offers to players as early as Will Muschamp has been extending Florida's in the last two years, those offers are non-binding, like everything until the National Letter of Intent — which Class of 2013 football recruits can't sign until at least National Signing Day. Recruits can decommit at any time, and that's a good thing: Situations can change with college football teams that make joining a program far less appealing, as is the case at Penn State now, or possibly for Miami in the near future, and personal situations, like deaths or illnesses in the family, can necessitate changes.
And for a 16- or 17-year-old making a decision on where to attend college, a choice made a year prior to National Signing Day may seem foolish or hasty, and time may reveal better ones. The primary reason to make an early commitment is to get done with the frustrating recruiting process, or at least tone it down — it won't stop completely — before a prospect goes back to school, plays on his high school team, and completes his senior year.
A prospect can also do that if he's trying to capitalize on his stock never being higher. For Bell, that's probably more true than not. Bell is from New Jersey, so it's not exactly easy to get down for a camp at Florida, but he did make it to The Opening, in Oregon. And, as SB Nation's Bud Elliott noted yesterday, he wasn't a standout there.
Coaches and programs try to lock up recruits early for far different reasons than players commit, but they're part of recruiting getting bigger and bigger, too. They want good players, sure, but they want to make 16-year-olds parts of the program "family" as early as possible, and to build relationships that endure despite other schools trying to elbow their way in, and to snag underrated prospects and improving ones before it gets harder to sway them to commit.
There's a lot more risk involved for coaches and schools, though: While prospects don't get blamed for reneging on their verbal pledges, the verbal commitments schools make to the prospects are expected to stick, barring academic issues or injury trouble.
And even when things like serious injuries happen, as one did to Georgia linebacker Mario Mathis, leading Ole Miss to reportedly pull his scholarship offer, the school gets blamed, even if all parties involved in the process realize that scholarships are contingent on health.
Schools can't formally require anything of high school players until they get to campus, but that's not a huge impediment, because everything in recruiting is informal: That's why "commitable offer" has entered the lexicon to describe a school giving a recruit a chance to make a decision, why players need to have schools "accept" their commitments, and why schools that take commitments before recruits' senior years don't always keep all of them after evaluating senior tape and transcripts, instead whispering to recruits that they might want to look around for other opportunities or simply ceasing communication, which typically sends the message.
If you think this problem is unique to Florida, you're sadly mistaken: Florida State, as Elliott writes at Tomahawk Nation, had essentially the same issue with Sojourn Shelton, who eventually decommitted after developing at a rate that would not make him competitive at FSU. And as long as the NCAA preserves player choice by making everything prior to an NLI non-binding, as it should, there will be coaches who make sure that they don't use a roster space on a player who they realize they don't want by being nice about cooling on them.
If I had to guess, in this case, Bell was probably trying to hold on to his commitment despite Florida picking up other defensive backs that would bury him on the depth chart, and Muschamp and Co. were probably trying to make sure Bell was continuing to prove he is a Florida-caliber prospect.
Those goals are obviously opposite ones, and while what eventually happened, with Bell apparently being told to find another school and quietly committing to Vanderbilt, wasn't the best-case scenario for either party, it ended up being better for Florida than Bell's ideal of sticking to his commitment and better for Bell than Florida coaches making public why his offer was no longer valid, and making him look afraid of competition.
Bell will likely be able to play more at Vandy than he ever would have at UF. The Gators will look for, and likely find, a player that will end up being better than he would have been. This works out for both sides.
But that doesn't make it right, or any less a part of the dark side of this game we love so much.