Sentell’s Intel: The way to make a college commitment that sticks
This profession calls upon the individual to ask questions. A lot of them.
Yet, sometimes the questions get turned around, especially as relationships develop in this business.
A parent or a player asks me about their college decision. They figure I should know a little bit. And with that, I tread lightly and initially defer to a few norms: pray about it and then talk to their coaches and teachers. That effort is to assume the textbook neutral-observer posture. Preserve the reporter’s objectivity and not answer questions like that.
That held up just fine until the first time I saw a mother’s lip quiver. The worry across her face made it clear she was overwhelmed. I felt a need to help, but the only way I felt comfortable at that was to give them better tools to make their own decision.
It takes years to find the right things to say in a moment like that. It really does.
The selling points laid down by recruiters are so powerful that parents can’t see what is real. So, how does their kid get a handle on that? Who should they trust? With that, I’ve picked up a few steps that help. They were shaped by being a reporter. I went back to players I knew well who had been down that road.
It meant more questions: What can I tell others about the decision you made? You seem happy. How did you get it right? I sought out those who were not happy. If they could do it over, what would they have prioritized differently? What would they have looked out for?
If you haven’t pegged today’s topic by now, I’ll make it simple: We cover recruiting so much every day, I thought I’d share an informed user’s guide on commitments. (Kindly consider this an act of stewardship. This is less about what I know and more about what I’ve picked up across 15-plus years of covering these decisions.)
When recruits say it is a four-year decision that affects the next 40 years of their life, they might sell it short. It really affects the remaining balance of their life.
We’ll get back to the who-is-going-where-and-who-leads-stuff and all that tomorrow. These words are meant to help those who struggle with what they should do. The rare few I’ve shared these with have said they work. They might because of the following staples:
- This 6-step path never will mention the name of any school.
- It never takes into account a coaching relationship. (Recruits and their families should assume everyone except the head coach will turn over during their eligibility. That’s the mindset to take. They should feel fortunate if they retain the same position coach.)
- It puts an onus on personal choice. Did you read those choose-your-adventure books growing up? The ones that said if you want to trek through the haunted forest, go to page 21. Or if you’d rather take your troops to defend the coastline, turn to page 29. If the Pac-12 is your thing, then go all the way to the last page of the book. That’s the way to go through each of these steps.
Step 1: Which schools are “beasts” when it comes to academics?
This places everything in the proper perspective. The latest NCAA figures show that less than 2 percent of all student-athletes go on to pro football.
The assumption going forward — even with 4.3 speed in the 40 — should be the player will be a part of the 98 percent who do not cash a year’s worth of NFL paychecks.
Players should find the school which best facilitates their degree pursuit first.
Their intended major likely will change, but each school’s academic muscle will not. Look for a school that offers the best chance at a six-figure salary without shoulder pads. Pick no more than three schools that seem like academic heavyweights. Take into account all the tutoring and support systems that lead to a highly employable degree. Then move forward.
Want to major in computer science? Study the national rankings of the top schools for that. That’s the Top 20 that should be on the recruit’s mind.
If a recruit is uneasy about a school in this area, he should drop them. The reason to value that team is not aligned with a great education.
Step 2: What if football was taken away?
This is the placebo question. The player imagines a hypothetical injury during his career. The dreaded medical redshirt takes them off the field for an entire year.
Think about each school that survived Step 1. Can the player still see himself focused and happy on campus if football was taken away? This choice reinforces the first filter and why the “student” part of “student-athlete” has to come first.
This choice — when measured correctly — should be framed by the life they lead outside of practice and a starting spot. It forces the recruit to weigh which school doesn’t have a lot to offer outside of football.
Can the training staff get you back better than ever from that injury? Do they have a track record of that? That should be considered.
It is advisable to settle on two to three schools at the most here. This decision must be shaped by thinking about the moments when the player will not wear a helmet.
Step 3: Does the school provide a great launch point to your dream?
This is going to happen eventually because the NFL is on the mind of every player. They want to build momma a big house. Retire their parents. Football players are competitors. They all have some type of dream. They grind at a violent and a constantly demanding sport. There has to be a bigger reason than just getting to hit people or score touchdowns.
The best chemistry degree in America won’t help players push through early-morning workouts. Playing on Sunday seems to do the trick.
Look to the school which places players at your position in the NFL. Seek a program that signs highly rated players who go on to flourish in their system. Pay attention to the All-Americans and NFL draftees on the walls of the facility and in the media guide.
The academic decisions that were prioritized along the first two steps make it safe to now consider football variables. Let’s be honest: The talent and physical gifts a player has might lead to a million-dollar salary, but that shouldn’t come first. The odds are stacked against that.
The football career comes third among these steps. That’s as high as it needs to be.
Recruits should name the school they feel maximizes their potential as a player above all others and move forward. If they’ve honestly addressed each step, the decision should seem less taxing by now.
But it usually is never that easy. Consider this halftime of the process. The final three parameters narrow things further.
Step 4: Interview the players at your target schools
This might be a make-or-break step. Go talk to the guys in the program. They already are living with the decision every recruit will make. This is like getting to see the possible questions and answers before a final exam.
The coaches know what to say and how to say it. That pitch is shaped by years of experience. It better sound right. Now compare what they tell you with what the players share.
Did the coaches tell you how it is? Find out what is different. What do the current players struggle with? Does the program offer support in those areas? Do they wish they were somewhere else? Do they regret not considering this or that before they signed? Were they swayed by big trophies and chrome on the uniform?
Don’t limit your sample size to first-teamers. Find the young guys buried on the depth chart. Then go to the players who make the honor roll and also find a way to hold a starting position.
This feedback is vital. Don’t leave an unofficial or official visit without having a great sense of everything that will matter to you in the program. Don’t just be an expert on the social scene and how much bigger the indoor facility and weight room is than everywhere else.
Step 5: Where do you want to live when your playing days are over?
If a player wants to live in California after he’s done playing, they should go play for a school in that state. It may sound shady to bring up the alumni network that supports each school, but it is a reality. Even for the guys who reach the NFL.
If Johnny Football graduates with a sterling reputation, that will help in the corporate world. This nugget comes most often from the high school coaches who interact with their players daily for four years.
It just makes a lot of sense. It is not the ultimate arbiter, but it helps to narrow things at this point. If the only difference between the two schools is location, maybe the one that is the closest to where you plan to live should get the nod.
Step 6: Where do you see yourself having the most fun?
This should be seen as the tiebreaker question. It hits on two important parameters.
Will their loved ones be able to come see them play often? Is that important here? Which potential teammates seem like the best fit to live with for four years?
Those guys are going to be the supporting characters of that lifetime decision. It is common for the guys in a signing class or the current members of the team to sell a player on a school.
Look around the locker room on your visits. There’s a good chance a few of those guys will be there when you are 25 and 35 years old. They will attend one another’s weddings and provide support as everyone adjusts to life after football. The player won’t see them often enough, but when they do, it will matter a great deal.
Surround yourself with guys who aim to make the most of their lives through these crucial college years. College students usually become a reflection of the people they hang out with.
There should be a school that nails each of these parameters by this point. There might be a couple, but the prospect should feel comfortable with the program that scores the highest in his mind in each of these key areas.
Finish line: Make your commitment
This will help you be at peace. It might even prevent a flip or two. Be sure to be nice to the reporters who cover your decision. Savor those interviews. You might not be able to do any more of those until the player’s sophomore year.
But that’s definitely a topic for another day.
Follow Jeff Sentell on Twitter for the latest on who’s on their way to play Between the Hedges. Unless otherwise indicated, player rankings and ratings are from the 247Sports Composite.