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Does Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald need to change his recruiting policy?

For Northwestern, the month leading up to signing day 2014 has been different than recent Januaries. Whereas most of the Wildcats’ recruiting classes under coach Pat Fitzgerald have not changed much this time of year, this year’s group will not look the same on the first Wednesday in February as it did a few months ago.

Over the past week, the Wildcats have seen two players – three-star defensive end Noah Westerfield and three-star defensive back Jordan Thomas – from the class now ranked 44th in the country by 247Sports essentially abandon their verbal commitments.

Because coach Pat Fitzgerald’s recruiting policy holds that players who visit other schools are released from their commitments, Westerfield and Thomas were effectively “de-committed” the moment they decided to check out Cal (A Ray Davison redux) and Oklahoma, respectively. Thomas committed to the Sooners hours after his official visit to Norman, OK.

While the Wildcats already filled Westerfield’s scholarship spot with another player, three-star defensive end James Prather, they have yet to fill Thomas’s.

It’s rare that a player who commits to Northwestern does not end up signing with the Wildcats, but three players (four-star athlete Dareian Watkins, Thomas and Westerfield) once committed to join what many analysts have called Northwestern’s “best recruiting class ever” will wind up signing at other schools.

The de-commitments weaken Northwestern’s 2014 recruiting class, sure, but they also compelled me to write about Fitzgerald’s policy, as all three players no longer committed to the Wildcats violated it.

Fitzgerald has improved Northwestern’s talent level using the policy, and many players who commit to the Wildcats seem to genuinely appreciate the mutual loyalty it demands. But as Northwestern gets into more battles with top programs for high-profile recruits, it’s fair to ask whether this policy needs to be revised.

Before we go there, let’s discuss some of its benefits and drawbacks.

No “soft” commitments

When players commit to Northwestern, they fully recognize they are ending their recruitments with other schools. In fact, they are advised to inform other interested coaches of their pledge.

There are some players that might not like having to be “locked in” to one school before actually signing with that school  – whether because better offers could surface down the line, or they simply want the flexibility of being able to look around all the way up until signing day. This is completely normal.

It is Fitzgerald’s job to identify kids with this type of mindset and dissuade them from committing. Players considering Northwestern understand what they’re getting into when if they commit. It’s not just about making plans to sign a piece of paper in February. It’s also about pledging to live up to certain behavioral standards and perform well academically.

If you’re not ready for this type of commitment, there is a simple solution: Wait. Look at other schools. Think long and hard about what committing to Northwestern means. Make sure being a Wildcat is exactly what you want. That is the message Fitzgerald emphasizes. Here’s how he described it in an interview with InsideNU in August 2012.

“Either you’re a really good fit and it works out, or you’re not and that’s okay,” Fitzgerald said. “So when a kid commits to us we kind of set a standard and an expectation and we typically don’t have a lot of de-commitments. I’m not looking for a guy who is a soft commitment or something like that. I’m not a soft kind of guy, so either you’re all in or you’re all out and if you can’t commit to being all in, then I recommend to recruits and their parents that they keep going through the process.”

Using this philosophy allows Fitzgerald to focus on players who are willing to completely buy into Northwestern before signing day. Fitzgerald and his staff need not waste their time on players that view a commitment as the non-binding agreement that it is at most other schools. Players know that a Northwestern commitment is unique.

The payback for players is security. Those who uphold their end of the policy have the comfort of knowing their commitment will be honored and that they will be guaranteed a four-year scholarship.

Fitzgerald’s idea of a commitment is akin to a “wedding” (His word, not mine).

This is not always the case at other schools. Read up on former quarterback Kain Colter’s recruitment with Stanford, or wide receiver’ Christian Jones’ with other top schools. Both players had offers pulled after they sustained injuries. Other programs over-sign.

“They’re respectful, they’re straightforward, they always let you know what’s going on,” freshman offensive tackle Sam Coverdale said of Northwestern’s coaching staff last May.

The policy allows Fitzgerald to identify exactly the type of players he wants – guys who are so sold on going to Northwestern, the football program and the school, they don’t consider looking at other options. There are not many players willing to make this commitment months before they need to, but the low number of de-commitments during Fitzgerald’s tenure suggests he has done a pretty good job finding them.

He wants “Northwestern-type” guys, and his policy helps him single them out.

Shopping around

Here’s what a lot of people do not understand about Fitzgerald’s policy. It actually encourages players to look at other schools or “shop around,” if you will.

The best way for Fitzgerald to ensure he doesn’t get any “soft commitments” is to have players he’s recruiting check out the other schools they have offers from, so that they know, with absolute certainty, that when they commit to Northwestern they won’t second-guess their decision.

In a conversation I had with Westerfield last May, more than a month before he committed to Northwestern, he told me that Fitzgerald advised him to look at the other two schools he was seriously considering at the time (SMU and Boise State). Fitzgerald wanted Westerfield to be absolutely certain that Northwestern was the right place for him.

“He’s in it for me,” Westerfield said. “He wants me to go look at other schools and make the right decisions. I appreciate that.”

As it turns out, Westerfield, even after checking out those schools and committing to Northwestern, didn’t abide by Fitzgerald’s policy. But the message is clear. Fitzgerald wants players to explore their options…as long as they do it before they commit to play for him.

“If you tell me you want to go date some other girl, some other schools, I can promise you our wedding is off and I’m not going to continue to recruit them,” Fitzgerald told InsideNU in August 2012. “We’re just not going to do that.”

Northwestern as a fallback

Many players who commit to a school wind up having second thoughts when they receive new offers. This is one of the reasons Fitzgerald’s policy can be problematic. A player who commits to Northwestern in say, May of his junior year, may have some new offers on his plate by the time signing day rolls around.

Many coaches continue to recruit players committed to other schools right up until signing day. That’s why verbal commitments need to be recognized exactly for what they are: vows that can and often are broken. It’s why many coaches need to recruit uncommitted players and committed ones, the latter to prevent “flips” before signing day.

I’ve already discussed how Fitzgerald demands players committed to Northwestern not to visit other schools. The drawback to this is obvious (and one I will address in more detail later on): it reduces the number of players willing to commit, even if some of those commitments might not be the “Northwestern-type commitment” Fitzgerald seeks.

Let’s consider a hypothetical. What if Fitzgerald wasn’t so adamant about players committed to Northwestern not taking other visits?

It’s likely more top prospects would commit to Northwestern – or, at the very least, would feel more comfortable about the idea of committing to Northwestern. But because they would be taking visits and talking to other schools, there is a greater chance they could flip their commitments.

This could lead to a situation where players could use a Northwestern commitment as a last resort, fallback option. Say a four-star receiver who has always wanted to play for Ohio State pledges to Northwestern the August after his junior year. He could go into his senior season thinking, “Man, if I impress Urban Meyer enough, maybe the Buckeyes will offer me. But if I don’t, I have Northwestern to fall back on.”

If Ohio State were to offer him a scholarship a week or two before signing day, Fitzgerald would be left in a tough spot, having to scramble to fill a spot in his class that he thought he filled when that four-star receiver committed months ago.

Big-time schools, like Ohio State, might not have to worry about this problem as much. There aren’t many programs a player would rather join than Ohio State, so there’s less reason for Urban Meyer to be concerned about a player backing out of his commitment. But the best players Fitzgerald signs almost always have outstanding offers that, from a competitive perspective, are more attractive than one from Northwestern. For an example, look at Ifeadi Odenigbo’s offer list.

If Fitzgerald was more liberal with allowing players to take visits and talk to other programs, Northwestern could become something like a safety net for players who, should the big-time offers they desire not surface in in the months before signing day, can take comfort in knowing they can join the Wildcats. If all else fails, in other words, that player has a Northwestern scholarship in his back pocket.

That is not something Fitzgerald or any other coach wants to deal with.

Timing

One thing Fitzgerald does not want to do is force players to commit to Northwestern before they’re ready. If they do, that could mean they didn’t evaluate all of their options thoroughly enough and could end up backing out later on if a more enticing offer appears.

But because many players are committing earlier in their high school careers than they used to, some may feel forced into making a hasty decision. Schools offer more players then the number they intend to sign in a certain class, which means those who wait too long could risk having their offer revoked (note: this is different than being released from a commitment).

If, for example, Fitzgerald and his staff determine they want to sign two offensive tackles in a given class, they’re going to offer more than two offensive tackles. In most cases, the two players who commit first are probably going to get those two spots.

So while players are encouraged to take visits and check out other schools and do everything they need to make sure Northwestern is the right place for them, there is some urgency to commit early.

“For us the last couple years, we’ve been almost finished by the time we’ve gotten to the season,” Northwestern recruiting coordinator Matt MacPherson said in August 2012 of Northwestern’s recruiting classes. “So now there’s usually a couple here or there, but for the most part the process has accelerated.”

I realize there are extenuating circumstances for certain elite prospects that wait until well into – or even after – their senior seasons to make their commitments. 2014 four-star superback Garrett Dickerson did not commit to Northwestern until December 6, 2013.

(It’s important to emphasize that recruiting is a fluid process. Coaches do not simply hand out a bunch of scholarships at once, sit back and wait for signing day. They talk to players, gauge their interest, discover other players they might be interested in offering. Things are constantly changing.)

Still, for most players, it could be beneficial to commit sooner than later. If players spend too much time doing exactly the thing Fitzgerald encourages them to do – take visits to other schools, survey other options, etc. – the Northwestern offer they picked up early in their recruitment may be gone by the time they’ve narrowed their search down and are ready to make a commitment.

This could mean some players are pressed to commit before taking any official visits, which are allowed starting the first day of classes of senior year and paid for by the university.

When Coverdale committed to Northwestern on June 11, 2012, “It all just came together perfectly,” he said. “It felt right.” Other players may not get that feeling until after the scholarship slot once available to them is filled by someone else.

Mind you, this problem doesn’t apply solely to Northwestern. Other players at other schools have to balance this time dilemma, too.

It’s just something to consider when looking at Fitzgerald’s policy specifically. Fitzgerald doesn’t want players to commit before they’re 100 percent sold on Northwestern (because he doesn’t want any “soft” commitments), but scholarship math could dictate that they need to.

Priorities

You see it every year. There are a number of high-profile recruits who flip before signing day. Alabama signee Reuben Foster is a famous recent example.

Some of the best recruits in the country take their recruitments down to the wire, keeping a host of schools on their toes until they fax in their National Letters of Intent.

Other players will commit early, but don’t have the “wedding”- type devotion Fitzgerald looks for in players considering Northwestern. The policy will hurt the Wildcats’ chances of landing these players, many of whom are very talented, because it does not tolerate those that want to have flexibility after committing.

One of the aims of the policy is to remove these players from consideration. Remember: For Fitzgerald, “you’re all in or you’re all out.”

For the sake of argument, let’s pretend the policy does not exist. There could be instances where a player commits to Northwestern in his junior year, takes a few unofficial visits to other schools (and is not released from his commitment on the spot) then decides that, in the end, Northwestern really is the program he wants to join.

This does not seem like a far-fetched scenario. Any player who did that, though, would be “de-committed” as soon as Fitzgerald learned about one of his visits. In a Fitzgerald-governed recruiting world, every elite prospect considering signing with Northwestern would commit and not think twice about it.

That’s just not how things work. If Northwestern’s recruiting continues to improve, there will be elite players interested in committing to the Wildcats that want to take visits to other schools after the fact, but still consider the Wildcats a viable option.

If Fitzgerald adheres to his policy and releases players who take other visits from their commitments, he immediately takes Northwestern out of the running for those that, after shopping around, decide they want to sign with Northwestern.

***

Let’s get back to the main question: does Fitzgerald need to change his policy? He has done a good job improving the program’s talent level over the years. It’s hard to say whether the policy has been the driving force behind this improvement, but it has helped Fitzgerald identify the type of players that fit his vision of the program.

Softening the policy would compromise Northwestern’s best tool for identifying the players that best fit the program – those that excel on the field and are willing to abide by a certain set of academic and behavioral standards.

That said, perhaps Northwestern would benefit from Fitzgerald relaxing the policy. Northwestern might sign more top-tier prospects if players know that visits to other schools will not jeopardize their commitments.

If Fitzgerald leaves his policy in place and continues to improve the program’s talent level, there isn't much of a reason for him to consider changing the way he recruits. If the Wildcats lose out on too many talented players that either a) are released from their commitments because they wanted to take other visits, or b) don’t commit to Northwestern in the first place for the same reason – change may be the best way forward.

Until further events prompt a revisiting of the topic, I wouldn’t expect Fitzgerald to tweak his policy. There’s no evidence that suggests he will.