Coaching carousels cause conundrums
By Dan Stefano
Published: Sunday, Jan. 29, 2012
Given another chance, Dakota Conwell would have done things differently.
The gritty Upper St. Clair senior linebacker verbally committed in July to Pitt and former coach Todd Graham, due in no small part to the relationship he had built with Panthers secondary coach Tony Gibson. When Graham bolted last month for Arizona State and Gibson soon after joined Rich Rodriguez's new staff at Arizona, Conwell followed Gibson to the desert.
Decommitting, Conwell soon learned, wouldn't come without backlash from jilted fans.
"There was definitely a lot of that," said Conwell, 18. "People were messaging me on Facebook and writing to me, but I just ignore those people. They don't know what it was like to make that decision."
The recruiting process is drawing to a close -- players can sign letters of intent starting Wednesday -- and committing early, increasingly, seems to be a double-edged sword. The sooner recruits make their decision, the sooner the burdensome recruiting process can ease. But the world of major college football, specifically when it comes to the men selling their programs, is hardly stable.
Conwell can look back at his experience with some perspective.
"If I'd have been able to go back, I'd have let my recruitment play out and not have committed so quickly," he said. "I didn't realize how quickly a coaching staff can change."
In Western Pennsylvania and the surrounding area, the scene has been in flux during the past year.
Pitt, Penn State, West Virginia and Ohio State have made coaching changes -- albeit, for vastly differing reasons. Another big move occurred Thursday when Rutgers coach Greg Schiano left New Jersey to take the head coaching position with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- just six days before signing day.
"It's the bad part about college football," said former Illinois and Florida coach Ron Zook, who is also an analyst for CBS Sports Network's signing day coverage. "There are two sides to every story. Everyone wants to do what's best for their careers, the coaches and players.
"The hardest thing for young people is they're making the first big decision of their lives based on a feeling. On one side, they want to get it over with so they can get serious about their senior year and sometimes their junior year, but you have to realize it doesn't matter until you sign the national letter."
Along with Conwell, Penn Hills standout Corey Jones decommitted from Pitt a week ago to attend Toledo, citing new coaching philosophies as part of the reason. Germantown defensive back William Parks, who had committed to Pitt, said Saturday via Twitter that he has committed to Arizona. At Penn State -- once known as a beacon of consistency until a child sex abuse scandal involving former assistant Jerry Sandusky caused an upheaval of the coaching staff -- former commits J.P. Holtz of Shaler and Skyler Mornhinweg of St. Joseph's Prep in Philadelphia committed to new schools in the past week.
"It's understandable when a ball player will want to decommit and look around after a coach leaves," CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said. "You don't blame the kids; you blame the adults, the college coaches."
Still, most players have made up their minds by this point in the recruiting process. As of Friday evening, just 19 players from recruiting website Maxpreps.com's list of the top 100 players for the Class of 2012 still were uncommitted. Locally, the only major recruits who have yet to make their decisions are Sto-Rox linebacker Deaysean Rippy and Jeannette's Demetrious Cox.
"For the most part, young people are trying to commit early," Zook said. "Coaches are squeezing them a bit, saying they might not have a scholarship if they wait, and they get nervous if they don't commit, they won't have an opportunity."
The 19 stragglers, among the most talented young athletes in the county, have little to worry about, though.
"There's no pressure on the top guys to commit too early," Lemming said. "The coaches don't say commit now or we'll drop you. They'll do it to the borderline Big Ten kids who might go to (Midwest Athletic Conference) schools."
One local recruit who has given an especially early verbal is Blackhawk sophomore quarterback Chandler Kincade, who committed to Pitt in the fall, when Graham was still on the sidelines. He said he remains dedicated to the Panthers and new coach Paul Chryst, though he'll be more cautious moving forward.
"I'm going to look into things more than I did -- not just look at the outside of it," Kincade said. "I'll try and find out really what's going to go on. I think I'm more prepared now from that happening.
"You have to look at recruiting as you're not just playing for a coach anymore because that coach might not be there. You have to look more into the academics of the school, the campus, and you make choices with that, as well as who's the coach, because you have to know in your mind that the coach could be gone the next day."
That's a rare attitude, said Lemming, who added, "When you're talking 17-, 18-year-olds, they're not fully functioning adults yet. It takes a real mature kid to stay committed somewhere for six months."
When the coaches recruiting a player change schools, it becomes even more difficult for that player to stay put. Conwell, though, appears at peace with his decision -- even if it was the second one he made.
"Right now, I feel most comfortable with Arizona," he said. "In today's world, you never know what can happen. Really, you've got to play for yourself and your teammates and make yourself the best player you can be. You can't worry about the coaches."
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