Prospects have long been indecisive. Coaches and athletic directors are now following suit.
There have been seven midseason coaching changes around the country this season. That’s more than the previous three seasons combined, according to Stats L.L.C. Moreover, the coaching vacancies aren’t just lower-level programs. Miami, Southern California and South Carolina have all been championship contenders in the recent past.
Midseason coaching changes are great for athletic directors. They get a head start on their competitors – other administrators who will make coaching changes after the season.
The recent trend is not so great for prospects.
Dozens – if not hundreds – of prospects are rethinking their recruitment after being committed a school that has undergone a coaching change.
“Every year is different in and of itself,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “These things will take twists and turns down the road. You just continue to recruit and you have a recruiting profile which you’re looking for. It’s business as usual but when you look at the evolution of coaching changes, no two years are ever the same. …From our standpoint, you just have to have a consistency in your approach each and every day.”
That sounds good, but consistency is nearly an impossible goal. For instance, schools around the South are paying close attention to the coaching changes at Miami and South Carolina. Several of those prospects have already expressed interest in exploring other options. Many will wait to see who their chosen school hires. That can put prospects in a challenging time crunch.
“The ones in particular that I think it affects are the ones that are ready to graduate early and get somewhere in January,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said. “That kind of puts a little bit of a change as they kind of wait to see what’s going to happen.”
South Carolina interim coach Shawn Elliott has an even more delicate challenge. He’s assigned the task of recruiting for the Gamecocks, yet he has had little insight into the future of the program since Steve Spurrier resigned in October. Elliott could be the head coach in Columbia next season or he could be coaching elsewhere.
“Every prospect that we have has a question in recruiting about what’s going to go on here and the situation,” Elliott said. “You’ve got to continue to recruit and go out and send a strong message. At the same sense, you’ve got to say “OK guys, you’ve got to understand. This thing will probably shake out. I may be the head coach here or someone else.’”
That’s far from definitive. Elliott just hopes to hold onto the commitments that South Carolina currently has.
“If you’re committed to the Gamecocks, stand strong until there’s a sense of certainty around here,” he said. “With that decision, you make your decision. We’ve got to spread our message about South Carolina, the University of South Carolina and it’s a football team. We’ve got a great city in Columbia. That’s how we’re going about it.”
Elliott’s hands are tied. He can sell the offerings in Columbia. Yet any relationship he builds won’t hold up if he’s not retained. It would be prudent for prospects to commit to a school and not a coach. That’s often not reality.
“It’s a combination,” Elliott said. “You could take one heckuva coach and put him in some faraway place that doesn’t have great facilities or a great atmosphere and I don’t think you’re going to generate the prospects. You can say what you want but the university is a strong, strong recruiting tool.
“They better understand the university, the academics, the athletics and everything that goes with it should be the major consideration.”
Meanwhile, the sharks are circling – even those that wear halos.
“Most guys, they commit somewhere, you congratulate them and all that and say ‘If something changes, we’re here.’” UGA coach Mark Richt said. “You might ask him if he’s 100 percent certain and he says he’s not then ‘Do you mind if we keep talking?’, then we’ll keep talking.
“There’s a lot of reasons why kids change their minds so you want to stay in it just in case.”
McElwain is in his first year as a head coach in the SEC. However, he’s smart enough to know that a commitment, especially to a school openly searching for a head coach, is well worth pursuing.
“I don’t think there’s any school that just writes somebody off,” he said, “especially if you have relationships and you’ve been in the hunt.”
For those schools with vacancies, they’re the hunted.