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NU makes commitment to integrity

College coaches blamed for creating permissive culture full of half-truths and flip-flopping

David Haugh

In the Wake of the News

February 6, 2013

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College football coaches often try to impress recruits by wearing pieces of jewelry that commemorate a championship. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald makes a strong recruiting statement with his wedding ring.

Stacy Fitzgerald's husband believes in the sanctity of marriage, a delightfully corny concept that comes up when a prospect orally commits to the Northwestern football program.

"We believe a commitment is like getting engaged,'' Fitzgerald told me Tuesday, 24 hours before Northwestern expects to sign 19 recruits on national signing day. "We tell our young men, while you're dating, if you decide to date other people, that's great. But the minute you get engaged and set a wedding date, this dating is all off. If you decide to go back to dating after you've been engaged, no longer is there going to be a wedding.''

Using Fitzgerald's analogy, highly regarded defensive end prospectRay Davison of Encino, Calif., understood cheating on Northwestern meant losing his scholarship. Davison, considered a coup when he committed to the Wildcats in November, visited California last month anyway after Cal's new coaching staff contacted him via Facebook over Christmas vacation. Immediately, Fitzgerald withdrew Northwestern's scholarship offer because, from the first meeting, he left no room for ambiguity in the meaning of the term commitment.

"I always tell young men that I welcome comparison,'' Fitzgerald said. "I want them to go out and look at schools so when they commit they are 100 percent sure they want to be a Wildcat.''

Fitzgerald refused to discuss the Davison incident specifically because NCAA rules prohibit coaches from commenting on unsigned prospects. Davison, who eventually recommitted to Cal, explained to PurpleWildcats.com that he "knew the consequences,'' but wanted to check out an option closer to home. Jon Mack, Davison's coach at Crespi High, supported Fitzgerald's decision and lamented how the Internet has ruined recruiting over his 30 years as a high school coach.

"Our word doesn't mean as much anymore,'' Mack said Tuesday. "Kids feel like it's normal to commit one place and go another. I understood what Coach Fitz did and agree with it 100 percent. The world has changed.''

As it does, college football recruiting devolves into a mockery. Mack chalked up one of his Crespi players committing to three different programs as a sign of the times. Tom Lemming, an analyst for CBS Sports and NCSA Athletic Recruiting, identified a microcosm of the problem in one blue-chipper committing to Florida State but listing Georgia and Tennessee as his top two teams. Lemming correctly blamed coaches for creating a permissive culture full of half-truths that makes teenagers see nothing wrong with flip-flopping.

They watch coaches under contract leave for richer jobs or flirt with the NFL without repercussion. They join a sport in which trust seems as rare as the Wishbone offense. They live in a sports world in which integrity dies a slow death one fib at a time. One of many recent examples came at USC, which informed recruit Kylie Fitts he couldn't enroll early for spring semester two days after coaches told Fitts they were ready for him.

"Coaches have to be the adults,'' Lemming said. "And every kid and parent needs to look up the word commitment. It has gotten worse. What Fitzgerald does at Northwestern is unique and if every college football coach fell in line with that, we wouldn't have all these problems.''

As earnest as he is intense, Fitzgerald could pass as the third Harbaugh brother. He apologizes for nothing when it comes to being resolute and readily accepts that his rigid beliefs on loyalty could cost Northwestern talented players. He savors the memory of asking freshman back Dan Vitale a question the day he accepted a scholarship offer as a senior at Wheaton Warrenville South.

"I said, 'Dan, based on our conversations on what our program is about, do you believe you can honor that commitment?' '' Fitzgerald said. "He said, 'Absolutely, coach.' We still recruited the heck out of him knowing there would be schools not honoring his commitment.''

Most schools don't. Without naming names, Fitzgerald knows of at least one member of the '13 class whom another program kept recruiting after he committed to Northwestern. Another one committed elsewhere before re-opening his recruitment — prompting a phone call from Fitzgerald.

"He was a friend so I said, 'Listen, coach, I want to let you know we're going to recruit him so you hear it from me,' '' Fitzgerald said. "The coach at the school that recruited one of our guys never called me and that's fine. To each his own. Now I know the rules of engagement there.''

These days in college football recruiting, the rules are there are no rules. Northwestern represents an exception to that rule. For better or worse.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh