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Is the college letter of intent the 'worst contract in American sports'?

Coaches will say anything to get top football recruits

High school linebacker Roquan Smith announced Friday he was signing scholarship papers with Georgia, just a little more than a week after saying at a news conference he would play for UCLA.

His choice changed, Smith says, when he learned he had been lied to.

The way Smith reacted could change the way top athletes are recruited, analysts say, or be a first step in eliminating college football's national signing day — which has become something of an unofficial national holiday for the rabid fan.

In the hours leading up to signing day last week, Smith heard rumors that the coach who was recruiting him for UCLA, defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich, was about to take a job with the NFL's Atlanta Falcons.

Ulbrich was one of the big reasons Smith was leaning toward the Bruins, and the player needed assurance. He says he got it when Ulbrich told him he was staying at UCLA.

Smith then went ahead with his announcement, saying during a news conference at his Montezuma, Ga., high school that he was heading to Westwood. But in the hours that followed, there were media reports linking Ulbrich to the Falcons, and Smith got cold feet.

Over the course of the day, signed National Letter of Intent papers — which lock the player to the school — poured into UCLA's football office. Smith's wasn't among them.

He had decided to delay his decision and reopen his recruitment as he waited to see if Ulbrich stayed put.

Four days later, the Falcons announced Ulbrich was their new linebackers coach.

Smith has said "UCLA coaches" apologized to him, but the damage was done. UCLA has not commented on the matter because school representatives are not allowed to speak publicly about players who have not signed a letter of intent.

Smith's decision to wait saved what might have been a regrettable choice, but others weren't so lucky.

Mike Weber, a running back from Detroit, agonized over his choice between Ohio State and rival Michigan before he signed with the Buckeyes. The next day, Ohio State running backs coach Stan Drayton took a job with the Chicago Bears.

"I'm hurt …," Weber tweeted. "I ain't gone lie."

Chris Rumph, Texas' defensive line coach, took a new post with Florida two days after signing day and left behind bitter feelings. "Guess I was lied to in my face," tweeted defensive end Du'Vonta Lampkin, who had just signed with the Longhorns thinking Rumph would be his position coach.

"There were just too many coaches leaving the day after signing day," said Mike Farrell, the national recruiting director for rivals.com. "It made it so obvious, that everybody knew this was occurring and they were just waiting to lock these kids in."

The issue isn't new, Farrell added, but this time it was a lot more transparent.

The players who have already signed have little choice but to stay with their schools, a situation critics argue is one-sided. Sports Illustrated went so far as to call a letter of intent "the worst contract in American sports."

After a recruit signs, the player cannot switch schools without burning a year of eligibility unless the school or NCAA grants a release. In return, recruits receive the promise of a scholarship for at least one year, but the school can revoke it if the recruit isn't admitted to the school or engages in serious misconduct.

"No agent in his right mind representing a player would allow a player to enter into an agreement like that," said Ramogi Huma, the former UCLA football player who heads the College Athletes Players Assn.

An NCAA spokesperson declined comment, but its website states, "The NLI is voluntary and prospective student-athletes do not have to participate to play sports or receive financial aid."

A financial-aid agreement, which Smith signed, provides more protection to the athlete. The school promises a scholarship, pending admittance and other factors, but the recruit has the freedom to go elsewhere even after he signs.

Basketball players as far back as Ed O'Bannon and Shon Tarver in 1991 have declined to sign a letter of intent, but the practice has yet to gain widespread appeal. O'Bannon and Tarver committed to Nevada Las Vegas but worried — rightly — that NCAA investigators had the Runnin' Rebels in their scope.

More recently, in 2010, Brandon Knight, who now plays for the Milwaukee Bucks, committed to Kentucky but was worried its coach, John Calipari, might leave for the NBA. (Calipari used to offer a clause that voided the contract if he changed jobs, but the NCAA has declared this clause a violation.) Knight signed financial-aid papers instead.

Opting away from signing a letter of intent is, most often, only an option for the most highly rated recruits. If others balk, experts say, they run the risk of the school simply turning its attention to someone else.

Some coaches are reevaluating the signing process as a whole. Arizona Coach Rich Rodriguez, president of the American Football Coaches Assn., has come out in favor of eliminating national signing day entirely.

"It's become a nightmare," Farrell said.

Other sports have early signing periods, but football has only one — which starts annually on the first Wednesday in February.

High school football players can, however, sign early financial-aid agreements. Ventura St. Bonaventure High quarterback Ricky Town committed to USC that way. Bellflower St. John Bosco High quarterback Josh Rosen did the same with UCLA, saying he equated it to "a pinky promise" with the school.

Town and Rosen both graduated high school early and have enrolled in college in order to participate in spring practice.

"We don't have that fear of the kid not coming," USC Coach Steve Sarkisian said. "Could it potentially happen? Sure. But the guys we're doing it with are just so strong in their conviction that this is where they want to come, we feel confident about it."

Whereas athletes can sign financial-aid agreements with more than one school, a player is declared off limits to other schools if a letter of intent is signed. And earning a release from that agreement can be difficult.

UCLA defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes is a rare example of an athlete who was able to change his mind without penalty. He signed with Notre Dame two years ago but asked out of the contract soon after. When Notre Dame refused, he appealed to the NCAA, which eventually ruled in his favor.

Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly complained about the decision and stressed the "importance of protecting the integrity of the NLI program."

At the time, Vanderdoes said that he understood he made a commitment.

But, he added, "I think it should be a two-way thing."

zach.helfand@latimes.com

Times staff writer Gary Klein contributed to this report.

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