Let's turn down hype volume on can't-miss college recruits

OTHER VOICES

December 20, 2005|By KEVIN VAN VALKENBURG

The most frustrating thing about sports today isn't the Bowl Championship Series, Barry Bonds' push to break Hank Aaron's home run record, the flakiness of Ron Artest or the empty promises of Peter Angelos. Make no mistake, all of them deserve some level of scorn, if not outright disgust. But none of them, in my opinion, rises to the level of consistent stupidity that accompanies the obsession with college recruiting.

In case you missed it last week, the county's top-rated high school football player, Tim Tebow, a left-handed quarterback who played at Nease High School in St. Augustine, Fla., decided that he'll attend the University of Florida next year. Tebow's decision, which was broadcast live on ESPNews, created a ripple effect that could be felt as far north as College Park. The Gators' backup quarterback last season, freshman Josh Portis, decided to transfer to Maryland the very same week, perhaps in part because he saw the writing was already on the wall for him.

The gushing news reports and frantic Internet chatter about Tebow's commitment were not shy when it came to hyperbole. After spending several hours reading a large chunk of it, I came away convinced that Tebow would not only win four Heismans while at Florida, but he would also be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, solve race relations in this country and eliminate poverty and political strife in Africa.

My only worry is that he'll be so busy saving the world that he'll be forced to skip the NFL combine four years from now. But as long as we keep him away from Brian Billick, I don't see why Tebow won't break every NFL record in his rookie season.

Of course, after a midday nap and some more careful thought, I started to rethink things based on an eerie feeling that I've heard this all before.

Which of course, I have. Every single year. Nothing changes but the names.

As fans, we're not allowed to simply watch and enjoy sports anymore as they unfold in present time, especially when it comes to recruiting. Instead, we make declarations about an athlete's greatness, even if it hasn't been proved, long before he has ever attended his senior prom.

It's not good enough to simply buy season tickets and wear your team's colors anymore. You also have to obsessively follow your school's progress on the recruiting trail, then celebrate each commitment as if the coach has landed the next Reggie Bush. Being right about a player's ability isn't even as important as being the first to predict it. Because by the time it doesn't work out, everyone has forgotten and moved on to the next big thing.

Maryland fans ought to have figured this out by now, especially when it comes to quarterbacks, but judging from the message board reaction to the news about Portis transferring, it would seem that most have not. Two years ago this week, when Maryland signed quarterback Jordan Steffy, you would have thought Christmas had come early in College Park. It was immediately decided that Steffy would help the Terps win a national championship. He was already poised and polished beyond his years, and would compete for the starting job from the minute he stepped on campus.

The fact that it hasn't quite worked out that way seems to get mentioned only in passing these days. Maryland fans could hardly be distracted long enough from the celebration over two other major Terps recruits: Chris Turner, a highly rated quarterback from California who redshirted this season, and Jeremy Ricker, another blue-chip quarterback from Pennsylvania who will arrive next fall. With Portis now on the scene, Steffy has been reduced to an afterthought in the eyes of most fans.

People are constantly going on about how seedy and nefarious the business of recruiting high school athletes is - and, just for the record, they're usually right - but we rarely talk about how unpredictable it can be. No one knows how an 18-year-old kid will react to the initial blur of college life, which brings with it added responsibility and freedom. Tebow, for instance, was home-schooled. Think living in the dorms in Gainesville next year might be a potential culture shock?

The blue-chip quarterback I played with in college was never the same after his girlfriend dumped him near the end of our freshman year. Another highly recruited linebacker who lived in my dorm drank so much, he lost his scholarship and nearly committed suicide. I imagine neither of those character traits was factored into their recruiting ranking.

So here's my Christmas wish: The next time Ralph Friedgen or Gary Williams signs a highly ranked recruit - or more importantly, misses out on one - don't get emotional. Don't high-five your buddy and call the kid a savior, don't complain that Williams isn't a good recruiter, and don't grumble that Friedgen hasn't won with his own players. Instead, take a deep breath, log off the Internet, and repeat this over and over:

They're just kids. They're just kids. They're just kids.

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

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