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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Pat Devlin Sweepstakes (and Why Miami Shouldn't Be Mad)

College football fans know who Pat Devlin is, especially today, which is a week before the date that HS seniors may sign national letters of intent. Devlin, from suburban Philadelphia, is one of the top 10 or so rated QBs in the country. Last fall, he gave an oral commitment to the Miami Hurricanes. Among those recruiting Devlin were offensive coaches Dan Werner and Art Kehoe, both of whom are Philadelphia natives.

Sounded like a good fit, didn't it? Outstanding QB from an area with excellent HS football goes to a perennial contender in a warm-weather climate that turns out NFL players -- and that has a Philadelphia connection to boot.

Except that after Miami's season, the Philadelphia-connection coaches got the boot -- right out of Coral Gables and into the coaching unemployment lines. Kehoe, a Miami alum, had been there for over 20 years. Suddenly, the fit wasn't looking as promising. After all, two of the people he would have been spending a significant amount of his time with at Miami suddenly no longer figured into the picture. That's bad. Suddenly, you might not be getting what you bargained for when you said yes to the Hurricanes.

Suppose you're a creative writer and you want to go to the Iowa Writers' Workshop for your Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing, particularly because there are two profs there who could help mold your talent into a two-book deal within a few years of graduation. Suppose you get accepted there, at Stanford and at Johns Hopkins (and perhaps anywhere else that's a top program that I might have missed). Suppose these professors bolt while you're making the decision? Suppose, like Miami, they'll probably replace the people with whom you were comfortable with good people? Does that make the place the same? Will you go anyway? How important are the people compared to the institution, the program and its tradition? What goes into your mind? That the newer guys could be better, or that there's an uncertainty which makes you nervous.

Suppose you're eighteen.

Suppose you live in the Philadelphia suburbs, where there's been a Penn State revival. The Penn State religion suffered a lot of heretics over the past five years, only to have a big-tent revival this past season. They had a good recruiting year last year after years of drought so bad that potential stars headed elsewhere -- in droves -- and that rivals were raiding your traditionally fertile recruiting grounds. The Nittany Lions are having a good year this year, too, and they had several big names on the fence that they were working on hard at the last minute. And a few of them were waiting to see what you would do.

Suppose you're parents went to Penn State, too.

You live in the Philadelphia suburbs, the Nittany Lions had a great year, and it's cool to play in retro uniforms that are so retro that Mitchell & Ness can't even make them hip (which, in and of itself, makes them pretty hip) and to play for a coach who has had a remarkable resurgence. Let's face it -- Penn State football is red hot. You're parents went there. You're from Pennsylvania. And the coach that you gave an oral commitment to fired the guys who recruited you.

Pat Devlin announced yesterday that he will go to Penn State. He'll compete with Anthony Morelli for the starting QB job, and he should get a good amount of playing time during his time in State College. Penn State will suffer significant graduation losses this spring, but if some of the guys who are on the fence join the ones who are likely to sign letters of intent on February 1, they will re-load in a hurry.

Miami should be disappointed but not angry with Devlin. After all, Larry Coker did what he thought was best for the program when he jettisoned some long-time assistants, but in college, unlike in the pros, you take risks when you fire assistants because assistants all have recruiting territories. Kids develop bonds with the coaches who recruit them, with the result that if you fire some of them you weaken the bonds between that kid and the school. I'm sure that there are those who would argue that the kids should choose the school and what it offers them academically, socially and athletically and not any individual person, and, yes, the best institutions are the ones where the institutions takes precedence over the accomplishments, reputation or ego of any one person there, but kids are kids, and they look at the coaches as though they're professors. I harken back to my Iowa Writers' Workshop analogy, because Miami's football program is as much a finishing school for prime-time football talent as that Iowa program is for good writers. Take way part of the core group that runs the program, and, to some, the program will change. Suddenly, the school that will help you achieve your dreams might not -- at least, at the moment, in your mind.

The changes will cause some to vote with their feet. And that's precisely what happened with Pat Devlin. (In contrast, when Arkansas fired the coach who recruited the #1 QB prospect, Mitch Mustain, Mustain reconsidered his oral but then affirmed it after a few weeks of putting himself in abeyance. What helped Mustain, I'm sure, is that his HS coach joined the Arkansas staff).

And remember, Pat Devlin is only 18, and it's his life. No one should hold his reconsideration against him. Miami is always good at finding other quarterbacks, and no quarterback's future, even Devlin's, is guaranteed. It may be that he turns out to be Jim Kelly, but it could be that he turns out to be Frank Costa. You just don't know.

Oral commitments are funny things. Onetime Maryland hoops coach Lefty Driesell once said that he loved it when he heard a kid in whom he was interested orally committed to another school, because then he knew the one school he had to beat to get the kid. The colleges created this situation, not the kids, and kids, being kids, have the right to change their mind. That might drive college coaches nuts, but if they sell their programs right, there shouldn't be much shifting around after a kid has given an oral commitment (and I think history has shown there hasn't been). Penn State had to beat Miami (and, perhaps, Virginia), and they did.

Miami fans, don't fret, your program is resilient enough that it will turn this loss into an opportunity. Penn State fans, rejoice, because according to various sources, Devlin's joining Penn State might attract other big names who haven't yet decided to State College.

Which will make the Penn State campus a truly Happy Valley.

Pat Devlin should enjoy the remainder of his high school experience.

Because if he's as good a get as Penn State hopes, the fun is only about to begin.


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