At this time of year, with so many “commitments” happening between recruits and college coaches, we thought it would be timely to discuss what a “verbal commitment” means. The recruiting process can often take a long and windy path. For many recruits, the process reaches its climax in the fall of the senior year, when a player decides what his or her unequivocal top choice is, and is hopeful that the coach at that school will commit back to them. What “commitment” really means depends on the division of the school and whether that college has athletic scholarships to offer.
According to NCAA regulations, Divisions 1 and 2 may offer tennis scholarships, although not all of them do. When a coach is making a player a scholarship offer, he or she will almost always have the player sign the National Letter of Intent (NLI), which commits the player to attend that school and outlines the scholarship money he or she will be receiving. This marks the end of the recruiting process and prevents other coaches from contacting or recruiting that player. The early signing week for the NLI happens during the second week in November (11th to 18th in 2015) of the recruit’s senior year, and would occur after a review of the player’s transcript and testing, determining that the recruit is “cleared” by that school’s Admissions office. The regular signing period for the NLI starts in April (April 13th through August 1st in 2016). Verbal commitments can happen long before an NLI is signed, even as much as a year in advance. Until the signing date, both players and coaches rely on trust and each other’s word to not break the agreement. Verbal commitments are taken very seriously by coaches and are rarely broken from a coach’s end, so players are expected to treat these commitments the same way. It can often be a long and arduous road to getting the verbal commitment, but once it has been made by a coach and accepted by the recruit, both parties can move forward with strong assurance that the player will be admitted to the college, will have a spot on the roster and in some cases will be awarded a certain amount of scholarship money or other aid.
Another pressing question is, “What does a verbal commitment mean when the school is a D1 or D2 school not offering scholarships, or is a D3 school that by rule does not offer athletics scholarships in any sport?” Recruits who have reached the point of committing to a coach at one of these schools often wonder what they’ll be getting in writing to guarantee a positive outcome. With the exception of Ivy League universities, some Patriot League schools and a handful of other D1 colleges that provide a recruit with a “Likely Letter”, “Commitment Letter” or a “Letter of Understanding” basically confirming acceptance, there is nothing that most non-scholarship schools offer in writing. Recruits and their families will need to rely on open and clear communication about the status of their recruitment with the coach, and the track record of that coach in leading players (who they have verbally committed to) successfully through the application and admissions process. In most cases, there will be a clear and documented pattern of results in previous years where past recruits with similar academic and tennis profiles were admitted. Oftentimes, the option of offering a guarantee is taken out of the coaches’ hands because many elite academic institutions stress that a student’s admission can only officially come directly from the Admissions office on a designated date when all acceptance letters go out, and not through athletic recruitment. While a coach may not be able to offer a “guarantee” of acceptance until Admissions completes the application review, a player can at least get verbal and/or written assurance that the coach will be advocating on player’s behalf with the Admissions office to try to ensure admission, and if admitted, the player will have a spot on the team the following year.
A decision to apply in the Early Decision application pool plays into the commitment process, as well. At schools where the coach cannot guarantee admission before the admissions process runs its course, a commitment to apply to a school ED is essentially the verbal commitment between the recruit and the coach. The coach promises to advocate for the player in the ED pool (usually where the chance of acceptance with a coach’s influence is highest) and offers a roster spot if the player is admitted. The student, if admitted, is in a binding admissions agreement, thereby assuring the coach that the player will be attending and not able to pursue any later recruiting options. In cases where the sense of commitment is still unclear, it is important for a recruit to get clarification about his or her status directly from the coach. At this pivotal stage, we typically recommend that a recruit call the coach, saying something to the effect that “After much thought and consideration, I have decided that your school is my clear top choice. With your commitment to support my application with admissions and to offer me a spot on the team, I will be submitting my one and only ED application to your school.” While this can also be done via e-mail, a conversation makes it easier to avoid any misunderstanding or miscommunication.
All in all, in the culture of tennis recruitment, verbal commitments are considered to be strong agreements. Breaking a verbal raises major issues surrounding integrity for both players and coaches and creates problems for recruitment which neither coaches nor recruits benefit from. While it may feel less than concrete to make a verbal commitment knowing that coaches at elite institutions cannot offer an absolute guarantee, the reality is that in the vast majority of cases these verbal commitments do lead to acceptances and roster spots.
Donovan Tennis Strategies
Donovan Tennis Strategies has been helping prospective college tennis players and their families navigate the recruiting process since 1997. In addition to consulting services DTS runs two College Prospects Showcases to help players get exposure to college coaches.