Michigan Wisconsin Football

Running back Jonathan Taylor originally committed to Rutgers but flipped to UW and rushed for 1,977 yards as a freshman.

Different day, different decommitment. Or so it seems for University of Wisconsin sports fans.

In the past two weeks, two football recruits who had publicly committed to UW announced they had decommitted and would pursue their careers elsewhere. Safety Bryson Shaw of Maryland was flipped by Ohio State and wide receiver Nolan Groulx of North Carolina re-opened his recruitment. They were considered three-star recruits by some websites, four-star recruits by others and were key components of a 2019 class that some thought would take UW’s recruiting to a new level.

Those developments came on the heels of the stunning decommitment of four-star shooting guard Tyler Herro of Whitnall in October, just weeks before the national signing date in basketball. Herro had been committed to UW for more than a year but had his head turned at the 11th hour and opted to sign with Kentucky’s one-and-done program.

What did those decommitments have in common? Simple, they sparked a reaction from UW fans ranging from disappointment to vindictiveness, much of it played out on social media. In time, though, it will all become an afterthought as UW recovers from the losses and continues its decades-long journey to becoming a national power in football and basketball.

Look, I get that UW fans are disappointed and frustrated when high school kids change their minds, especially a heavily recruited player whose initial commitment raised expectations for the program. It’s natural to feel jilted and angrily question everything from players’ motives and academics to the inability of UW’s coaches to keep them in the fold.

But this isn’t just a UW problem, this is how big-time recruiting works these days. Unlike 10 or 15 years ago, many prep athletes and college coaches no longer consider a verbal commitment to be binding. Recruiting today doesn’t end until an athlete signs on the dotted line.

UW fans have long wondered why the Badgers’ great competitive success hasn’t translated to their recruiting, why they aren’t able to get into the mix with the traditional national powers for four- and five-star athletes. Well, as we’ve found out recently, be careful what you wish for.

In football and basketball, recruiting elite-level players is as cut-throat as anything in sports. There used to be a gentleman’s agreement in the Big Ten Conference and really throughout the nation that other schools would back off once a player committed. That is no longer the case. If anything, the opposite is true. Coaches have ramped up their efforts to flip players.

Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer brought no-holds-barred recruiting from the SEC to the Big Ten when he joined the Buckeyes in 2012, but no one should blame Meyer for the current state of affairs. He was just on the cutting edge of a recruiting trend that mixes increasingly aggressive coaches, increasingly conflicted athletes and increasingly pervasive social media into one giant mosh pit of opportunism. Recruiting has become more volatile than ever.

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Another byproduct of UW’s success is that other schools, even big-name schools, are coming after its recruits. In football and basketball, UW has found success by identifying under-the-radar players early, building strong relationships with them and developing them into highly productive players once they get to campus. Other schools have noticed and when the Badgers get involved with a player now, his recruiting profile tends to rise, something that seldom happened in the past.

After UW received a commitment from four-star Kansas City-area quarterback Graham Mertz in the fall, schools such as Ohio State, Michigan, Georgia, Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame tried to get into the mix. So far, Mertz has held true to his commitment. Would-be poachers have come after Menomonee Falls tailback Julius Davis and Pennsylvania tight end Hayden Rucci as well, but both recently affirmed on social media that they are solidly committed to UW.

Indeed, you can’t paint all recruits with the same brush. Some still consider their word to be their bond or simply have fallen in love with UW, its coaches and the cultures they foster. When Scott Frost was named Nebraska’s coach in December, he tried to flip nose tackle Bryson Williams, a Lincoln native and UW commit. Williams never wavered and likely will be in UW’s two-deep this fall.

Still, some fans refuse to believe the rules of the recruiting game have changed. Those same fans have conveniently forgotten that the decommitment game works both ways. I don’t recall hearing anyone complain on social media when UW flipped tailback Jonathan Taylor from Rutgers or quarterback Alex Hornibrook decommitted from Pitt to follow coach Paul Chryst to UW.

We should all have one rule when it comes to recruits and their college choice: It’s their life and therefore their decision. They have to do what they feel is best for them.

Accordingly, few things are more disgusting than fans of a jilted school calling out a decommitted high school kid on social media. Often, the criticism is unduly harsh and assumes things the critic knows nothing about.

Kids decommit for many reasons. The coaching staff might change. Competition at their position might scare them off. They might not qualify academically. Sometimes another school simply has more to offer in their eyes.

Regardless, it’s a difficult decision for any recruit and people should respect it. Indeed, the best advice for fans when an athlete decommits is simply to move on because, most assuredly, the athlete already has.


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Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com.