There are 19 high-school recruits set to join Northwestern on scholarship when Signing Day arrives on Feb. 6. Each has agreed to honor a special commitment.
A certain standard is expected for the future of Pat Fitzgerald’s football program. A verbal commitment to Northwestern is an oath to excellence in the classroom, a promise to avoid trouble, and a devotion to the university. Most of all, it's a pledge more solid than anything else in college football.
“Either you’re a really good fit and it works out, or you’re not and that’s OK,” Fitzgerald said in a July interview with InsideNU.com.
To each of his program’s pledges, Fitzgerald has a simple way of explaining the commitment.
“He basically said this was our engagement now — like when you get married,” defensive back Keith Watkins said, recalling his August commitment to Northwestern.
In the recruiting world, the term "commitment" indicates the intention to attend a university on scholarship. Normally, a player's commitment means next to nothing until Signing Day. Recruits are free to change their mind until their name is signed to paper, and many take advantage of the freedom.
At Northwestern, however, a commitment is a sworn promise, with no waffling or backing out allowed. Fitzgerald and his coaching staff ensure each of their recruits honor their pledge to the program like an engagement.
The loyalty is mutual between Northwestern and its future Wildcats. The scholarship offer will stand if all standards are upheld. A recruit must steer clear of trouble, maintain academics, and represent Northwestern in the most positive form. Anything short of that will end the relationship.
“You’re not going to cheat on them,” said Northwestern offensive line recruit Brad North. “You’re not going to go other places and see other things. You’re going to stay loyal to that commitment.”
In order to be a verbal pledge with the Northwestern program, one must fend off interest from other schools. A commitment requires a return in the loyalty that’s offered with the scholarship. That means a Northwestern recruit cannot visit any other campus or meet with rival coaches.
While it’s a simple concept, the convoluted recruiting world can often foster difficult scenarios for any given prospect. Though, many see the process in a simple light.
“It can be a double-standard, what many athletes think [a commitment] is,” said Northwestern running back recruit Warren Long. “How can you be committed to one school but go to visit another school? That doesn’t make sense to me.”
After a commitment to Northwestern is made, it’s advised that the recruit notifies each of his suitors that a final decision has been made. When talented tackle Sam Coverdale picked the Wildcats, he first called more than 20 coaches before making the news official — a process which lasted more than five hours.
Just twice since Fitzgerald became Northwestern’s head coach in 2006 has a verbally committed recruit not faxed a letter of intent on Signing Day. In November of 2010, one recruit failed to meet the academic standards Northwestern requires, and had the scholarship revoked. The second instance occurred just this month.
Encino, Calif., linebacker Ray Davison had his heart set on Northwestern when he verbally pledged to it. But at the time, he never expected his home-state school, California, to offer him an opportunity. When Sonny Dykes became the Bears’ new head coach, a scholarship offer soon was extended to Davison.
It was when Davison set an official visit to Berkeley that an ultimatum was set by Fitzgerald: Are you in or out?
“Because I’m from California, I was interested [in the Cal offer],” Davison said in a Jan. 10 interview with PurpleWildcats.com. “I want to be close to home. I let Northwestern know I was committed to them. I knew the consequences were that I could lose my scholarship. I decided to let them pull the offer.”
The revocation of Davison’s offer wasn’t a surprise to him or any of the Wildcats’ recruits. The commitment must be honored or such consequences will occur.
“It’s a marked decision,” Northwestern center recruit Tyler Lancaster explained, “written in stone, that I will be attending that school and I’ll do whatever it takes to meet that requirement.”
During Fitzgerald’s tenure as head coach, there has been just one prospect that voluntarily decommitted from Northwestern. Rival coaches are largely aware of that fact, and move on with other options.
“They understand, once you’re committed to Northwestern, there’s no way they can get you back,” Watkins said.
When North made his Northwestern selection, he called each of his suitors to recommend his teammates at Allen (TX) High School for his scholarship.
“I told them not to waste the offer,” said Allen. “We have some kids at Allen that could use that scholarship more than I could.”
The Northwestern commitment isn’t just one-sided. It’s a shared oath between the university and prospect.
Receiver Christian Jones saw many of his scholarship offers yanked off the table when he suffered a torn ACL during the spring of 2010—just before his senior season. So did safety Joseph Jones just one year later. Christian Jones would become the Wildcats’ top wide receiver, while Joseph Jones is now working for his spot with the linebacking core.
Northwestern held true to its word, and its promise remained. It’s a longstanding policy the program has maintained.
“Coach Fitz keeps his word,” Watkins said.
In just the beginning stages of the recruiting process, Fitzgerald outlines his policies. He’s prepared to present an intriguing offer, one different than any other. On the table is the opportunity to join a rising program at an elite institution, and the promise of loyalty throughout the journey.
“He makes it very clear what he wants, and that creates a certain type of player,” said Long. “It separates us from everyone else in college football.”