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July 29, 2009

Column: Let the Real Games Begin

In attending SEC Media Days in Birmingham last week, I was struck by how much it has changed over the years.

Some things were the same: tons of Alabama fans waiting in the lobby of the Wynfrey to greet the Crimson Tide coach, radio row buzzing about the latest story line, sportswriters looking at each other suspiciously wondering if the other held the scoop, and members of the Georgia media corps in the hotel bar.

The scoop these days is hard to come by when you consider that over 1,000 people were given access to the event. As a "dot com" guy who bulled his way into the china shop when Bill Clinton was in office with utter disregard for the established norms, I felt like an "old timer" listening to some of the questions asked of coaches and players.

While in "TV-Room 2" covering Vanderbilt's Bobby Johnson, two moments stood out.

Johnson, who has pulled the Commodores up from the doormat of the SEC to a team that went to and won its first bowl game since 1982, mentioned that after one of his early years struggling to get Vanderbilt back on the map he was offered a long term contract by the university.

That was a great moment in which a coach showed without saying it his commitment to his program and university, and it went unnoticed.

Later that day, Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said in his opening remarks to the media: "It is fitting that I speak last, since that is where you are going to vote us to finish."

These were just two moments with two great coaches with a long history of success and are at the helm of universities that have been in the Southeastern Conference since it began in 1932.

The main storylines after day one when the head coaches of Vanderbilt and Kentucky spoke: which coach didn't vote for Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, and what would first year head coach Lane Kiffin have to say on day three of the event.

While the Kiffin question was valid since he had already placed himself firmly in the crosshairs of scrutiny with his comments and actions of the past seven months since he was hired, the "who didn't vote for Tebow" question should have been an aside, but instead it took center stage.

But it got even more ridiculous.

Question to Vanderbilt coach Johnson: "Do you twitter?"

Johnson: "Do I what?"

Question to (Mark Richt) and other coaches as well: "Which other player in the SEC would you like to have on your team?"

Richt: "I refuse to answer because that tends to get somebody bent out of shape or one of my guys mad. I am sorry I cannot answer."

Of course, the best illustration of how 1,000 credentials needs to be scaled back was the question of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow when he was asked if he is still a virgin.

I am not for a second losing sight of the fact that websites like my own UGASports and our message board The DawgVent were an impetus in the need for answers to every question to be answered no matter how mundane, but I left Birmingham feeling a little bit guilty about the door we helped open.

Who is asking the questions is not the issue; it is what they are asking. SEC football is the best in college sports and deserves recognition as such and reverence from those who cover the 12 member institutions. Charlatans apply for and are increasingly afforded access to these events, but the result is a clear illustration of how much "journalism" has changed in just the past decade.

That said, I will now dabble in another area that is far from perfect.

While the news on the current Bulldogs has been covered very well, and it is going very well, here are a few notes on UGA recruiting as we prepare for fall camp which begins on Aug. 4.

Ambles heads to Knoxville

One of the top prospects in the country, Markeith Ambles, rated the No. 7 wide receiver in the nation by Rivals.com and the No. 7 player in the State of Georgia by UGASports.com, accepted an offer from Tennessee earlier this week.

Though Ambles is a hot commodity on the recruiting trail, Georgia never offered a scholarship. A year ago, he told UGASports that he had interest in the Bulldogs and was considering committing during his junior season, but, as the 2008 season wore on and other schools began courting him, he opted to put a decision on hold saying that if UGA offered, they would be on his short list for consideration.

After visiting Florida this past weekend for Friday Night Lights, Ambles told Rivals.com, "Both Florida and Tennessee were up there but Tennessee was a better fit, and I just felt they wanted me more."

It appears the latter part of his comment is accurate, as a member of the Florida media told UGASports Tuesday that the Gators had chilled on their interest, the same is said from folks at Southern Cal. Reports that he passed on any of these three schools are ill informed.

UGA player's brother commits to Florida

Neiron Ball, the younger brother of Georgia defensive Neland Ball, was also in Gainesville over the weekend, and upon returning home to Jackson, Ga., decided to take Urban Meyer up on his scholarship offer.

While this might come as a shock to Georgia fans, a look at the big picture might explain Ball's decision. The Bulldogs had an explosion of commitments in the past several weeks, 14 since June 9, and find themselves with five defensive ends already in the fold. With 18 commitments in all, UGA is nearly full for the Class of 2010.

The one that got away, maybe …

Lithonia tailback Mack Brown committed to Florida following his trip to Gainesville for Friday Night Lights. Brown, who identified the Gators, Bulldogs, and Crimson Tide as his early favorites last fall, announced the Gators had emerged as the leader. Following another trip to Athens in April, he said he hoped to decide in the summer.

That decision was made earlier this week, or was it?

Brown told UGASports after announcing his commitment to the Gators: "Nothing is final until you sign across the dotted line Georgia is still up there on the top."

He went on to say that, he still hopes to set up an official visit with the Bulldogs and plans to visit Athens in the near future.

CarverGate and Past Posting

When Georgia coaches refused the commitment of a prospect who had waited too long to accept their scholarship offer and subsequently the prospect's high school coach went on the warpath by commenting to any open mic that he was banning UGA from his campus, we had yet another example of how ridiculous college football recruiting has become.

It is unfortunate that the prospect from Columbus-Carver will not be able to play for his home state's flagship university. Perhaps the Georgia coaches can learn from this that they need to call everyone associated with a prospect, to include updating their Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and Goodyear Blimp pages with every event that takes place as they are building their next recruiting class, but the coach needs know his place as well.

The website for The Georgia High School Association's "about us" page reads: "The objective of the GHSA organization shall be the promotion of education in Georgia from a mental, physical, and moral viewpoint, to standardize and encourage participation in athletics, and to promote sportsmanship and an appreciation for and study of music, speech, and other fine arts through Region and State competitions."

If the coach feels that the UGA coaches committed such an agreeable act in filling their recruiting class before his player could commit—again, Georgia received 14 verbal commitments in the past six weeks, bringing their total to 18 with just 12 scholarship seniors on the 2009 roster—perhaps he should encourage the sportsmanship and understand the rules of the game.

We constantly hear of prospects verbally committing to a university only to leave the door open (in fact, we heard about this earlier in this column) for other suitors. While hand mucking is perfectly justified for prospects as they review their options following a verbal "commitment" (no need to define that word since its Webster's entry is not applicable to college recruiting), so too are the college coaches.

College coaches offer scores of prospects every year in the hopes that they will fill their needs. With so many positions to fill on offense and defense, there is a sliding scale as to how many prospects will be signed at any one position.

It's a gamble for both sides, and, in the end, high rolling prospects need to understand the risk of holding their hand too long. Furthermore, when high school coaches are witness to such actions and later cry foul at the consequence and then 86 a university from their campus in protest, they disregard their mandate of "appreciation for and study of music, speech, and other fine arts" and put themselves between the student athlete and a college scholarship.

Regardless of the high school coach's opinion on the recruitment of one player by a given university, to deny a university from offering a college scholarship to another player is egregious, and in the end limits the educational opportunities of the student athlete.



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