Cleveland High School football player learns that verbal scholarship ‘offers’ aren’t always offers

tstevens@newsobserver.comMay 15, 2014 

Cleveland High School’s Sterling Johnson, left, accepted a scholarship offer from Tennessee but was told there was no guarantee the offer would stand. Here, Johnson prepares to tackle South Johnston's Clarence Crawford during a November game.

JOHNNY JOHNSON — News & Observer file photo

High school standout Sterling Johnson, a 6-foot-5, 271-pound defensive end, learned Tuesday that the verbal football scholarship offer he received months ago from the University of Tennessee wasn’t really an offer.

After deciding he wanted to play college football at Tennessee, the Clayton Cleveland High junior called the Volunteers on Tuesday to share the news that he was excited to be joining the program. But during the ensuing discussion, Johnson learned that Tennessee coach Butch Jones would evaluate him again if he went to the Tennessee football camp during the summer and might make an official offer then. Johnson promptly decided to attend Clemson instead.

“They (Tennessee) dropped it on me out of the blue,” Johnson said. “Never a hint of this. I told them a month ago that they were my leader, and they seemed excited about me coming then.”

Johnson’s situation is not uncommon. Because of the stiff competition for top athletes, many coaches recruit far more players than the number of available scholarships. The case illustrates the high stakes for college coaches in deciding the best use of scholarships and the resulting pressure on talented high school athletes. Coaches must identify potential recruits early and court them vigorously, but might not sign them all at the end of the process.

The months of attention given the most talented young athletes before selections are made is both exhilarating and misleading, and the system, with some players receiving dozens of unofficial verbal offers but no written commitment, magnifies the pressure on making a decision.

Johnson said less than a month ago that he planned to wait until October to make his college choice. But the pressure became too much.

“I’m a 16-year-old high school student,” Johnson said. “Every day I get home from school and have five or six Twitter messages to call this or that coach. Then I get all the calls from the recruiting services. Everybody is a nice guy, and I know that they are just doing their job, but it is nonstop.

“I had to make it stop.”

Major college programs can have 85 scholarship football players and usually bring in 20 to 25 recruits each year, according to Michael Farrell, the national recruiting director at, an online recruiting site. No school in the country can land all the recruits it pursues, so many programs make unofficial verbal offers to 100 or more players a year, according to Farrell.

“If a kid has 50 offers, he probably could commit today to about 20 of the schools, be told that he couldn’t commit at 20 and be told that he needed further evaluation at 10,” Farrell said.

The verbal scholarship offers that next year’s seniors hold now are essentially little more than conversation. Colleges cannot make written scholarship offers to players until August of a player’s senior year. Schools and players cannot make a binding commitment to each other until February of a player’s senior year when the player can sign a national letter of intent.

“I’m not condemning Tennessee at all. This is the way the NCAA has set up the system,” Farrell said. “Coaches are constantly re-evaluating players.”

Jason Yellin, the University of Tennessee assistant athletic director for media relations, said the school would not comment on recruiting. College coaches are prohibited by the NCAA from commenting on athletes who can be recruited.

Announcing his choice

Johnson’s process was on display on Twitter for his 2,850 followers. He announced on social media on Monday that instead of waiting until October, he was going to announce his choice of school on Tuesday.

Tuesday morning he tweeted, “I’ll be tweeting tonight where I’ll be committing between 7:30-8 pm.”

But after the call to Tennessee and the Vols’ rejection, he met with his family, and they agreed Clemson was the best choice.

“I would like to thank all the schools who have offered but, It’s official, I am verbally committed to Clemson university ! #Tigers,” he tweeted at 7:57 p.m.

Scott Riley, who was named as Cleveland’s coach this spring, said Tennessee hadn’t been as attentive as some other schools recently, but he thought the offer still was valid.

“Sterling is still an exceptional player,” Riley said. “This doesn’t diminish him at all.”

Johnson is ranked as a four-star player on a five-star scale. He is ranked among the top 25 defensive end prospects by recruiting services and holds offers from schools such as national champion Florida State, 2012 national champion Alabama and Florida.

‘The best choice’

Johnson said he knew he didn’t want to go to Tennessee after speaking with the coaches. He understood the situation but thought he had been misled and said he felt betrayed.

Johnson talked to his parents and they agreed on Clemson. Johnson called and said Tigers coach Dabo Swinney seemed very excited about his choice.

“I had prayed about this decision and to me, God worked out the way it is supposed to be,” Johnson said. “I love Clemson and really like Coach Swinney. Clemson wasn’t my first choice, but it was the best choice.”

He tweeted, “A man told me one day ‘God has to knock you over the head with a bone sometimes for you to see things right’ definitely the truth!”

Even though Johnson is committed to Clemson and the school assured him that it has a scholarship for him, nothing is official for Johnson or any other high school junior. The player or the school can renege on the agreement without penalty.

Johnson summed up his recruiting experience on Thursday morning on Twitter. “I’ve learned that 90% of these people on these boards on recruiting (sites) have NO clue what they talking about!”

Stevens: 919-829-8910

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