The University of South Florida will honor all football scholarship offers made to prospects who had verbally committed to former coach Skip Holtz, USF spokesman Jeremy Sharpe said Wednesday.
That had seemed to be the plan all along.
During a Dec. 2 news conference to announce Holtz's firing, six days before Willie Taggart was hired at USF, Bulls athletic director Doug Woolard said, "We've entered into a partnership with those prospective athletes … we're going to hold up our commitment.''
But the past few days, USF has battled negative public perception after it appeared Taggart's staff had rescinded a scholarship offer to Robinson High offensive lineman Connor Rafferty, who verbally committed to Holtz last summer.
According to Rafferty's mother, Tracy, the player received a late-night telephone call Sunday from USF assistant coach Walt Wells. Essentially, the player was told to look elsewhere, that he was no longer a front-line priority.
Rafferty, 6-foot-3, 280 pounds, has since lined up a weekend trip to Eastern Kentucky and received an offer from Samford.
Rafferty, an honor student and a Class 5A second-team all-state selection, and his family have scheduled a meeting today with USF coaches to consider the possibilities.
According to NCAA rules, Taggart is not allowed to comment on any prospect until he is officially signed to a scholarship. National Signing Day is Feb. 6.
Rafferty's mother said the communication seemed clear that USF wanted to move on.
"We realize that new coaches come in and make their own decisions,'' Rafferty's mother said. "Had they said (when Taggart was hired), 'You may or may not have this scholarship,' then we could've opened it up and had time to look elsewhere.
"We thought everything was fine until we got that call about 10:30 Sunday night. We're looking at about three weeks before signing day. That puts you in a bind. Connor wasn't playing games with anybody. He committed to USF and stuck to it. Sometimes, it doesn't seem like it's a two-way street.''
USF remains in the hunt for Winter Park High quarterback Asiantii Woulard, considered one of the nation's top dual-threat athletes. Woulard has twice verbally committed to USF and twice de-committed. He once said he would announce his school choice at the U.S. Army All-American Game, but backed away from that. He's also considering offers from N.C. State, Kentucky, Clemson and UCLA.
The Bulls also have benefitted from some 11th-hour changes of heart.
In 2009, Miami Monsignor Pace cornerback Kayvon Webster, considered a firm commitment to the Miami Hurricanes, changed to USF on signing day.
"You have to do what's best for you,'' Webster said. "If you're not looking out for your best interests, nobody else is going to.''
That appears true at Cincinnati, which hired Tommy Tuberville away from Texas Tech on Dec. 8.
Several players, recruited to Cincinnati by Butch Jones, now at Tennessee, said Tuberville went weeks without communicating with them and has since pulled their scholarship offers.
Demetrius Monday, a cornerback from Fairburn, Ga., who verbally committed to Cincinnati, said he was told to "look other places'' by Tuberville's staff. Monday said he had other scholarship offers, but hasn't talked to those coaches in six months.
"We've talked to some other kids committed to Cincinnati and they say the same thing, that they haven't heard from the staff,'' Monday told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Basically, (Tuberville) isn't calling anybody. He's trying to get the kids to de-committ on their own. It's a bad situation.''
Broadcaster Charles Davis, who signed with Tennessee in 1982, said he is sometimes sickened by today's recruiting landscape.
"I decided on Tennessee three days before signing day and called all the other schools I had visited,'' Davis said. "On signing day, the coach was there at 7 a.m. I don't think we even had fax then. I signed and went to class. Somebody said, 'Isn't this signing day? What happened?' I said, 'I'm going to Tennessee.' And that was that.
"Today, it's absolutely crazy with kids and coaches running amok. I can't imagine having a school back away from you with everything so public now. When you're 17, you're embarrassed to have a pimple on your face. Now kids have to deal with schools pulling their scholarships. Wow.''
Davis said there's a flip-side to the recruiting frenzy. Coaches are on a much shorter leash. Kansas (Turner Gill) and Colorado (Jon Embree) fired their coaches after just two seasons. Taggart is replacing Holtz, who was fired after three seasons (with five years remaining on his contract) for not winning enough.
"Of course, the stakes are incredibly high to make the right decisions on these players because your job might be on the line,'' Davis said. "We're going to judge the adults more harshly than the kids. That's normal.
"If a kid bounces around and keeps changing his school, well, it's foolish, but he's a kid. But if these schools get into the practice of pulling scholarships, particularly late in the game when there's no fallback option, that gets held to a higher standard. The adults have to show the way. I'm always in favor of what's best for the kid.''
At USF, it appears Rafferty has the option of choosing his original course, although it's unknown whether that is still the best course for him.
"The whole thing has just left a sour taste in my mouth,'' said Mike DePue, who retired as Robinson's coach following the Knights' Class 5A state semifinal finish. "Willie Taggart can do what he wants with his program. But Connor did everything right. He committed to USF and stuck with it. He wasn't playing any games. He found out where he wanted to go, then ended it right there. That's the right way to do it.''
Rafferty was uncertain what to expect when Holtz was fired. But Taggart gave him initial reassurance.
After that, for Christmas, everyone in Rafferty's family received USF T-shirts.
"It went from excitement to shock to disappointment to, I guess, a real learning experience," Rafferty's mother said.
Monday, when USF appeared to no longer be an option, Rafferty was asked what he had learned.
"I've learned about the business side of recruiting. It's definitely a business.''