Kids who are 16 or 17 years old are often immature, regardless of whether they’re on the debate team, in the band or happen to stand 6-foot-5, weigh 300 pounds and are heavily recruited as a football prospect.
College coaches and recruiters know this better than anyone. It’s easy to see why these coaches would be frustrated when their recruiting efforts go for naught, especially when they’ve spent months seeing the player’s name on their list of commitments.
But it’s an ugly look when the multimillion-dollar coach responds in an equally immature way.
That’s what happened with the eventful recruitment of Central-Phenix City offensive Javion Cohen.
First, just the facts.
Cohen originally committed to South Carolina. He quickly backed off that pledge and committed to Auburn more than a year ago. His interest in Alabama came relatively late in the process. Two weeks ago, at the Super 7 state championships at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Cohen was still on board with the Tigers. As I interviewed Thompson High’s Jeremiah Alexander (the No. 1 sophomore recruit in the state who had just spent the previous three hours battling Cohen in the Class 7A championship game), Cohen walked past, patted Alexander on the shoulder and offered a two-word greeting: “War Eagle.” Clearly, at that point, Cohen still had positive feelings about Auburn and was doing his part to convince Alexander that Auburn was a great option for him, as well.
Two days after that exchange, Cohen took his official visit to Tuscaloosa. By Sunday of that weekend visit, he had made up his mind that he would sign with the Tide this week. He immediately informed the coaches at Alabama and Auburn of his decision.
The plan was to make the commitment public 10 days later on National Signing Day. But here’s where the story goes off the rails.
Gus Malzahn and his staff decided they didn’t want to be any part of a signing day flip to their archrivals. So, the Auburn staff let it be known through several Auburn beat writers that they were no longer recruiting Cohen and he didn’t have the option to sign with the Tigers.
When that news went public, Cohen went ahead and announced his intentions to sign with Alabama. But he didn’t stop there. His quote to Jordan Hill of the Opelika-Auburn News is the stuff of recruiting legend.
“They were upset and sent reports saying my offer was pulled,” Cohen told Hill. “I have no respect for that university at all, and I’m sure the feeling is mutual.”
Many Auburn fans were thrilled with Malzahn for not playing along with the charade of a public commitment that gave the indication Auburn was still in the running. That reaction is understandable. Nobody wants to lose their top-ranked offensive line recruit to their rivals on signing day. It’s better to save face and try to embarrass the kid before he can embarrass you.
But that short-term gratification is more than offset by the long-term harm done to everyone involved, especially Auburn.
Any choice Cohen made was going to be a good one. A young, talented football player can accomplish everything in the world at Alabama or Auburn. His reason for choosing the Tide seems reasonable.
“They had a different approach to the game than anyone else,” Cohen told the Opelika-Auburn News. “They actually cared about me as a person by showing me the many different things that would help me grow as a young man. And it’s Alabama, where the standard is a national championship and not just a bowl game.”
Yes, I would interpret that last line as a dig at Auburn, but that came after the gloves were off and the feud had become full blown and public.
If Cohen was a once-in-a-generation star at Central-Phenix City then maybe Auburn’s response to his de-commitment wouldn’t have major consequences. But Central has recently produced the state’s No. 1 player in the Class of 2018 in Clemson wide receiver Justyn Ross, 2020 Clemson wide receiver commit E.J. Williams, 2020 Kentucky offensive line commit Joshua Jones and Cohen. In next year’s class, running back Joseph McKay and wide receiver Jordan Meeks are already garnering major recruiting attention. More great players will come after them.
They will all be aware of the story of how Auburn’s coaches went out of their way to embarrass one of their own. It won’t do any good to say, “but he started it.”
That’s the kind of reaction you would expect from a jilted teenager, not a college football coach who should know trying to save face in the short term is not worth the long-term damage from a PR nightmare that could have easily been avoided.
Randy Kennedy, who has been a leading voice on the Gulf Coast sports scene for 17 years, writes a weekly column for Lagniappe. Follow him on Twitter: @kennedy_randy.
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