It all worked out for Matt Colburn, and after only six days of hell. Six days of becoming an accidental role model, reminding other potential college recruits to treat the process like a business decision. Six days of becoming a case study in why college football players have been trying to unionize.
Colburn is the high school running back who had accepted Bobby Petrino's scholarship offer at Louisville last June. He turned away all other recruiters after that, giving Petrino his word he'd come and accepting the coach's word back.
But as we know, Petrino's word is only as good as the motorcycle it crashed under.
So last Monday, two days before national signing day, Colburn was called out of his first-period physics class at Dutch Fork High outside of Columbia, South Carolina, to take a phone call. It was from Louisville assistant coach Tony Grantham; Petrino had him do the dirty work.
"He…just told me I wouldn't be able to sign with the 2015 class on Wednesday," Colburn said. "I just didn't really know what to say. He said, 'We had some issues at defensive back.' But they already knew that. They told me that before. I really thought he was joking. I chuckled. It didn't make any sense. It was like a dream and I couldn't grasp what he was saying."
Colburn's faced an uncertain future because Petrino went back on his word. Simple as that. But in a lot of ways, Colburn lucked out. He visited Georgia Southern and Wake Forest over this past weekend, and he already had an offer from Marshall. Late Sunday night, he told Bleacher Report he had decided which school he would go to, but wouldn't announce anything until he signed and made it official on Wednesday.
Who could blame him? This past week, Colburn ran through all the emotions and feelings, starting with this: "I was beyond embarrassed."
By Thursday, he had already refocused and started to piece his future back together. And in his deepest embarrassment, Colburn told his younger teammates that when their time comes, they shouldn't rush anything. Take your time. Use all five of the college visits you are permitted. Enjoy the process.
Colburn became the example for all high school football players. I hope everyone heard this story. Everybody took this as evidence that Petrino hadn't changed. True, but he certainly isn't the first one to have pulled something like this. These high school kids need to know there is zero to be gained by giving a verbal commitment and closing doors. When you negotiate a contract, you don't tell the other side everything up front and tell everyone else to go away.
College football powers do not set up the rules to help high school kids. They do it to help themselves. Think about this: Petrino didn't break any rules. This is just another example of why Northwestern players were trying to form a union last year, and why college players can get in trouble for selling their autograph while the sport's big powers pull in hundreds of millions of dollars.
But surely Colburn had known about Petrino's reputation.
"I'm all about second chances," Colburn said. "I'm all about forgiving people and just looking past previous wrongdoings and things of that sort."
Petrino has made a career of second chances.
He left the Atlanta Falcons midseason with only a note. He pushed Auburn to fire his former boss, Tommy Tuberville, so he could have the job. He left Louisville the first time he was there shortly after making a long-term commitment with a new contract. And, of course, most infamously was Arkansas, where he got into a motorcycle crash with a girlfriend—he is married—who worked in the athletic department. Then he lied about it.
Petrino is just such a good coach, though. When Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich re-hired him, he said it was only after Petrino convinced him that "he's a changed man."
Jurich bet his reputation on Petrino. He's sweating now.
Meanwhile, Colburn's coach at Dutch Fork, Tom Knotts, a highly successful head coach in North Carolina and now South Carolina for over three decades, was not in the mood for second chances. He immediately banned Petrino and his assistants from the Dutch Fork campus.
"We are moving on, planning quick visits, etc.," Knotts told Bleacher Report in an email late last week. "I guess Louisville did what they thought was best for their program. ... From our point, the timing could only have been worse if it had come (Wednesday) or Tuesday. Having shut down recruitment after the commitment makes it hard to find a suitable place."
At his signing-day press conference, Petrino pointed out he had offered Colburn what is called a grayshirt. That meant he wouldn't come to Louisville campus the Monday after high school graduation, as they had agreed, but would instead wait until January of 2016 and come on scholarship then. Petrino said this is a common thing, just one of the truths of college football recruiting.
He meant it as a defense, but that only made the story scary.
"That whole span until January, I would have just been sitting at home," Colburn said. "And who's to say they wouldn't rescind that offer again?"
Colburn said that Knotts, whom he described as livid, immediately started calling coaches all over the country on his behalf. Colburn called, too, sheepishly, after having rejected many of those same coaches months earlier.
He said Wake Forest's coaches had heard of him by reading about Petrino reneging on his offer.
Colburn had been Louisville's biggest cheerleader since he went to Petrino's camp in June. Colburn said Petrino told his dad, "I want your son to play for me," and told Colburn "You're one heck of a football player."
"I was so overwhelmed."
Colburn said he last spoke with Petrino three weeks ago on his official recruiting visit. For many recruits, the official visit is just a ceremonial thing. He said there was no sign of trouble, but that Grantham, the assistant who had spent the most time recruiting him, mentioned that some defensive backs had left for the NFL.
It all worked out. But if this can happen to South Carolina's Mr. Football, then what happens to the guys who may not get media recognition?
"I guess the business of college football," Colburn said, "isn't the most innocent thing in the world."
Greg Couch covers college football for Bleacher Report.
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