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Vanderdoes saga ends, but not without some unanswered questions

Jul 31, 2013, 5:31 PM EDT


One-time Notre Dame signee Eddie Vanderdoes has won his final appeal with the National Letter of Intent Steering Committee, gaining immediate eligibility to play for UCLA this fall. The victory for Vanderdoes comes after a rather lengthy (and sometimes public) spat with Notre Dame and head coach Brian Kelly, who allowed Vanderdoes to enroll at UCLA, but refused to release him from the letter of intent he signed with Notre Dame in February.

Kelly released a statement today commenting on the decision.

“While I disagree with yesterday’s decision by the NCAA National Letter of Intent Appeals Committee to reverse its original ruling and grant Eddie Vanderdoes a complete release from his NLI, I understand and respect the entire appeal process,” Kelly said in a statement. “However, this result does not change my opinion concerning the importance of protecting the integrity of the NLI program, nor will it change our approach to the process going forward.”

For those looking to distill this story into a debate topic, the Vanderdoes appeal has been a juicy offseason subject that’s done its best to create heroes and villains. While some national pundits do their best to paint the Irish head coach as the bad guy in this situation, the truth is likely somewhere in the middle.

From what is publicly known, the main thrust of Vanderdoes’ decision is reportedly the desire to be close to his ailing grandmother. In late May, Vanderdoes publicly commented that he looked forward to sharing his story and the rationale behind the decision. The only comment made since then has been through ESPN reporter Joe Schad, who quoted Vanderdoes in early June as saying, “I take my commitments seriously, but as circumstances changed, the most important commitment is to my family.”

Since then, information on the saga has mostly advanced through the work of local Sacramento prep sports reporter Joe Davidson. In his most recent update, Davidson tweeted that Vanderdoes “wanted (his) release from LOI for myriad reasons,” citing that it was more than just a “change of heart.” Rumors of distrust have long surrounded Vanderdoes’ departure, with a Signing Day snafu inadvertently including Vanderdoes’ name on a document circulated at a local South Bend press conference announcing the recruiting class, ruining an announcement planned later in the day at Vanderdoes’ high school.

(As one of the people at Notre Dame’s press conference, the document containing Vanderdoes’ name was collected within minutes, with an amended list redistributed without Vanderdoes’ name, but not before a few reporters tweeted the lineman’s inclusion on the list.)

Notre Dame fans have been overly skeptical about Vanderdoes’ rationale for leaving his binding commitment just months after signing his letter of intent, the culmination of a whirlwind recruiting experience. Vanderdoes, once a long-time USC commitment walked away from the Trojans in December before eventually choosing Notre Dame on Signing Day over Alabama, USC and UCLA. That Vanderdoes would visit South Bend in late January, pick the Irish a week later, only to want out from South Bend before ever stepping foot on campus as a student-athlete reeked of something fishy to fans, with corresponding rumors swirling in every direction.

After talking with people connected to UCLA, Notre Dame, and the Vanderdoes family, here is what I’ve cobbled together after chasing this story for weeks. If there is skepticism about an ill grandmother, it seems warranted. One source very close to the situation said that Vanderdoes asked for his initial release from Notre Dame well before ever mentioning any family reason or a sick relative.

In regards to allegations that UCLA tampered with a signed athlete, the same source mentioned that communication between Vanderdoes and the Bruins started well before any official recruiting window re-opened, and that the communication may have been initiated by the Vanderdoes family very soon after Signing Day. One source close to the UCLA program told me that the Bruins were actively pursuing Vanderdoes throughout May.

When reached for a comment on Vanderdoes’ appeal victory, or any misconduct in the recruitment of the star defensive tackle, UCLA declined to comment.

A connection between UCLA defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Angus McClure and Vanderdoes’ personal trainer Jon Osterhout has been mentioned by multiple outlets. Osterhout played for McClure at Sacramento State, and trained Vanderdoes throughout the offseason. In a conversation with Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated, Osterhout said he had “no inkling” that Vanderdoes was trying to get out of his commitment, which makes sense considering Osterhout was featured in an offseason story written by Sampson in mid-May, just a week before the news broke. Still, the connection of a personal trainer with the Bruins’ recruiting coordinator is more than coincidental.

Any pursuit of proof that UCLA continued communicating with Vanderdoes or members of his inner-circle was stopped by the Bruin athletic department. A Freedom of Information Act Request seeking emails sent to Vanderdoes or his family after Signing Day (an NCAA violation) by head coach Jim Mora, defensive coordinator Lou Spanos, and defensive line coach Angus McClure, was denied by the university.

One scenario that did play into Vanderdoes’ decision to back out of his commitment to Notre Dame was academics. While the Irish coaching staff had an academic roadmap clearly laid out for Vanderdoes upon signing his letter of intent, multiple sources have confirmed to me that Vanderdoes and his family felt mislead by some of the requirements, including a well established foreign language requirement. (That Vanderdoes would be the first high profile recruit not to have known about the language requirement at Notre Dame might be difficult for some to believe.)

In the end, Brian Kelly’s battle to hold up the integrity of the letter-of-intent program was more about setting a precedent than holding a player hostage to a promise he doesn’t want to honor. For those thinking this is a vindictive coach trying to punish a player, you only have to look at five-star transfers like Aaron Lynch, Gunner Kiel and Davonte Neal, three recruits with profiles similar to Vanderdoes that Kelly had no problem letting walk. Vanderdoes himself thanked Notre Dame for being “gracious” in the process, while still pursuing his appeal for immediate eligibility.

Over at the Bylaw Blog, John Infante digs a little deeper about what Vanderdoes’ LOI appeal victory means, especially considering this is one of three high profile cases this spring where an elite recruit wanted to back out of his signed commitment. Infante believes that the worry about signed Letters-of-Intent no longer being binding should be quelled by the fact that it took two appeals for Vanderdoes to win.

That’s easy for Infante or anyone else to say, but in Brian Kelly’s case, the fight had to be fought. With a national recruiting footprint where the Irish often walk into rival programs’ back yards attempting to pull out their finest prospects, the concern that a letter-of-intent isn’t enough is a valid one. After rollercoaster recruitments of elite prospects like Lynch, Neal, Kiel and Stephon Tuitt, allowing opposing programs to continue to work over recruits before they have a chance to step on campus and actually experience life as a student-athlete at Notre Dame would all but extend the recruiting calendar another four months.

While it may not fit into the angry narrative that some columnists are pushing, holding the line on Vanderdoes wasn’t as much to limit a talented freshman football player, but to keep rival coaching staffs away from negative recruiting after the war is over. Say what you want about the fairness of the Letter-of-Intent program, but the system is what it is.

The Irish staff is eager to put this whole debacle in their rearview mirror. And while they don’t agree with the decision to let Vanderdoes play, they do wish him well — he won’t be the first or last high profile recruit to leave South Bend.

  1. stedward - Aug 1, 2013 at 12:12 PM

    If there is an additional reason that isn’t public, it exists in a small window where Kelly doesn’t think it is enough for a release but the NCAA does. Although the NCAA seems to use a dart board and some Dungeons and Dragons dice to decide the rules these days.

  2. mattymill - Aug 1, 2013 at 12:17 PM

    The ruling is unfortunate, but hopefully now we can get back to talking about players on the current ND roster. Go Irish!

  3. bernhtp - Aug 1, 2013 at 12:46 PM

    Keith, thanks for the informative and thoughtful article that goes well beyond the rehash of other stories you read on a subject.

    What still mystifies me is what the substantive content of Vanderdoes’ appeal was. I don’t believe it was predominantly his grandmother’s health. The family made allegations of Notre Dame misrepresentation. Maybe the NCAA bought into that some, or maybe it was something totally different.

  4. 4horsemenrideagain - Aug 1, 2013 at 1:15 PM

    EV did what young kids do sometimes, which is makes decisions and then change their minds. Whatever was the cause, I wish people wouldn’t wish harm on the kid (or his grandmother, for crying out loud!). Like everyone else, he has to own his decisions and the consequences that follow.

    What I hope people do talk about and complain about is whether the NCAA has, and whether it will investigate UCLA’s involvement, and this isn’t coming from being a jilted fan. It’s like steroids in baseball; if you’re going to have a rule against steroids/contacting recruits outside the permissible time period, you better enforce it vigorously. Half-assed investigations and slaps on the wrist do nothing to deter future transgressions. If MLB wanted steroids out of baseball it would say you get caught once and you’re finished. If the NCAA wanted coaches, middlemen and fixers to stop contacting recruits, it would make the sanctions hurt, really hurt, like a year’s suspension and serious scholarship losses, not like that joke of a sanction imposed on USC after its mess. But, just like MLB, the NCAA doesn’t want to risk damaging its product. God forbid the MLB/NCAA suspend a marquee player/program for a significant amount of time! That could affect its bottom line.

    So, MLB players will continue to juice, recruiting will proceed completely devoid of integrity and the cheaters will continue to make MLB and the NCAA look like the gangs of disingenuous profit whores that they are.

  5. 1hoss - Aug 1, 2013 at 9:12 PM

    Let him go, he’s going to UCLA, and isn’t that punishment enough.

  6. rcali - Aug 1, 2013 at 10:31 PM

    Still don’t see how Kelly has any room to talk, he’s gone with the next best NFL offer.

  7. mediocrebob - Aug 2, 2013 at 7:41 AM

    Maybe Cali. And that would be a great thing for Kelly. But BK has been honest throughout. The thing about EV is that he lied. But I’m very sick of the whole story

    I hope UCLA blows but then again I’d like to play them in a big bowl or playoff in the next 4 so EV can get buried by our OL.

    Go Irish.

  8. ndclassof60 - Aug 2, 2013 at 8:55 AM

    “…multiple sources have confirmed to me that Vanderdoes and his family felt mislead by some of the requirements…”

    When does a “journalist” (?) learn that the past tense of “to lead” is “led”?

    • irishfootball55 - Aug 2, 2013 at 10:42 PM

      If they felt ” mislead” isn’t it the parents responsibility to ask questions and make sure that they are clear on all requirements and expectations before allowing their son to sign the LOI? It sounds like a cop out and another excuse with no substance. He is gone and a member of UCLA and that’s fine. However, the lack of accountability and excuses made to allow this young man to beat the LOI system is laughable.

  9. irishfootball55 - Aug 2, 2013 at 4:29 PM

    Keith stay on the connection between UCLA recruiter Angus McClure and Eddies personal trainer Jon Osterhout. Osterhout is or was offered a position with the UCLA football program and he was the friend/ recruiter who changed Eddie’s mind about attending ND. Furthermore, Eddie purposely did not take a class that he needed to meet academic requirements at ND. If in fact his grandmother is ill then certainly that is a difficult situation but there really is nothing that points to that as his reason for wanting out if his LOI. This decision sets a horrible precedent for future recruits who sign LOI with one school than simply change their minds after some shady dealings by UCLA and a case of buyers remorse in the Vanderdoes family. Joe Davidson is a hack who is so far up the Vanderdoes families ass he knows what they had for dinner last night. He continued to be the mouth piece for the family insisting that the real reason for the change of heart would be revealed and it never was. The broken promise was ND refused to hire his personal trainer and UCLA eventually will. How can any recruit be denied his release from an LOI now? Any good attorney will just use this case as the focal point for any appeal and be correct in doing just that. At the end of the day the LOI system is broken and no recruits really have to honor their commitment to the school they sign with. The new ” Vanderdoes” exception is in place.

    • tedlinko - Aug 10, 2013 at 5:02 AM

      I’m not sure that this totally destroys the LOI system, but it doesn’t help.

      I agree totally on Davidson, however. I live in Sacramento and throughout this saga he didn’t act like a newspaper reporter — more like the Vanderdoes family communication’s director. In fact, he even served as the MC at the little signing ceremony that they orchestrated.

      I don’t believe anything he writes — certainly not on this story. He’s too close to it to be objective.

  10. rick2633 - Aug 4, 2013 at 12:29 AM

    We’re you guys like this when Amir Carlisle dumped his USC letter of intent and came to ND? Sooner or later, the smarter recruits are going to realize that they needn’t sign LOIs at all.

    • tedlinko - Aug 10, 2013 at 5:16 AM

      The Carlisle situation was completely different — more like the Aaron Lynch and Davonte Neal situations. None of those players reneged on a LOI. They actually enrolled at, and played for, the schools with which they signed, which is what the LOI is a commitment to do. After their freshman season’s, personal situations had changed such that they sought, and were granted, transfers, which is something that a number of players do at some point in their career for one reason or another. But it is important that the LOI is an official declaration of intent to enroll, but not a 4 year commitment. A player who requests a transfer after his freshman (or any other) year isn’t reneging on a LOI.

      To your point, ND fans were generally excited to get Carlisle and quite disappointed to lose Lynch and Neal, but none of those situations involved the kind of questionable dealings that went on in this case, so by and large there wasn’t the kind of criticism of any of those players.

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