Vanderdoes saga ends, but not without some unanswered questions

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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.