Truth behind Alex Collins' letter-of-intent debacle exposes another NCAA rule in dire need of an update

Eric Adelson
Yahoo Sports

Seems like everyone has an idea for NCAA reform – some more feasible and rational than others. The groundswell of change has even landed Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel on the cover of TIME Magazine.

Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, whose Hogs face Manziel this weekend, has a suggestion of his own. His idea, however, relates to a real-life situation and a breakout star on his team.

The name Alex Collins might not ring familiar, yet his story sure will. Collins is the recruit out of South Florida whose mother absconded with his letter of intent back in February. That was two days after Collins committed to Arkansas, and it set off a national wave of concern and jokes as the runaway mom failed to appear with the needed document.

The story is amusing, especially now that Collins is the SEC’s leading rusher. It’s also instructive, though, when one hears the other side of the story.

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The running back felt tremendous pressure to go to Miami, or at least stay in Florida. That’s where pretty much everyone around him went, and that’s where his family could see him play. Collins, however, wanted to leave the state. Specifically, he wanted to play at Wisconsin for Bielema.

Bielema recruited Collins heavily, and during the home visit, they took a walk near his Florida home. “I know it’s gonna be hard to leave,” the coach told Collins. “But I see men grow the most when it’s outside the state.” 

“Coach,” Collins replied, “it’s not going to be hard for me to leave.”

Collins was so ready to go that he became emotional when Bielema left Wisconsin (which he continues to refer to only as “my previous institution”).

“I was shocked,” Collins says.

Not as shocked as Collins’ mom was when her son picked Arkansas. Most around the country thought it was some overprotective parent trying to hijack her child’s dreams. It turns out Alex shoulders some of the blame too.

“I never told my family where I was planning to go,” he says.

So Collins’ mom, Andrea McDonald, feared the worst. When the two talked it out and she learned the deeper reasons for his choice, she relented and Collins was off to Fayetteville.

Bielema says this drama could have been avoided if the NCAA allowed schools to pay for parents to come on official visits. 

“I don’t understand why we wouldn’t,” Bielema says. “With Alex, his mom wasn’t able to come here. We should try to allow one parent or guardian to come on an official visit. All they have to believe in a school is the home visit; they never get to see the facilities, or our people. That’s an easy one. But we get so old school in NCAA's way of thinking. This would help kids make a lot better decisions.”

Asked if such an allowance would have altered his situation back in February, Collins said, “Absolutely. I know if she would have seen this place, she would want to move here.”

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Most people know little about Arkansas and assume the worst. The truth is the northwest part of the state has always been picturesque, and it’s grown rapidly along with the company that dominates its landscape: Wal-Mart. Many shook their heads in disbelief when Bielema chose Fayetteville over Madison, so it’s understandable that Collins’ mom assumed her son would choose Coral Gables over a distant program that fell apart after Bobby Petrino’s infamous motorcycle accident.

It’s hard to argue Collins made the wrong call. He desperately wanted to play in a traditional running scheme, and it doesn’t get much more straight-forward than what Bielema did at Wisconsin.

“We played a lot of wing-T at my high school,” Collins says, “so sometimes defenses could tell if we lined up one way, I was running the other. The I-formation allows me to use more of my decision-making skills.”

That he’s done: Collins was the first SEC running back to rush for 100 yards in each of his first three games. Bielema compares him to D-I career TD record-holder Montee Ball, and Darren Sproles, who played at Kansas State when Bielema was there. He says Collins excelled in a 50-yard sandpit, which the staff has set up as a training ground (and a proving ground).

“He has such light feet,” Bielema says. “When he jumped in the sand pit, unlike most kids, he looked like he was on top of the sand.”

Collins and sophomore rusher Jonathan Williams pose a tricky matchup for the Texas A&M Aggies on Saturday, as the running attack may be able to keep Manziel off the field for extended periods of time. That’s part of how Bielema went to three straight Rose Bowls even though most pundits picked more glitzy programs to win the Big Ten. Winning a conference title will be tougher at Arkansas, but Bielema has at least two crucial ingredients already.

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He also has a poster child for an NCAA change that seems almost too obvious. Why shouldn’t schools be allowed to pay for a parent to see a place where their teenager is hoping to live for roughly four years?

“I don’t want to give universal money to kids,” Bielema says. “A lot do well in life. But in today’s world, you have so many kids that transfer because the information changes. You have coaches who build a recruiting pitch based on what a kid wants to hear. Kids are 18 years of age. As parents, they have years of living and they can see through smoke coaches throw up.”

Now that the smoke around his recruitment situation has cleared, Collins wants his mom to see where he’s found a home.

That doesn’t seem so unreasonable.

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