John McGrath: Great-grandfather of Emerald Ridge’s Jessica Davis architect of national letter of intent

When a high school volleyball player signs a national letter of intent to enroll at an NCAA Division II school, it’s a happy occasion not typically seen as historic.

But when Emerald Ridge senior Jessica Davis made her commitment to the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs official Tuesday night in Puyallup, she signed a document fit for a museum wall.

It’s a family affair: In 1964, Jessica Davis’ great-grandfather, Dr. J. William Davis, conceived the idea of high-school athletes finalizing their college recruitment with a signature.

“He's known as the Father of the Letter of Intent,” Lynn Davis said Tuesday of her late father-in-law, a Texas Tech professor who also served as chairman of the school’s athletic council. J. William Davis’ expertise in two fields that aren't always compatible — government and college sports — were his inspiration in devising a way to discourage the poaching of recruits.

“Teams used to raid each other’s programs all the time, and it was commonly overlooked,” said Lynn Davis. “A document binding players was the solution.

“He worked tirelessly at it,” Davis said of her father-in-law, who also played an instrumental role in the 1958 admission of Texas Tech into the Southwest Conference.

When it came to recruiting the top prospects of a talent-rich state, Texas Tech — then known as Texas Technical College — fought an uphill battle against the region’s traditional powerhouses. Among them was Oklahoma, which had a way of convincing Texas high school stars to continue their education across the state line.

Take the case of Johnny Agan, a halfback from Rowdy Creek, Texas . Agan was headed for Texas Tech when Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson — apparently finding it irresistible to sign up a football player from Rowdy Creek, and who could blame him? — persuaded Agan to enroll at OU.

The abrupt lane change was not unnoticed by the folks at Texas Tech. Wilkinson, a college coaching legend so revered he briefly decided to take up politics, was alerted about the potential of Tech accusing Oklahoma of a recruiting violation.

Determining his legend to be worth more than even a halfback from Rowdy Creek, Wilkinson allowed Agan to resume his football career at Texas Tech. (Between 1963 and ‘65, Agan was a backfield teammate of two-time All-American Donny Anderson, a Sports Illustrated cover boy nicknamed the “Golden Palomino.”)

Texas Tech’s here-today, gone-tomorrow, but back once-and-for-all recruitment of the halfback from Rowdy Creek likely was prominent in J. William Davis’ determination about the necessity of binding recruits to a single school for at least one year.

Davis’ reformation campaign began in the Southwest Conference, but he pushed for letters of intent to be acknowledged on a national basis, and he succeeded. In 1997, administration of the process was turned over to the NCAA.

At last count, 676 Division I and Division II athletic programs were participating in the system, which is voluntary for both recruits and schools.

The relatively recent trend of high school football players graduating early, for the opportunity to participate in spring football practice at the next level — pioneered, in 1991, by former Georgia quarterback Eric Zeier — circumvents letters of intent: Those kids already are in college.

But for every phenom anxious to skip the prom dance, there are a thousand athletes able to weigh the pros and cons of a potential campus experience, and submit a commitment that reduces their anxiety for a few months.

Susan Peal, associate director of operations for the NCAA — she oversees all national letters of intent — made Puyallup a destination Tuesday for Jessica Davis’ signature at the Edge Fitness center.

The NCAA was chronicling the event, which presented a 50-year milestone for college sports and something of a Davis family reunion celebrating the four-generation connection between Jessica, the Emerald Ridge volleyball player who signed a national letter of intent, and J. William Davis, the wise man who proposed it.

“I don’t think he had a thought in the world that his great grand-daughter would sign one,” Lynn Davis said. “I'm just thrilled that the NCAA decided to make this special, but most of all, I'm very proud of Jessica. It's her day today.”