Forecasting the future of National Signing Day
Another dose of Signing Day drama is upon us -- barely.
ESPNU, which will once again deliver all-day coverage of college football's annual offseason Christmas, must be incredibly grateful for No. 1 recruit Robert Nkemdiche and five-star defensive tackles Montravius Adams and Eddie Vanderdoes. They are among the rare blue-chippers who have perpetuated the mystery of their college decisions long enough to announce on national television.
In reality, just 11 of Rivals.com's top 100 players enter Signing Day still unaffiliated (though, inevitably, a few will provide 11th-hour switches). Similarly, just less than 11 percent of the Rivals250 have yet to announce their commitment.
Imagine watching Election Day coverage with 89 percent of the precincts already reporting. Imagine beginning a movie that's already 89 percent of the way through. That's essentially what the vast majority of the non-recruiting junkie/message-board subscribing public will do all day on Wednesday.
While recruiting is the lifeblood of college football programs and a source of endless fascination among the sport's most obsessive fans, the actual ritual of Signing Day is becoming as antiquated as the fax machines still used to deliver National Letters of Intent. Of course, Signing Day is still huge for schools and their coaches as they celebrate officially completed 2013 classes. But that is mostly a function of longstanding NCAA rules that prohibit schools and coaches from discussing recruits at the time they commit. If they did, there'd be almost nothing left to talk about by the first Wednesday in February.
That's especially true considering most recruits made their decisions long before Wednesday -- the majority six to 12 months earlier, in fact. About 70 percent of Rivals' top-rated players will sign with a school they committed to before last season. Many find the annual Signing Day dog-and-pony show of baseball caps and jerseys hidden beneath other jerseys absurd, but even so: Why will five-star offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil get those 15 seconds of fame on Wednesday, but not top-10 prospect Kenny Bigelow, who committed to USC back in November 2011? Why won't there be any showcase for recruits like Shane Morris, the Michigan-bound quarterback who has stuck with the Wolverines for nearly two years? (Morris committed the spring of his sophomore year.)
"This year was by far the most early commitments we've seen," said Rivals.com national analyst Mike Farrell. "The process has been sped up and this will only speed it up further."
Indeed, by this time a year or two from now, that 11 percent figure will probably be even lower. The NCAA's recently deregulated recruiting rules have opened the floodgates to virtually unlimited contact -- starting at an even earlier date -- between coaches and top prospects. While this may lead to more chaos, with coaches recruiting other school's committed players even more relentlessly than they already do, many coaches and analysts also believe more recruits will shut down the process earlier due to fatigue. By the time we get to the formality of Signing Day 2015, coaches will have long since moved on to targeting the 2016 and '17 classes. With so few undecided recruits left to pick baseball caps, ESPNU's coverage may be reduced to seven hours of simply reading off lists of names.
Of course, other recent rules changes could turn Signing Day into an even more extravagant event. In a recent article, NCAA compliance expert John Infante explored the possible ramifications of two relatively obscure proposals passed by the Board of Directors last month: 13.1, in which prospects will now be treated "the same as an enrolled student-athlete" the moment they sign, and 13.7, which removes limits on publicity once they sign. Currently, schools are limited to one press conference and highlight video to announce their class, and signees can't attend official school- or booster-sponsored events. Schools can't arrange media opportunities for incoming freshmen. That's all about to change.
Based on Infante's interpretation, schools will now theoretically be able to dispatch assistants to players' hometowns and lavish them with school gear (the same sweatshirts and jerseys afforded their players) to wear during a Signing Day Google Hangout with fans. Heck, prospects within driving distance of campus can show up and flank their new coach behind the dais at his Signing Day press conference. School publicists who previously had no interaction with signees until the first day of fall camp can line up national radio and TV interviews to sing their new school's praises. Signing Day will become Signing Week.
This is extra silly, as the overwhelming majority of these recruits easily could have done the same thing six months earlier if they hadn't been forced to wait for an arbitrary Wednesday in February. Coaches know that. That's why the vast majority of those involved thinks there should be a second Signing Day.
For nearly a decade there's been a quiet but persistent sentiment to institute an early signing period like the ones in most other NCAA sports. Basketball has one in November. Most elite recruits sign then, not in April, and thus basketball coaches, unlike football coaches, aren't forced to spend time during their season fending off suitors for committed recruits.
The AFCA formally proposed an early signing period in 2009, reportedly supported by 73 percent of FBS coaches. The date would have been the third week of December. The commissioners soundly rejected it.
"It's frustrating when it seems like a piece of legislation that seemingly everyone's in favor of cant get passed, then a piece of leg where [the coaches are] split goes through," said an FBS head coach.
Not only is it time to revisit that discussion, but it's time to revisit the proposed date. The early signing period should occur in August, not December.
Past opposition to an early signing date involved a variety of concerns: that the big-money programs would be given greater advantage; that schools would sign prospects before seeing their first-semester senior year grades; and, of course, that recruits might feel rushed to make a decision.
First of all, the NCAA has now conceded it's futile to try to legislate the haves and have-nots aspect to recruiting. The academic aspect is a legitimate concern, even more so if recruits start signing before their senior years begin. But players would sign knowing they still have maintain their grades to receive a scholarship, and an increasing number already take it one step farther, putting in the work to graduate a semester early.
But as for recruits feeling rushed -- that horse has left the barn. By the time most elite prospects reach their senior year of high school, they've already taken unofficial visits to most of their eventual finalists; participated in camps there; and developed relationships with the coaches. As noted above, 70 percent of recruits have already made up their minds by their senior year. Why not end the faux suspense then?
"If [the NCAA] had come out and said we're wiping out all these [contact] rules they passed, but we're instituting an early signing period at the end of August, then I think you're OK," said Farrell. "If you want to control how much these kids get bothered, shut it down early."
Certainly, there should still be room for "late bloomers" who don't fully emerge until their senior seasons. Perhaps the NCAA could cap the number of early signees per school at 15. And there should definitely be an opt-out included in each National Letter of Intent should a respective school's coach leave or get fired. That doesn't mean entire signed classes will suddenly defect. In fact, that rarely happens now at schools with coaching changes even when there's nothing binding prospects from looking elsewhere.
An August signing period would benefit recruits (who will be free to relax and enjoy their senior seasons), coaches (who can focus entirely on undecided prospects) and athletic department bean counters (fewer flights/hotels/car rentals for babysitting visits). Seemingly the only people who would suffer are those who depend on TV ratings or page views generated from one officially designated day for recruiting drama.
But those who follow recruiting closely know the drama happens 365 days a year. They know that while Rivals won't name its No. 1 class for 2013 until end of day Wednesday, the general hierarchy for this cycle's rankings was largely decided months ago. But most of all, they know the recruits who announced their decisions in 2012 are just as important as those who will hog the spotlight on Signing Day 2013.
The first Wednesday in February has never been less reflective of the actual recruiting process. It's a celebration of the final 11 percent. Naturally, it only seems primed to get bigger.