Roquan Smith reached beneath a table and rummaged through a bag for several seconds that seemed like several minutes on Wednesday. The pregnant pause seemed like the set-up for one of those old cartoon gags. First Smith would pull out a shoe. Then a trombone. Then a kitchen sink. Then the heralded linebacker from Montezuma, Ga., would reveal his college choice.
Except Smith wasn’t paying homage to Leon Schlesinger. He had already tried a Signing Day announcement bit involving some cards emblazoned with school names. Then he dove into the bag. With an ESPN camera beaming it across the country, Smith searched through that bag trying to decide whether he should emerge holding UCLA gloves or Georgia gloves. He came out holding UCLA gloves. The crew behind the desk on ESPNU announced to the world that Smith was the newest member of the Bruins’ class. The choice had been made.
Except it hadn’t.
As of 10 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Smith still hadn’t sent a signed National Letter of Intent to UCLA. In Athens, Ga., Georgia coaches are holding out hope that Smith will send a signed NLI to their school. Some time after pulling out those gloves and taking pictures with seemingly everyone at Macon County High, Smith realized he still didn’t know where he wanted to go to college. Want to squirm? Watch this Rivals.com interview with Smith in which he appears to flip schools multiple times in mid-sentence after learning that UCLA defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich has an offer from the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons to coach linebackers.
Byron Cowart wasn’t as uncertain as Smith on Wednesday, but the recruit ranked No. 1 in the nation by Rivals.com did wait seven hours between telling a national television audience he would go to Auburn and actually sending in a signed NLI. The defensive end from Armwood High in Seffner, Fla., wanted to see what school Glen St. Mary, Fla., defensive end CeCe Jefferson would choose before he made things official. Jefferson chose Florida, Cowart’s other finalist. This information did not ultimately sway Cowart, but the time between his announcement and signing gave rise to a he-said/he-said between Cowart and his high school coach, and earned a load of scorn for Cowart on social media.
Why did these players announce their decisions on television without being 100 percent sure of their choices? Because that was their chance to announce on TV. Minutes of airtime had been slotted. Satellite uplink time had been purchased. Smith and Cowart had volunteered for an early exposure to the fact that major college football is -- for the most part -- a made-for-TV product, and they needed to announce because those were their scheduled times to announce.
This TV part is not necessarily a bad thing. The massive rights fees have filled the coffers of athletic departments, allowing schools to build more luxurious facilities. Soon -- thanks in part to a few federal lawsuits -- that largesse will trickle down to these players in the form of more lucrative scholarships. But the simple fact that an announcement is to be televised should not force a player into a decision he isn’t ready to make at that moment. If he chooses poorly, he must live with the regret of picking the wrong school or deal with the ridicule when he changes his mind.
So listen up, class of 2016 recruits. Some of you are going to want to announce your choice on television on National Signing Day, and the ESPN family of networks might be more than happy to provide you with that opportunity. But remember this: If you don’t know, just say you don’t know. It’s your life. It’s your story. Some producer’s rundown shouldn’t control it. You should.
This may sound crazy, but you wouldn’t disappoint anyone at the Worldwide Leader by saying “I don’t know.” Drama and conflict make the best TV, and “I don’t know” is loaded with drama and conflict. Any network’s eternal quest is to fill every programming hour, and your waffling will provide at least a few more minutes. Heck, before quarterback Terrelle Pryor chose Ohio State in 2008, indecision provided days of infotainment. (Pryor took advantage of the fact that recruits have almost two months to submit the NLI. This year, football players have until April 1.)
Admitting indecisiveness will be difficult, of course. Most of these announcements are done via talkbacks, in which someone in a studio interviews a player wearing an earpiece and facing an unblinking camera -- usually with a crowd of onlookers. My first experiences on basic cable and network programming were talkbacks, and they’re terrifying. The voice in your ear may not come through clearly enough and you might not truly understand. Your heart may feel as if it will explode. What if you accidentally say the wrong thing? What if you drop an F-bomb? The alien aspects of the process will make sticking to the script seem safer, but that isn’t always the case. If it forces you into a rushed decision that could affect the rest of your life, choose not to rush it. The guys in the studio can always fill spare time with banter. Or, in the case of an “I don’t know” response, they may have more questions that could produce enlightening answers that humanize you to the audience.
Besides, the televised announcements aren’t always what they seem. In 2013 Lake City, Fla., offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil announced his intention to sign with Ole Miss. That came at about 9:30 a.m. ET on Signing Day. After Tunsil’s declaration in Florida, ESPN cameras showed a jubilant Ole Miss’ war room as coaches watched Tunsil’s announcement. Except none of the Rebels coaches were surprised by the commitment. Assistant Chris Kiffin had slapped a copy of Tunsil’s signed NLI on the war room table between 6 a.m. and 6:01 a.m. CT. Tunsil had sent his paperwork the moment he was allowed to send it.
The more low-key move is to simply pick a school, announce the commitment when only Rivals.com, Scout.com and 247Sports.com subscribers care and stick with it. A player who wants to be remembered on Signing Day could do what five-star defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie -- who committed to Tennessee in July -- did on Tuesday. He posted video of himself driving around blasting Rocky Top.
Or a player could make the decision a little early and do what Long Beach (Calif.) Poly cornerback Iman Marshall did. With the help of Bleacher Report, he produced a music video that announced his intention to sign with USC and dropped it on Signing Day. A player willing to go through a daylong video shoot is probably comfortable with his college choice.
Of course, some players still want the pomp and circumstance of a live televised announcement. Hopefully, they’ll know which school they want to choose and won’t do some hackneyed three-hat monty. Live baby animals make for much better television -- unless the player plans to sign with Florida A&M.
Players who can’t decide should merely admit that rather than donning a hat or pair of gloves for the sake of a broadcast. Such honesty might keep them from saying something they might regret, and it might even intrigue the casual viewer. That way, everyone wins. Especially the kind of player who woke up and posted this a day before he went on TV and made a decision he wasn’t ready to make.