The spectacle of Signing Day: From fax machine snafus to late surprises
Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson has worked at the junior college, Division I, Division II and Division III levels, but the strangest thing he ever witnessed on a National Signing Day happened during his tenure as an offensive assistant at New Mexico from 1999 to 2001.
A fellow assistant was convinced a defensive back the Lobos had been recruiting was going to fax in his Letter of Intent any minute. It would be a big win for New Mexico, beating out Kentucky and Washington. The assistant had been in contact with the player and kept assuring the rest of the staff it was a done deal.
Then the fax machine started whirring.
Everybody in the room was high-fiving and the assistant seemed relieved, telling everyone, “I told you!”
When the fax printed out, it was a Letter of Intent -- to Washington.
“He had sent us his signed copy to the University of Washington,” Anderson said. “That’s how he told this particular coach that he wasn’t coming. It was brutal. We all got silent, obviously. He just melted. There’s no worse gut punch than to find out a guy went somewhere else by sending the opposing team’s fax.”
Current Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez had his own Letter of Intent scare, but his had a happy ending.
While at West Virginia, Rodriguez was trying to persuade a Florida high school player to come to Morgantown, but the recruit couldn’t make up his mind. Finally, the end of the signing period came. If he didn’t sign somewhere by midnight -- West Virginia or otherwise -- he was likely headed to prep school or junior college.
After being convinced that going to West Virginia made a lot more sense than marching at a military school at the crack of dawn, the kid agreed to sign. The only problem? His Letter of Intent had expired, and he didn’t have a new one.
“We told him to go to a local Kinko’s that was open,” Rodriguez said. “We faxed him the new Letter of Intent. He signed it and faxed it back at like 11:15 p.m., 45 minutes before the deadline. He winds up passing the ACT, playing as a true freshman, graduating in three and a half years and having a great career. But he was 45 minutes away from marching up in New York at six in the morning.”
While the end of the fax machine on National Signing Day is coming -- and soon, thanks to the e-signature technology most of us have been using for years -- the NCAA can hardly be considered early adopters, so the fax still gets its annual moment in the sun. Perhaps this is the most amateur thing left in college football, a sport that is anything but at this point. Coaches wake up at 3:00 a.m., pick up an obscene amount of donuts and other pastries and turn on their office lights by four in the morning. Then it’s time to make sure the coffee is strong and get ready to stare at a fax machine for the next few hours.
“It is a spectacle unlike any other,” ex-UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said, jokingly.
Neuheisel has the clarity of distance, as he now provides analysis for the Pac-12 Network, which has a two-and-a-half-hour special planned for Wednesday evening. But the former coach has Signing Day stories from stints at UCLA, Washington and Colorado.
On Signing Day 2011, Lakewood (Calif.) High offensive lineman Torian White had his televised ceremony, and the UCLA staff crowded in Neuheisel’s office hoping to watch White put on a Bruins hat. Except when the time came, White didn’t don the UCLA colors. He instead tossed on a USC cap. The other coaches backpedaled out of Neuheisel’s office, expecting him to be upset about the news. Yet before Neuheisel could get angry, the phone rang.
White’s father had called to ask Neuheisel if there was still room for Torian to sign at UCLA. White was ushered through the halls of the studio on the hunt for a fax machine. “Eventually they found some corner office that had one, and he sent in the Letter of Intent,” Neuheisel said. “The clandestine move through the entire studio to find a fax machine so we could secure the deal was interesting, and I’m whispering, and everybody outside my office still thinks he’s going to USC. All of a sudden our fax machine starts to hum, and there it comes across. They all thought I was some sort of savant or a Houdini.”
Signing Day has changed a lot since Jessie Armstead chose Miami in 1989. He made his decision from a hotel in Dallas in what is considered the beginning of the hat-picking tradition.
“There were like 10 or 15 TV stations there,” former Miami and North Carolina coach and current ESPN analyst Butch Davis said. “Everybody wanted to know. Nobody had any idea. When he started pulling the hats out, everybody was like what is this? He was the first guy to ever do it. He put that damn Miami hat on, and I was blown away. ‘All right! Jessie Armstead!’”
(Also noteworthy: Armstead’s Carter High teammate Derric Evans signed his Letter of Intent from a hot tub.)
Anderson calls old recruiting practices “The Wild Wild West,” and in a lot of ways that’s accurate. Coaches would sleep in their cars outside of a recruit’s house until they were allowed to meet. Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer once famously slept on the couch in Alvin Ross’ house; Switzer unplugged the phone so nobody else could call to make sure he was the one who signed the touted running back.
There are stories of players being held for hours at a time in a secure location, almost like a star witness, so that no other schools could get the last word in before they signed. Anderson even remembers loading guys in a van when he was at the juco level so that all the prospects could sign at once.
The advent of the recruiting dead period directly before Signing Day took much of the craziness out of last-minute recruiting, at least from the coaches’ point of view. But things were more interesting when coaches could physically be at the schools when players made their choices. For example, the time Davis went to Pahokee (Fla.) High to sign a kid for Miami in the mid-1980s.
“I drive out to the Everglades to Lake Okeechobee,” Davis said. “And I’ve got the scholarship papers. I go to the high school. It was one of those eerie feelings. It was almost like the movie Left Behind when there’s nobody around. There’s nobody in the principal’s office, nobody in the hallway, no custodians. There should be 700 kids, and there’s nothing. There’s something spooky going on. I walk around to the back outside, and all the students and the band are there. They’ve got a big, gigantic circle with an ‘X.’ They’re all looking up in the sky.”
Former Miami coach Howard Schnellenberger had always arrived by helicopter, but Schnellenberger was off to Louisville, and new coach Jimmy Johnson ditched the practice. The whole school was unimpressed to see an assistant in a car holding the papers instead.
While Davis never experienced any fax machine snafus that he could remember, he still had some surprises, most notably the signing of defensive end Robert Quinn in 2008. The North Carolina staff went to bed on Tuesday night thinking the Tar Heels were out of the running for the future NFL All-Pro, but the next morning there it was: a fax with Quinn’s signature. Davis compared it to finding a present under the tree on Christmas morning.
The Signing Day fax tradition leaves room for those sorts of surprises. That is, as long someone on staff remembers to fill the paper tray.
“One year I was at Middle Tennessee State [as co-offensive coordinator], and we’re all staring at the fax machine looking,” Anderson said. “And looking. And looking. Nothing’s coming through. We’re sweating, and we realize there’s absolutely no paper in the fax machine. I was not responsible for the paper, but I was in that room. It took a good while before everybody finally even realized to check, and there was none in it. We put it in, and all of a sudden all the faxes started popping out.”
A spectacle unlike any other, indeed.