Why Arizona's Rich Rodriguez wants to look at ending National Signing Day

Eliminating National Signing Day sounds crazy on the surface, but it might be the best way to make college football recruiting better for all involved. Why Arizona's Rich Rodriguez is planning on raising the issue before his peers.
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TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez is beginning his second stint as a member of the board of trustees of the American Football Coaches Association. He’ll attend his next meeting in May, and he already knows one thing he wants to talk about.

“We ought to do the pros and cons of Bo Pelini’s idea of not having a signing day,” Rodriguez said Wednesday. Rodriguez said he had just begun thinking about the idea, but then he reeled off enough pros to suggest he has put some thought into the concept of eliminating signing periods and allowing coaches to sign players at any point during their high school careers. Pelini, the Youngstown State coach who was fired from Nebraska in November, floated the idea in June. That same month, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he had been a fan of the idea for years. Johnson suggested schools be allowed to sign players as early as the end of their junior year of high school.

I wrote about this concept in 2008, and the reasons I gave then were similar to the ones Rodriguez mentioned Wednesday. Here’s what I wrote:

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Eliminate Signing Day entirely. Let coaches sign players whenever they want. The idea may sound irresponsible, but in practice, it would force coaches to exercise more caution lest they gamble away an entire recruiting class. They would have to consider all the ramifications before making an offer. A coach can sign a 300-pound offensive tackle after the prospect's junior season, but if one of those all-you-can-eat buffets with the oh-so-delicious yeast rolls opens next to his school and Tiny balloons to 600 pounds in the ensuing 16 months, that coach had better order an XXXXXXL practice jersey, because he’s stuck with the butterball.

Here’s what Rodriguez said Wednesday: “You’re going to be that much more careful before you offer. And they’re going to be more careful before they commit.”

It sounds counterintuitive, but deregulation could eliminate the terms “commitment,” “de-commitment,” “soft commitment,” “solid verbal” and “committable offer.” Most of those phrases only have meanings in the Byzantine world of college football recruiting, where players talk about being 85 percent committed and coaches hand out 100 offers for a 25-man class.

Let’s take the phrase “committable offer,” which is one of the newer outgrowths of the Recruiting Industrial Complex. It refers to a scholarship offer that actually has a scholarship behind it. If you don’t follow much recruiting, you’re probably confused. Isn’t a scholarship offer a scholarship offer? It isn’t if a player can only accept it if he comes to camp in the summer. (He has to figure out how to pay for that.) It isn’t if two offers go out to players at the same position for one spot in the class. The first player to accept it gets that scholarship. “Some of these guys are just offering the world,” Rodriguez said.

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​With no set signing period, a scholarship offer would mean something because the player could sign up for it on the spot. A commitment would mean something—assuming the player signed the National Letter of Intent—because the player would face an eligibility penalty if he changed his mind. Players and coaches would be much slower to walk down the aisle once they realized how messy a divorce could get.

Speaking of the NLI, it would need to be changed. As I wrote in Wednesday’s #DearAndy column, it would need to look more like a pack of cigarettes in Singapore. Recruits would need to know exactly what they are signing away (their leverage), and they’d need to be made aware that they still need to get themselves admitted to their chosen university as a high school senior. They also would need to be made aware that they don’t need to sign the NLI at all if they don’t want to. (This is only advisable if they have multiple scholarship offers at their desired level of college football. Otherwise, their best move is probably to sign the NLI.) “If you’re a top-level guy with offers from everyone,” Rodriguez said, “why would you even sign one? Why sign one?” Rodriguez then recalled the NLI saga of one recruit he really wanted. “We signed Noel Devine at West Virginia on the last day he could sign,” Rodriguez said. “We would have taken him later.”

Some coaches probably would blow their scholarship allocation too early and torpedo a class or two before getting fired. Rodriguez doesn’t worry about that. “They either want you or they don’t want you,” he said. He also doesn’t worry about coaches running off hordes of unwanted signees. With schools allowed to offer longer-term scholarships, coaches could make security a bargaining chip. “Well, guarantee them a four-year scholarship,” he said. “You won’t be running them off.”

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​It might take some time, but it seems like such a plan could slow the process instead of speed it up. Coaches wary of wasting time on eventual academic casualties might wait until recruits’ high school transcripts and test scores are solid enough to qualify for admission. Coaches might also hold back and monitor players into their senior seasons for fear of getting burned by a lack of development.

The idea sounds crazy on the surface, but it might produce a more efficient system in the end. “They’ve made Signing Day an event when it shouldn’t be an event,” Rodriguez said. But what if the first Wednesday in February passed without fanfare because coaches had been signing up players all along, and because some of the top prospects were still weighing their options?

Maybe it is nuts. Maybe we’re simply imagining the positives and not considering the negatives. That’s why Rodriguez wants to talk it over with his colleagues. Because dialogue could ultimately lead to improvement. “It’s like anything else we do in our sport,” Rodriguez said. “Sometimes you get in the habit of just doing things because that’s the way you’ve always done them. Sometimes it’s O.K. to sit back and say, ‘Is there a better way of doing things? Is it tradition or best practices?' ”

So Rodriguez will pitch the idea and see where it goes. “I think I’m going to bring it up,” he said. “Let’s think about this no signing day deal. Maybe it makes more sense than we all realize.”