SEC presidents and athletic directors wisely nixed their football coaches' idea of an early signing period during their meeting last week in Destin, Fla. Give the administrators another year or two, though, and they'll make the same mistake as the coaches.
In only a year, SEC coaches went from voting 9-3 in opposition to an early signing period to voting 9-3 in favor of a late-November period during which football players, like their spring-semester-sport counterparts, can sign a national Letter of Intent. Coaches in other conferences have experienced similar epiphanies.
What the coaches -- and the administrators who eventually will approve such a plan -- don't understand is that an earlier signing period won't solve the problems inherent in the system of non-binding commitments (from schools and from prospects) that rules until the first Wednesday in February every year.
So before the coaches waste their dwindling vacation time devising a scheme that will result in an early signing period for the class of 2010, consider this alternative proposal.
Forget the current system. Blow it up.
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.
Coaches in every sport complain now because NCAA rules limiting contact don't allow them to get to know prospects or their families before they extend a scholarship offer. Yet despite those complaints, they offer those precious scholarships earlier every year. They argue that they lose a competitive advantage if they don't offer first. Kentucky basketball coach Billy Gillispie accepted commitments last month from an eighth-grader and a ninth-grader. Is it too far-fetched to believe that football coaches won't start accepting commitments from 10th graders on a regular basis?
The only way for the NCAA to combat this practice is to embrace it. Want to offer a high-school freshman? Go ahead. But you can't send him some empty promise. You have to send him a national Letter of Intent. If he signs, you promise one of your 85 scholarships to him for at least a year, and he promises to attend your school for at least a year, whether you're there or not. Coaches wouldn't have to baby-sit committed players as rivals swarmed, and players wouldn't have to worry about a coach giving away the scholarship he already promised to them.
Put this plan into action, and the number of early offers would plummet. Think about it. College coaches are like the lotharios who say "I love you" -- even if they only kind of mean it -- to court a woman. Would those guys toss out that phrase so carelessly if the law required them to follow that declaration immediately with the offer of a diamond solitaire and a proposal of marriage? No. And if college football coaches knew the acceptance of their offer would immediately cost them one scholarship, they wouldn't hand out 200 offers for a 25-man class.
Of course, this system would need some rules. Keep the current contact limitations in place, with a few exceptions. Allow prospects to use their five official visits whenever they choose instead of only during their senior year, and don't just allow but require that schools pay for one parent or guardian to visit with the prospect. Also, prospects would be required to take an official visit to their chosen school before signing a Letter of Intent. During that visit, the school's compliance office would be required to spend at least two hours explaining the Letter of Intent. That way, they prospect can't plead ignorance if he changes his mind.
With this system, school administrators likely would force coaches to think carefully about who gets an early offer. From the NCAA's perspective, any athlete with the GPA and standardized test score to pass through the NCAA Clearinghouse can accept a scholarship. Most schools, however, do not relish the thought of admitting students who only meet the NCAA's appallingly low minimum standards. More than likely, admissions offices would slam the brakes on coaches by forcing them to wait until a player demonstrates his academic proficiency -- which probably wouldn't happen until his senior year -- before offering a scholarship.
Prospects also would have to change their collective mindset. They would have to think long and hard before accepting an offer. They would have to do their own homework to make certain they've chosen the correct school for them. But today's high schoolers aren't dumb. They know how to find information, and if they are properly educated to understand the consequences of their decision, most will choose wisely.
At least in its early stages, the system would get deluged with criticism by those who think 16- and 17-year-olds shouldn't be forced to keep their promises. Still, the rules for obtaining a release from a Letter of Intent shouldn't change. Only legitimate family emergencies should sway the appeals committee. Besides, if a player truly wants to get out of his letter without incurring an eligibility penalty, he can always go to prep school.
Coaches, meanwhile, will have no way to yank a scholarship from under a prospect's nose. If they made the offer, they must honor it. The only thing that could keep a signed player from campus is the NCAA Clearinghouse. That means college coaches might spend several Saturdays a year with fingers crossed, praying their recruiting mistakes bomb on the SAT or ACT.
Some coaches would get fired. Others would learn to recruit more judiciously. Prospects, meanwhile, would get a small measure of protection from the whims of millionaire coaches.
Speaking of early commitments, 45 of Rivals.com's top 100 class of 2009 football recruits have announced a college choice. Though those destinations could change by Signing Day, the list provides a glimpse at which schools may top the recruiting rankings in February. Not surprisingly, most of these schools should do pretty well in the rankings of on-field performance as well.
Ohio State leads the way with seven commitments from the top 100, while USC is second with five. Most of the other committed players intend to play for marquee schools programs as Georgia, LSU or Texas. Notable are two schools that hope to recruit their way back to prominence. Alabama, which in Nick Saban's first full recruiting year hauled in the best class in the nation, has commitments from Pensacola (Fla.) Escambia High back Trent Richardson (No. 28) and Foley (Ala.) High defensive tackle D.J. Fluker (No. 42). Florida State, which began recruiting more aggressively after a staff overhaul in 2007, has commitments from Greenville (Fla.) Madison County High defensive tackle Jacobbi McDaniel (No. 8) and from Tallahassee (Fla.) Godby High linebacker Willie Downs (No. 46).
Two more quarterbacks have accepted invitations to the prestigious Elite 11 camp, bringing the total to four. One new addition is Springfield (Pa.) Cardinal O'Hara quarterback Tom Savage, a Rutgers commitment who clearly outperformed SI.com's Kevin Armstrong at one recent camp. The other is Watkinsville (Ga.) Oconee County High quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Like fellow Elite 11 invitee Aaron Murray of Tampa (Fla.) Plant, Mettenberger is committed to Georgia.