The pros and cons of the hotly contested idea of an early signing period in college football.
American Football Coaches Association Executive Director Grant Teaff has been tackling the early signing period issue for years.
“Tired is not a good descriptive word,” Teaff says of his on-again, off-again dialogue with coaches and commissioners. “Anxious is better. My goal has always been to try to make everything connected to football better, so it gets frustrating.”
Like many people, Teaff sees a need for an early signing period. As it stands, a player can’t sign with a school until National Signing Day — which is the first Wednesday in February. Until then, a prospective recruit is fair game, whether or not he has made a verbal commitment. Still, 70 percent of the top-rated football recruits do sign with a school they committed to before their senior season, sometimes up to 12 months early.
That means coaching staffs must babysit commitments. That translates into more money spent to keep those players close and greater intrusion into a player’s life even if he wants to end the recruiting process early.
Opponents of an early signing date raise concerns, such as a greater advantage for the big-money programs; college coaches juggling visits with games; recruits who could feel rushed into making a decision with no way out if a college coach leaves; and colleges that would sign players before seeing their first-semester, senior-year grades. If, as Teaff says, there’s a need for an early signing date, when should it be? How will those concerns be addressed?
And most important, can a consensus be found?
“That’s a really good question,” Teaff says. “Practically, there will probably be something done in the next couple of years. Don’t misunderstand me. It may not be an early signing date. There’s also talk of moving college football (Signing Day) further back from the second week of February. There are concerns by some of our coaches they don’t have enough time to really get to know players. It’s just going to be looked at.”
The early signing period talk is intertwined with examination of the football recruiting calendar, which is currently being studied by an NCAA recruiting subcommittee. Deregulation is the hot word these days for the NCAA, which is trying to shrink its rulebook.
“The NCAA has to reconcile maybe what basketball wants does not fit for football,” Teaff says. “Football coaches do not want to be on anybody else’s recruiting calendar.”
Back in 2009, the AFCA proposed an early signing period that was supported by 73 percent of Football Bowl Subdivision coaches. The date would have been the third week of December when junior college players can sign. But the conference commissioners, who control the National Letter of Intent process, rejected the idea.
“I wish they would start listening to coaches more,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez says. “Coaches seem to be in favor of it so it doesn’t pass, but you’ve got these other rules that coaches didn’t have any input and they threw those out there. I really thought we would get (an early signing period) in December.”
Some people have pushed for an early signing date in August. Teaff says the AFCA won’t support August, because the association also represents high school coaches.
The fear is that players who are signed prior to a high school season could tank their senior year. Yet college basketball has survived for years with an early signing period.
“You have to take high school coaches into consideration,” Teaff says. “They feel pretty strongly that’s somewhat detrimental. With the whole process, high schools are the ones that get the collateral damage. I’m a little skeptical about a real early signing date because the last time we ran that thing up the flag pole, the upper echelon didn’t salute it.”
Or as Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads describes the blowback from schools with money: “They want those kids available in January. They don’t want them signed, sealed or delivered.”
Rhoads supports an early signing period to end what a lot of coaches frustratingly describe as “babysitting” their commitments in January. When describing players who commit early, Rhoads doesn’t use the word “commitments,” but rather “reservations,” much like a hotel.
“It’s not a very clean or pretty month at times,” Rhoads says. “You’ve got kids that in large part are committed to a number of schools. Other schools are coming in and trying to raid those kids, and generally it’s the kid that leaves the recruitment open.”
How all over the map has the early signing date discussion been? Look no further than the SEC, winner of the past seven BCS national titles. Back in 2007, SEC coaches voted 9-to-3 against an early signing date. The next year they voted 9-to-3 in support of a November date as long as early signees did not take official visits. That idea was quickly shot down by SEC presidents and athletics directors, who questioned how a recruit could choose a school without an official visit.
More recently, the majority of SEC coaches have supported the December junior college date for early signees. There’s not a consensus, though.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier doesn’t want any early signing period. “A lot of players want to do it, but I like how we do it now,” Spurrier says. “To me, there’s football season and then there’s the recruiting season, and the high school kids get their time on Signing Day. If we start doing it during the season, I think it takes away from your team and the players on your team. Then everybody is talking about a bunch of high school players who are future players.”
Georgia coach Mark Richt would be fine with an early signing period in December if those signees didn’t take official visits during the season.
“If a kid grows up knowing he wants to be a Bulldog, let him sign early and let him have an official visit afterward,” Richt says.
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze favors an early signing date in December. But that comes with a caveat: He’s concerned that it would only mean that an already expedited recruiting process would start even earlier.
“We all feel we have to be on the 2015 class and the ’16 class right now,” Freeze says. “Whether that’s real or not, it’s your perception, and our perception is reality a lot. You feel like if you’re not somehow connected with these kids that far along, you’re behind. I don’t know if that’s healthy for us as coaches and certainly the young men and families. I’d like to just recruit one class at a time. To me, that early signing period is for a kid who knows he’s going to Ole Miss.”
One concern with an early signing period is coaching turmoil. What happens if, between an early August or December date and the regular February date, a coach is fired or takes another job? Would the schools allow the early signees to open up their recruiting? “That is a valid point,” Freeze says. “I’d say no. I don’t think there will be a large number of kids that do that. But if they do, they have a great understanding this is the university they want to attend. We did go back and forth on that and I have some mixed emotions on it. Maybe there is some merit having it in January and maybe some coaching changes are made.”
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald doesn’t buy the argument that an early signing date would be intrusive on coaches because of in-season official visits.
“You already do that now,” he says. “The official visit is more of an afterthought than I think a key decision-making piece (as it was) when I was going through this 20 years ago (as a player). A lot has changed.”
At Northwestern last year, 17 of the Wildcats’ 19 signees were verbally committed before their senior year. That kind of trend has Fitzgerald wanting an early signing date in December to avoid January babysitting.
“That would give kids an opportunity for normalcy to the second semester of their senior year academically and really just some normalcy in their lives,” Fitzgerald says. “This recruiting process is so intrusive on these families. I think it allows us to save some money and then move forward and really look at the kids that are not signed in January.”
Boise State coach Chris Petersen also favors an early signing period.
“It’s usually when coaches get out in December when the mayhem starts and the kids get confused,” Petersen says. “My contention is if a kid is truly committed, then OK, let’s go ahead and sign. If not, don’t commit until you know. Right now, I don’t think it’s a good thing for anyone. Sometimes these kids are committed for eight months and know that’s where they want to go.”
Petersen wouldn’t mind a December signing date to end what he calls a waste of money and time on babysitting recruits.
“Commitment doesn’t mean a lot to some of these other coaches,” he says. “If they think there’s a chance, they’ll keep stopping by a kid, calling a kid, so everybody has to go and make sure everything is OK. We do it too. We used to not do it as much.”
This much Petersen knows: There won’t be a perfect answer.
“The bottom line is, what’s the best compromise?” he says. “I don’t want to see them visiting during the season either. But we do that because kids want to come to see games and it’s what we need to do. So what’s the best thing for the big process?”
Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill says there has never been a recruiting calendar presented that makes sense for an early signing period. Contact periods and evaluation dates would have to be changed, he says.
In recent years, Middle Tennessee lost two committed players “at midnight before Signing Day” to SEC schools — an offensive lineman who is now a starter at Vanderbilt and a defensive end who signed with Kentucky, Stockstill says.
“I think for the schools with unlimited recruiting budgets, (an early signing period) probably plays to their advantage over schools that don’t have unlimited recruiting budgets,” Stockstill says. “The Florida States of the world can fly all over the country to see people. Sometimes I like the early signing period, and then other times I’m not really fired up about it. Until I see how a calendar works, I’m just not sure if we need an early signing period.”
Nonetheless, Stockstill believes an early period is inevitable. “Everybody talked about having a playoff, went back and forth, how can it work, we don’t need it, we need it,” he says. “The discussion went on for seven, eight, 10 years. Now we have one. This early signing period has been talked about for a while. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. If you keep talking about it, it’s going to happen.”
Keeping the Door Open
As Bo Scarbrough speaks by phone in May, eight months have passed since he committed to the University of Alabama, and nine months remain until he can actually sign with a school.
He’s in the waiting period stage for a recruit. Scarbrough is an elite running back from Northridge High School in Alabama. In one breath, he says he’s committed to Alabama; less than a minute later, he says he doesn’t know if he can see himself signing with Florida until he visits.
In a perfect world, Scarbrough wishes there was an early signing period. But that’s not reality, so he continues to get visits from Florida assistant coach Brian White. And he gets letters from Florida State, Georgia, Tennessee and others — probably 30 letters a day, Scarbrough estimates.
“I wish there was an early signing period, because it gives you more time with school stuff that you actually have to work on,” he says. “School always comes first, not sports.”
Scarbrough says he committed to Alabama’s 2014 recruiting class in September 2012 because there wouldn’t be a better offer than the Crimson Tide, winners of three of the past four national championships.
“That’s a running team and I want to play running back, and they’ve got the best and I want to compete,” he says. “They have the major that I want to major in, and it’s right here at home. It’s a lot that comes with it that people don’t realize.
At the end of the day, I made my choice, and there wasn’t no sense holding it, so I just did what was best for me. It was a great school, so I thought it didn’t get better than that.”
Scarbrough says he also wanted to get recruiting out of the way before his junior season of high school.
“I didn’t want my team to be like, he’s putting us down for his recruitment,” he says. “I think if a player makes an early commitment, they did it for a reason. I hope not for the publicity of it all over the world. I don’t want people to think of me like that. I did it because it’s best for me. I don’t care about the publicity.”
A commitment doesn’t end recruiting. White visited Scarbrough’s high school and “told me he’s still going to recruit me and he wanted me to do good and wants the best for me,” Scarbrough says.
Scarbrough says he will visit Florida and Georgia over the summer and then Florida State in the fall.
“It probably would have stopped the recruitment if you sign,” he says.
That’s not how the recruiting game works. So Scarbrough is committed to Alabama. But he’s not exactly closing the door on other options, either.
by Jon Solomon
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