I just want to share an anecdotal example of why I’d love to see an early signing period for college football.
In 2002 I was covering Lincoln High School from Tallahassee (Fla.) for the local newspaper. The nationally ranked Trojans were loaded with talent and were in the state semifinals at another national powerhouse–Palm Bay in Melbourne (Fla.). Several future NFL players came out of this game. Lincoln suffered a crushing loss. And keep in mind, since it was the fourth round, the game was actually being played in December–and December meant it was open season for college coaches to come to games and talk to kids. Most of the fall, that contact is much more limited.
I watched as an SEC coach walked up to one of the Lincoln seniors who was face down in the turf, crying. Instead of consoling him for a moment or two, he immediately began making his recruiting sales pitch. I won’t name the school … it doesn’t matter anyway. This kid’s four-year prep career was over, he was emotionally distraught, and it was like this coach was trying to sell him a used car five seconds after he’d survived a nasty wreck. Afterwards, when I was interviewing this four-star prospect about the game and his career, he brought it up.
“I just eliminated them, man, I’m not going there … they don’t care about me or my team. He was trying to recruit me like 10 seconds after it all ended,” the Lincoln player told me.
So what in the Sam Hill does this have to do with an early signing period, you might ask? Well, one of the biggest complaints kids air when I talk to them is many want the recruiting craziness to be over way before their senior seasons–so they can focus on their senior year and their prep teammates. Pretty honorable, I’d say. They realize that not only could recruiting be distracting for themselves, it also can be a problem on a team which undoubtedly is full of kids who will never see the field for a BCS-level program. Jealousy can wreck a high school team. When all the questions from the media are about a top player’s recruiting status and not about how the team is 10-1 on the field, that can be a major issue.
Yet right now–even if a kid commits early–it doesn’t really matter because that commitment is non-binding and opposing college coaches are still going to hound them.
And let me pause right here and give the college coaches a little bit of credit–this is their job, I realize that. Recruiting is a massive part of their gig, just as important as teaching the spread option or how to read a receiver’s eyes in coverage. I’m not faulting them for doing their job … and heck, an early signing period could help them too. Let’s face it, these coaches preach that you don’t let your guard down until the whistle is blown. So why would they recruit any differently, why would they let down before that letter of intent is signed? But maybe we can shorten the game up a little bit for everybody who wants it to be shorter. Give the kids the option.
WHAT SHOULD BE DONE?
I’ve bounced back and forth with this early signing period thing for years, and in the past few days, the issue has come up again.
A few years ago, I didn’t like the early signing idea for football. It works pretty well for basketball, but football is such a different animal. I had visions of middle school quarterbacks being hounded to commit early and … oh wait, that’s already happening in football and we don’t even have an early signing period yet.
I guess my major concern was, if football had an early signing period, then cutthroat recruiting would bump even earlier into a kid’s high school years and he’d be taking official visits in his junior year. But the reality is, kids are already voluntarily taking tons of visits before their senior years–they’re called unofficial visits, the kind where they pay their own way. Quarterbacks rarely even use their five allotted official visits that can begin on Sept. 1 of their senior year–the elite ones have been off the shelf for months by the time Sept. 1 pops up.
Plus, so many signing classes are virtually wrapped up months ahead of time anyway … why not take the pressure off the kids and the programs by letting a locked-in kid sign an early letter of intent and be done with it? Once that LOI is in, the coaches can get some sleep (yeah right) and so can the kids (more important). Hey, we’re about 11 months away from the 2015 national signing period kicking off, and already there are six SEC schools with eight or more commitments–more than a third of the way done already. In the SEC, 13 of the 14 schools already have 2015 commitments.
Sure, some people will say that an early, binding letter of intent may lock a kid into something that he wants to change later, but doesn’t that happen in February too? Kids get cold feet after inking with a school then too, right? That’s why there’s a process to be able to transfer, to be released from a scholarship.
So many kids know exactly where they want to play ball. Some are legacies–their dads played at XYZ Tech and they wouldn’t think of playing anywhere else. Why not let them end the craziness if they want to? And if they want to experience the full recruiting experience (really? um, why?) they can have that option and sign in February of their senior year. What is interesting is, most basketball players choose to sign during the early period in November–only a few blue chippers and “tweeners” tend to wait until the late spring period. Is that because college coaches pressure them to get it done early? Mostly, yes … but at least basketball players have the option of getting to play their senior prep seasons without distraction.
MY STAB AT HOW TO DO IT
So here’s my take: Set the early national signing period to some time before a kid’s senior season, so they can put that distraction behind them if they so choose. In fact, I’d go with sometime around June 1st. This way, a kid can spend the spring of his junior year checking out schools, watching spring practices, getting evaluated by colleges, etc. With the previous class all signed by February, college staffs can give their undivided attention to the athletes from February until June 1st (four months)–and heck, most of these kids are at on-campus summer camps as freshmen and sophomores anyway. It’s not like they’re strangers to the staffs.
Let the kids take three official visits between Feb. 15 and June 1st. Then give them another three in the fall should they choose to wait until the late signing period. Once again, kids talk all the time about how they want to get the decision over with by summer so they can train with their high school team and prepare for their memorable senior seasons. Give them that option.
Will this make things harder on the coaching staffs? Well, recruiting is already hard, this will just be a different type of difficulty, but probably not any harder than before. Everybody will have to recruit the same way … and let’s face it, kids are more developed athletically than they were, say, 20 years ago. These days, you can evaluate sophomores’ tape and get a feel for what kind of player he is. It’s not like they’re all 5-foot-7, 135 pounds and you have to guess about whether the kid is going to be a player or not … they are pretty far along in their development by the time they’re in high school.
Anyway, just my two cents.