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Does college football need an early signing day? Definitely maybe.

I have been pondering the rather pithy question of whether or not college football needs an early signing day like college basketball.  While my initial first-blush gut-reaction was, "Why not?", after giving the whole issue some thought and weighing the pros and cons, it seems to me that like most things, the answer is not nearly so simple as it seems.

Earlier this year, the SEC coaches reversed themselves 180 degrees from last year, voting 9-3 for an early signing period, but it failed to pass muster with the Athletics Directors. Obviously, this question has been debated by others at some length, many of them more qualified than me by virtue of following the issue more closely.  So let's take a look at the reasons an early signing day might want to be considered:

  • No reason to prolong the process when a recruit has made up his mind;
  • Financial considerations for coaches and AD's -- it would save money babysitting the player;
  • Time considerations for the coaches -- less babysitting verbals is good;
  • Verbally committed recruits won't continue to be accosted by hopeful coaches;
  • Fewer decommitments.

On the surface, these look fairly compelling.  But if you'll notice, three of the five are for the benefit of the school, not the kids.  I am therefore inclined to relegate them to the status of "minor consideration."  We have a system that sort of works, so any modifications to it should be for the benefit of the student-athlete, not the institution.  If the institutions also benefit, great.

MaconDawg at Dawg Sports has analyzed the issue, and concludes essentially thus:

An early signing period will not solve the core problem: college football coaches and their schools have millions of dollars riding on the outcome of football games. An early signing period will not solve that core, almost primal, motivation. Nick Saban, when confronted with an early signing period, will respond by sending his assistants out to Ronnie Van Zant Junior High to get an early edge. Book it.

His fundamental argument is that an early signing will simply move the problems that this is designed to solve to, well, earlier in the process rather than later.  In other words, no real benefit.  This argument has merit, but isn't really dispositive, nor was it intended to be.

So what do the recruits say?  Well, if this Scout article is to be believed, they are generally for it, saying that it would take the pressure off them in their final year.  I note that this isn't particularly encouraging -- a kid should be inspired to perform well in his last year, and not just for reasons of impressing coaches.  A sudden drop in motivation might be undesirable.  Other concerns include the possibility of coaching changes at his college of choice, which tend to happen after the proposed windows being floated for the early period -- December or August.

But there are some good reasons for considering an early period, one of the biggest being reducing the number of phone calls and other recruiting contacts the recruit must field before he signs a binding agreement.  To me, this seems to be the main benefit.  Another concern that primarily affects the schools is the idea that some players verbally commit as an insurance policy -- their preferred school, A, doesn't have a slot, so they commit to their second choice, B.  Just before signing day, a spot opens up at A and the recruit decommits from B and signs with A, leaving B in the cold.  That's unethical, and a bad way for a young man to begin an important part of the journey to adulthood.

It's pretty easy to see how this all shakes out -- the hot programs don't want anything to do with an early signing day since they are the ones who generally benefit the most from decommitments, and the Weak Wisters of the Poor (pretty much 70% of all D-I college football programs) really want one bad.  The way the system stands now is very much as if the ethics manual for college coaches were written by Bobby Petrino and Bill Belichick with an introduction by Ralph Kelvin Sampson. At the same time, nobody wants to create another signing day frenzy and, as MaconDawg says, move the whole problem earlier in the process rather than actually addressing it.

One way that has been proposed to mitigate this frenzy is to allow only recruits who have made no official visits eligible to sign early.  That way, you capture mainly guys who have grown up wanting to play for a particular school and really have no interest in the recruiting process.  One official visit, and you have to wait until February.

So what's to be done?  Here is my modest proposal:

  • Set an early national signing day in August for the recruits who wish to take advantage of it.  No recruits who have made an official visit may sign.  Coaches may not contact recruits at all two weeks prior to the signing day.  This will relieve the "frenzy" of coaches pressuring their recruits to sign in the early period, which MaconDawg rightly fears.  Yes, it will still be there, but two weeks aught to be enough for cooler heads to prevail.
  • A national "no call" database (like the national "Do Not Call" list for sales calls) managed by the same people who manage the national letter of intent program, and a written agreement by all Division I college coaches to abide by it.  A recruit who verbally commits may enter his name into the database, and he would be off-limits to other coaches and their representatives until/if the recruit removes his name from the list.  This will stop the badgering of verbally committed recruits, and minimize the "babysitting" by schools.  This would be a nice thing to extend to the basketball side as well.
  • Codify the ability of the recruit to back out of an NLOI on a coaching change.  It is going to be granted anyway, so just make it standard procedure absent a "show cause" hearing why it should not be granted.  Another good idea for the basketball side.

This addresses many of the concerns of coaches and most concerns of recruits.  They can commit as early as August, or wait until February.  Coaches don't have to worry so much about "insurance" commits, because as soon as his prized quarterback takes his name off the "do not call" list, that coach knows Mr. Football is listening to others and can plan accordingly. 

Of course, this doesn't prevent recruits from calling coaches while they are on the list, so the opportunity for the recruit to reconsider his verbal still exists.  This process will be much more fair to the schools without removing the opportunity for recruits to find the best place for them.  Granted, it isn't proof against "insurance commits," but it does have the advantage of giving coaches a better idea of how firm their commitments are.

Recruits can commit early and have the pressure off them their senior year, or they can wait until February without being pressured by simply putting their name on the DNC list.  As to enforcement of the DNC list, well, if peer pressure won't handle it, perhaps another way can be found -- maybe coaches found in violation could be denied NLOI privileges for a year.  Or, perhaps peer pressure would do.  Unethical behavior by coaches will certainly be news, and a few negative articles about coaches not abiding by their agreement aught to be a concern to the school who employs him -- if he can't abide by rules, can an NCAA investigation be far behind?

So that's my shot at an early period.  I think it could be good, but only if the problems are actually addressed rather than simply accelerated.


UPDATE 7/9/2005:  Taco John at Never Falter has revised and extended this suggestion.  An interesting idea.