Commentary: Why not let high school players sign whenever they want?

Photo: Dale Zanine, USA TODAY Sports

Commentary: Why not let high school players sign whenever they want?

Early Signing Period

Commentary: Why not let high school players sign whenever they want?

In the latest edition of college football’s Worst Thing Ever, you may have heard your local multimillionaire coach decry the new early signing period for recruits.

After years of debate at the NCAA level over whether the annual February free-for-all should be supplemented by another opportunity for high school seniors to sign their scholarships, a brand new world opened Wednesday morning when players started faxing in their paperwork roughly six weeks earlier than usual.

MORE: Updates, analysis from Day 1

Whenever there’s a major change like that in recruiting, there are some unintended consequences. This first time through the new calendar, coaches discovered that much of the work they did after the season with recruiting visits has now been crammed into December when they’re already managing staff changes and bowl practices.

And that’s difficult, no doubt. But to hear some prominent coaches like Alabama’s Nick Saban talk about that adjustment, you’d think it had put the entire sport on the precipice of collapse.

“I have not talked to a coach that’s happy with it,” Saban told reporters last week, which may mean he hadn’t talked to too many of his peers recently because several of them like Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly and Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy were on record Wednesday talking about how much they liked having the majority of their recruiting done before Christmas.

In fact, Saban’s counterpart in the upcoming College Football Playoff semifinals — that would be Clemson’s Dabo Swinney — made an impassioned case Wednesday for why an early signing period not only made sense but should probably be even earlier than December.

“An early signing period is just that — an opportunity for these young people that know what they want to do to go ahead and formalize the process and not have to sit around and deal with all the drama any longer,” Swinney said. “It’s not a day everybody has to sign. But it’s intended for guys who know what they want to do and I love it because it cleans the whole process up for the guys who’ve been committed a long time. It allows guys to go ahead check that box and get their eyes focused on what’s next and not have to spend January dealing with grown men still calling them and trying to talk them out of something.”

As with pretty much every fight over arbitrary NCAA rules, there is no right or wrong answer here. I could take the same set of facts and make a great argument for having an early signing period or leaving recruiting the way it was. This is strictly a matter of preference, and — Surprise! — the preference for each coach is largely going to be rooted in what suits their self-interest. (If you’re Saban and you’ve secured seven consecutive No. 1 recruiting classes, why would you advocate for any change in recruiting?)

But when you really start to drill down on some of the concerns that led the NCAA to approve an early signing period and then some of the complaints that have arisen this year, one thought keeps coming to mind: Why do you need a signing day at all?

Just eliminate it and all the stunts that have become part of the show, from adults flocking to Internet livestreams to watch a hat ceremony to the announcements where a kid pulls a live animal from under the table.

Why not just let a high school senior sign his scholarship when he darn well pleases and when the school he wants to attend is ready to guarantee his spot? No more games, no more verbal commitments that aren’t really commitments, no more coaches coming back 48 hours before signing day and telling a family that a higher-ranked player came on board and bumped them out of a scholarship.

This isn’t a new idea, mind you. Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson has advocated that kind of model for years. Former Nebraska coach Bo Pelini went public with his plan to eliminate signing day in 2014, and others such as Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez and former Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze have both been intrigued by the possibility.

It comes down to this: What’s the worst systemic issue in recruiting that the NCAA has the power to fix? Most coaches would tell you it’s the deception that happens on both sides of the process without any real accountability. And it happens every year, as schools throw out hundreds of “offers” to players that they wouldn’t actually take unless their better options fall through, while players “commit” to one school while still visiting others.

“You’ve got all these people who make offers that aren’t really offers,” Swinney said. “They go well, it’s a non-committable offer. What’s a non-committable offer? Don’t offer if you’re not willing to take their commitment.”

Swinney’s point was that if you had an early signing period in August, it would make crystal clear whether an offer was legitimate and, in his view, slow down the unsavory practice of offering eighth and ninth graders, which aren’t real offers since nobody can accurately project whether most 14-year-olds will be physically capable of playing college football by the time they graduate.

“If they commit, they’re going to want to sign in August, and now you can’t come back at the end of the day and back out on them,” Swinney said.

The primary argument against an August signing period is about academics, and it’s a legitimate one because in many cases what goes on the transcript as a high school senior can determine eligibility.

That’s why it would make more sense to allow schools to determine for themselves when they feel comfortable offering a player. That might be different for Stanford monitoring the academic progress of a target vs. Florida Atlantic, but ultimately that’s part of the accountability for coaches evaluating who fits their program.

So when the offer goes out at some point during the senior year — formally and in writing — the recruit has 72 hours to either sign it and end their recruiting process or decide they want to look at other options. Everyone would know where they stand, and the risk for making sure it’s a good fit would be shared between the school and the player.

If a kid wants to drag out his decision until late in the year to see where he might have a better opportunity at immediate playing time, so be it. If a school wants to hold open a spot or two to fill a need late, you could do that, too. Ultimately, that puts more of the onus on coaches to effectively manage their roster and make good decisions with who they want to go recruit.

Perhaps such a revolutionary change to the system would produce some unintended negative consequences. Undoubtedly, you’d need to add a provision to every National Letter of Intent allowing for players to be automatically released in the event a head coach left or got fired. Surely there would be more details to work out, but it’s at least a start in tackling the real problems associated with recruiting rather than a half-measure December signing period that made life miserable for some and didn’t go far enough for others.


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