Recruiting reforms could bring end to Signing Day circus

Ralph D. Russo
Associated Press
Rashan Gary adjusts a Michigan hat following his televised announcement that he would play college football for the Wolverines. Gary made the announcement on National Signing Day in February 2016.

The first Wednesday of February in college football has become a celebration of hat-picking suspense and hopeful speculation. Schools use National Signing Day to excite their fans, market the program and impress future recruits with a flashy welcome.

On one day, thousands of high school football players make their commitments to schools official.

A few last-minute flips, mad moms and disappointed dads provide a dash of intrigue. Every now and then a teenager pulls out a puppy to announce he will attend some school with a dog mascot. Signing Day has become something of a circus and as the folks at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey can attest, this is not a good time to run a circus.

The phenomena of National Signing Day as a spectacle could be heading toward extinction with the likely introduction of an early signing period. Wednesday’s Signing Day could mark the end of an era.

“I hope so,” said Mid-American Conference commissioner John Steinbrecher, who has been part of two groups that have been working on reforming football recruiting for three years.

All the freaking out and fawning over players who have never played a college game creates unrealistic expectations for the newbies and to some seems unfair to the ones already on campus.

“You’re celebrating stuff that is speculative in nature,” Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin said.

Steinbrecher said: “At times it seems a bit unseemly.”

A wide-ranging proposal of recruiting reforms, including a 72-hour December signing period, is in the NCAA pipeline and on target to be approved in April. The proposal also would create opportunities for recruits to take earlier official visits to campuses. The legislation is a reaction to trends more than a potential catalyst. The vast majority of recruits are already making up their minds way before Signing Day, Steinbrecher said. The hope is to create more transparency and certainty in a system that currently has nonbinding offers and commitments as its foundation.

“I think it’s been a long time coming,” said Mike Farrell, the director of recruiting for Rivals. “I think it will help settle down some of the craziness of recruiting.”

Media coverage and fan interest in recruiting spiked with the growth of the internet in the 1990s, and over the last 15 years Signing Day has become a TV event with ESPNU and CBS Sports Network doing marathon coverage. It grew into hours of analysis, sprinkled with an occasional spurt of action and a smattering of uncertainty. Mini-dramas emerge when a recruit and family member don’t see eye-to-eye, delaying delivery of a national letter of intent after what looked like a jubilant announcement in a high school gym. Social media gets stoked for a while.

The action and uncertainty figures to be at a minimum on Wednesday.

The number of incoming freshmen enrolling in college early continues to grow, putting dozens of players on campuses, going to class and working out with new teammates, weeks before they sign their letters. By signing financial aid papers, they are giving schools permission under NCAA rules to trumpet their arrivals.

“There’s no mystery in it,” Tennessee outgoing athletic director Dave Hart said of Signing Day. “If you look at our last couple of recruiting classes, maybe a handful of mystery in the sense of we’ve got four kids we really don’t know yet. The rest of them, you were pretty confident they were coming.”

This year’s elite recruits are a particularly settled bunch. Using 247Sports’ composite rankings, only four of the 32 recruits who have received a five-star rating entered the last week of the recruiting cycle uncommitted.

“Twelve of the top 18 players in our composite rankings are early-enrollees, and that’s including three kids committed to Stanford who aren’t allowed to enroll early,” 247Sports director of scouting Barton Simmons said. “The colleges are really anxious to get these guys on campus early, and these kids are becoming really anxious to get on campus early because they understand what a jump start that gives them for really becoming impact first-year players.”

An even more recent development has been schools trying to capitalize on the recruiting craze. Nearly every school in the country — from Temple to Fresno State — holds some type of Signing Day event for fans. It’s a way for athletic departments to bridge the gap between the end of the season and spring football and market ticket packages.

But if a big chunk of the class is already locked in December, what happens in February?

“That will make that Signing Day in February kind of moot, and if you do it in December there’s already a lot of stuff going on there,” Stricklin said. “I don’t know if you need another event.”

David Bassity, associate AD for communication at the University of Houston, thinks he will need another event. Not necessarily for the fans.

“I feel like you’re also speaking to future recruits,” he said. “Kids are becoming enamored with what the schools are doing and how it makes them feel special.”

Last year, the Cougars used social media messages by local rappers, former UH stars and local NFL players such as J.J Watt to welcome the signing class. It wasn’t quite Michigan’s “Signing of the Stars,” which included appearances by Tom Brady and Derek Jeter, but it was a lot more than just a press release.

Michigan to host Signing of the Stars on Feb. 1

The original version of the recruiting proposal now being considered also suggested a June signing period. Coaches came out strongly against that, saying it did not allow for enough time to get to know recruits.

The June period was removed, but the opportunity for recruits to take official visits in the spring was expanded. Steinbrecher likes the idea of another signing period for recruits in July or August so they can wrap up recruiting before their senior years. Many recruits are already committed by then. But he said this package and the new signing period is a good first step toward improving recruiting for players and coaches — and maybe even reining in the Signing Day circus.

“I hope this would reduce it a little bit,” he said.” I have no idea whether it will or not.”