After Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez convinced a wide receiver to switch his commitment hours before national signing day, Purdue coach Joe Tiller's terse response ran in newspapers across the country. "If we had an early signing date, you wouldn't have another outfit with a guy in a wizard hat selling snake oil to get a guy at the last minute,” Tiller said. "But that's what happened.” Many football coaches have experienced similar situations. That's why there's growing sentiment college football needs an early signing day similar to basketball. In a recent poll conducted by The Oklahoman, more than 77 percent of the 119 Division I-A football coaches favored an early signing period. A few prefer August, but the majority chose December to supplement the traditional February date. "It's been gaining momentum the past few years,” said Washington coach Tyrone Willingham, president of the American Football Coaches Association. "I know a lot of coaches are frustrated. But we need to be very prudent. We have to look very carefully at all the issues.” The No. 1 problem is what date to choose? Most coaches prefer mid-December, the junior-college signing period. Some coaches want a late December date to allow recruits two additional weeks for official visits. But some fear a signing day during the Christmas holidays and bowl season isn't feasible. A handful of coaches are lobbying for August so recruits could get it out of the way before their senior season. But August would create a whole new set of issues. The Big 12, ACC and Big East have been in favor of an early signing day. The Pac 10 has been overwhelmingly opposed. The SEC has flip-flopped, which is why an early signing day has gained momentum the past year. Last year, SEC coaches voted 9-3 against an early signing day. This spring, the SEC voted 9-3 in favor. Official visits are a key issue. University presidents and athletic directors will not endorse any early signing day without official visits. That's the primary reason SEC presidents and ADs voted down the proposal days after SEC coaches voted in favor. "How can we sign a guy and he has not made an official visit to our institution?” said Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs. "How can we sign a guy when they haven't had a chance to sit down with the school or college dean and actually go through the process?”
"A lot of assistants feel something needs to be done,” Crabtree said. "There would be a whole new can of worms that would have to be sorted out. But there are big-name guys at big schools who feel you need to curb de-commitments.”
Tiller, who will retire after this season, is an early signing day guy but said football recruiting is more complicated than other sports.
"Our sport is different from basketball in that we don't have AAU football,” Tiller said. "A lot of recruits take their visits in the fall and after the season.
"People ask me what I'll miss most when I'm done coaching. One thing I am not going to miss is recruiting during the season.”
Willingham said the topic needs thorough examination before legislation is proposed. An early signing day also would have to be approved by the Collegiate Commissioners Association.
"We have to get more input from high school coaches before we move forward,” Willingham said. "The No. 1 factor is the high school athlete. No. 2 is high school coaches.”
Most high school coaches The Oklahoman interviewed are in favor of an early signing period. Many prefer an August signing period so players could end the process before their senior season, but that's unlikely.
Too many coaches are concerned August would force recruits to take official visits in the spring and all but eliminate assistant coaches taking vacations during the summer.
That's why most believe a mid-December early signing period is the ideal comprise. They believe it would benefit recruits who have made up their minds.
"Most of your negative recruiting occurs after Christmas when coaches pester kids those last six weeks,” said Louisiana Tech's Derek Dooley. "You would still have three weeks of official visits.”
Tulsa coach Todd Graham coached high school football for 10 years before moving to the college ranks.
Graham understands the frustration when an assistant coach toils for months only to lose a commitment at the 11th hour. He also relates to high school recruits and high school coaches who can be overwhelmed by the process.
"We recruit a kid and he's committed to us for eight months,” Graham said. "Then you get down to the last week of January and he jumps ship. You lose them late. That's unfair. Kids do change their minds. You want to make sure they end up in the right spot.
"December is perfect. It allows players who know where they're going to get signed, sealed and delivered. It takes a lot of pressure off them. I think this would make it fair for everybody.”
Status quoThe majority of coaches believes it would save money and benefit recruits to implement an early signing day. But there's a faction that prefer the status quo, including USC's Pete Carroll and Florida's Urban Meyer. "Everybody wants to speed this thing up,” Meyer said. "I'm not comfortable signing kids you don't know. I want to quit making mistakes. A mistake in recruiting just devastates a program. The only way to minimize the mistake factor is to get to know someone.” Texas Tech coach Mike Leach is the only Big 12 coach who opposes an early signing day. "There's a big push for it right now,” Leach said. "I've always been against it. When I was 18 — even now that I'm 46 — the notion that the path in life is so clear cut you don't need time to make a decision, and sometimes reconsider, is ridiculously naïve.” Some mid-major programs believe an early signing day would only widen the recruiting gap since BCS schools have larger recruiting budgets and travel advantages. "It's a rich gets richer, poor gets poorer type of deal,” said Troy coach Larry Blakeney. "The smaller schools already are at a disadvantage. The big boys would get all the guys they want in December and then prioritize the few guys they want in February.” Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill agrees. "Schools in the six power conferences would have a huge advantage due to finances,” Stockstill said. "Schools in other conferences are not able to get out as much. Their summer camps aren't as well attended.” Another concern is the large amount of turnover that typically hits late in the year. A recruit may commit to a coach in August only to have that coach fired in November. "What about the kid who makes a decision he regrets and can't get out of it?” Leach said. "If they're in the (high school) playoffs they have to reach a decision during their season. To me it's putting the cart before the horse. It's insane.” But many college and high school coaches believe it's insane for a recruit who has had his mind made up for months to have to wait until February to sign a national letter of intent. "Everyone stays on these kids,” said Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis. "I mean, kids are getting called at midnight (the night before signing day). We've forgotten these are 17- and 18-year-old kids. They could get it out of the way and take the pressure off.”
New eraIt wasn't that long ago national signing day was filled with drama and intrigue. That's no longer the case. Many schools will have the bulk of their 2009 class committed before they kick off the 2008 season. Early offers didn't exist until Penn State coach Joe Paterno first tried the strategy in the early 1990s. Now it's essential to land early commitments and the tools are in place to do just that. Summer camps are used to evaluate prospects similar to the NFL combine. Videotape from a recruit's junior season is analyzed. One advantage to an early signing period is hundreds of thousands of dollars could be saved if assistant coaches didn't have to "baby sit” commitments to prevent someone in Tiller's proverbial wizard's hat "stealing” their guy. "To spend the amount of money we spend over the last month of the recruiting season is pretty ridiculous to hold on to kids,” said Arizona coach Mike Stoops. "We're always talking about money. That's the biggest waste of money.” When Ralph Friedgen took the Maryland job in 1997 after spending five years in the NFL, he came back to a completely different world in recruiting. The internet had taken recruiting to a whole other level. "It's amazing to me that a lot of people are making money off these kids,” Friedgen said. "And look at what's happening to the kids' egos. They eat this stuff up. People around the kid all help inflate the balloon.”
What's next?Rivals national recruiting editor Jeremy Crabtree predicts an early signing day will be the No. 1 topic at the AFCA convention in January because many assistant coaches are frustrated that nearly 200 players de-committed in the 2008 class.