Get used to it, coaches. The new early signing period helps level the playing field for recruits
•The new early signing period in college football means recruits will get more information than they did before. Some coaches don't like that.
DESTIN, Fla. — The wine list at Seagar’s Steakhouse paled in comparison to the whine list a few yards away in a theater meeting room at the Hilton Sandestin. Last week, one SEC coach after another stepped into that room and complained about the new early signing period that will allow high school players to sign letters of intent six weeks earlier if they’d like.
“I think it’s kind of reckless, really,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said of the package of recruiting rules changes passed in April.
"You have to do a great job looking in the crystal ball," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "It puts us at a disadvantage.”
“When you guys come up with it, tell me,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said when asked what the advantage is for the players.
To hear the coaches tell it, the NCAA’s Football Oversight Committee and Division I council passed a bunch of new rules—including the early signing period—to make changes for the sake of making changes. But when they say they can’t imagine whom an early signing period might help or that they can’t see how it helps the players, they’re not being entirely honest. They know exactly how the early signing period will help the players.
For decades, coaches have had a huge upper hand in the recruiting process. They knew how the system worked. For the most part, the recruits and their parents had no idea. Sure, a few of the best players could dictate terms and string along the coaches, but this lopsided information dynamic allowed coaches to dictate the terms of the process to the vast majority of recruits.
Recently, services such as Rivals, Scout, and 247Sports have pulled back the curtain on the recruiting process and allowed players and their parents to become educated. Still, coaches controlled one vital piece of information—whether their scholarship offer actually was an offer.
Now, coaches have to put their cards on the table six weeks earlier. Some of them hate that.
Most programs hand out more than 100 scholarship offers but aren’t allowed to sign more than 25 players a year. Obviously, they need to offer more than 25 players because not everyone they offer will sign. But do they need to offer 231? That’s how many players claim offers from Minnesota in the class of 2018, according to the 247Sports database. Do they need to offer 265? According to rivals.com, that’s how many class of ’18 players claim offers from Ole Miss, whose coach thinks allowing players to sign six weeks earlier is reckless. Even if we correct for the possibility that some of the players are claiming offers they don’t have—let’s estimate that number liberally at 50—it’s still an astounding number of offers.
Before this recruiting cycle, coaches could watch the dominos fall through December and January and either cut loose committed players or ask them to take a grayshirt, which would require them to delay enrollment until the spring of the following year. Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh made headlines in January of ’16 for pruning his recruiting class of committed players. Alabama’s Nick Saban has made headlines in multiple years for having the grayshirt conversation with players close to National Signing Day. (Grayshirting as a practice is fine; the problem is when coaches spring the conversation on a player just before National Signing Day when the player has fewer options.)
When programs sent the FedEx envelopes containing scholarship papers in the first week of February, that’s the first time the players learned whether their scholarship offer was real. In most cases, they were. But on Dec. 18 and Dec. 19 of this year, when some players go looking for those envelopes, they’re not going to find them.
This irks some coaches for several reasons. First, coaches hate change. Second, they hate anything that makes their lives more difficult. Third, many hate anything that offers a modicum of power to the player. In this case, knowledge is power.
The knowledge of whether a scholarship offer is real will help inform the recruit’s decision-making process. To illustrate, let’s consider the case of fictional cornerback Johnny Lockdown. Lockdown is a three-star cornerback from Columbus, Miss. He’s a three-star because he hasn’t had time to hit the camp circuit hard, but Mississippi State coaches have seen him plenty because he grew up a few minutes away. They love him. He has an offer from the Bulldogs, and they’re absolutely going to send him scholarship papers on Dec. 19.
Auburn, meanwhile, is intrigued by Lockdown, and he loves Auburn because his dad’s favorite athlete was Bo Jackson. Lockdown’s film is great, but Tigers coaches couldn’t get him to come to camp so they could take a closer look. They’ve offered to keep up with the Joneses, and the kid tried to commit over the phone. They only have one spot left for a corner and also have offers out to Tommy Picksix (a four-star player from Atlanta who is deciding between Auburn and Georgia) and Freddie Pressman (a five-star from Huntsville who has a long offer list but appears to be leaning toward Alabama).
Based on their evaluations, Auburn coaches have Picksix and Pressman rated slightly higher than Lockdown. So what do they do? If they send paperwork to all three, they know Lockdown will sign. The other two might wait until February, and then what? Auburn wouldn’t have a spot for either. If they send paperwork to Picksix and Pressman, neither might sign. Or Picksix may decide he wants to be done with and sign. If Pressman also signs, great. That’s a five-star longshot. The Tigers will make room in the class for him.
But here is Auburn’s problem in this case. Lockdown is going to open that FedEx envelope from Mississippi State and find a National Letter of Intent. He’s got an offer from Auburn, and he’s going to wonder where his paperwork is. When he learns he isn’t getting any, that’s going to hurt. And of course Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen and his staff will further drive home the point that the paperwork in hand proves that Mississippi State really wants Lockdown while Auburn clearly doesn’t. But Auburn does want him—as long as Picksix and Pressman don’t sign. Bulldogs coaches will make the bird-in-the-hand argument. Tigers coaches will try to soothe hurt feelings and beg for more time.
What will happen? No one knows. But it will be fascinating.