Signing Day: Under the Microscope

When you finish reading this entry, be sure to visit the companion roundtable discussion, where several experts tackle five of the more contentious topics discussed below.


McFarland made four official visits during his recruitment — to Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana State and Southern California.

He said he saw everything from flat-screen televisions in Texas Coach Mack Brown’s bathrooms to L.S.U.’s recruiting hostesses sitting on the laps of prospects.

But the best summation of his experience might have come from a paper he wrote for his English class comparing Oklahoma and Texas. The paper, "Red River Rivals Recruit," includes a description of a wild party hosted by Longhorns fans at an upscale hotel in Dallas after the Oklahoma-Texas game on Oct. 11.

"I will never forget the excitement amongst all participants," McFarland wrote. "Alcohol was all you can drink, money was not an option. Girls were acting wild by taking off their tops, and pulling down their pants. Girls were also romancing each other. Some guys loved every minute of the freakiness some girls demonstrated. I have never attended a party of this magnitude."

He continued: "The attitude of the people at the party was that everyone should drink or not come to the party. Drugs were prevalent with no price attached."

If you run a college football blog, chances are that:
A: By now, you have read the afore-mentioned quote (from an article by Thayer Evans in the New York Times, which subsequently isn't pleased about the whole sordid affair), and
B: You have been looking for any possible opportunity to work in that quote in order you satisfy your inner adolescent.

Every winter following the conclusion of the bowl season, these tales of recruiting-gone-wild are becoming increasingly prevalent, even if the subject matter is ugly uniforms and custom comic books. It makes sense on several levels. For one thing, college football's official status as an amateur sport creates rife opportunities for intrigue and scandal. With tens of thousands of fans packing stadiums every autumn Saturday and widespread popular support in the across the country, college football is big business. Compelling subject matter, and an unwetted appetite for access and scandal have helped turn what used to be a relatively mundane topic into water cooler chatter.

Most of the debate over the topic centers around the "why" questions: why should we care, why we should not. It's enough to make you wonder, "how did we come to this point?"

In the beginning

Specifically, the college football recruiting process is all about signing day. What everyone is worked up over is the idea that high school athletes are giving verbal commitments to sign a national letter of intent Feb. 4th, 2009 with the school of their choice. A letter of intent is defined as follows:

National Letter of Intent seals the recruiting process. With his signature, a student-athlete accepts a four-year institution's athletic scholarship offer. The signature ends a student-athlete's recruitment and binds him to a single college or university.

By signing a letter of intent, the student-athlete agrees to attend the college or university for one year. The institution also agrees to provide financial aid for one year. Other institutions are prohibited to continue recruiting a student-athlete once he signs a letter of intent.

In Andy Staples's excellent SI.com piece on the history of recruiting linked above, one fact is abundantly clear: in the beginning, college football truly was a sport of amateurs. As always, the SEC had to muck everything up by allowing athletic scholarships in 1935. Sixteen years later, the NCAA gave in and permitted the practice to all members.

At first, individual athletic conferences were content to police themselves. Once a player signed with a member school, he was off limits to the other conference teams. As you could expect, this didn't work out so well in practice.

The Oklahoma staff used the SWC rulebook as a shield whenever possible. Larry Lacewell, a longtime Switzer assistant who also served as head coach at Arkansas State and as the Dallas Cowboys' director of player personnel, said the Sooners loved the fact that the SWC had its own Letter of Intent. When a player signed with an SWC school, he was off limits to coaches from the other SWC schools, but not to coaches from schools in other conferences.

"We'd get them to sign with Baylor or TCU," Lacewell recalled with a laugh. That way, Texas and Texas A&M couldn't recruit them, but Oklahoma could.

For years, a nationwide consensus grew toward the need for a binding national letter of intent, but one significant obstacle remained. In 1960, the Ivy League led a fight to put the kibosh on a NCAA proposal for a national letter of intent.

"If a boy wants to come to any of our schools, and decides to change his mind, he has the right to do so." - Adolph Samborski, Harvard Athletic Director, 1969

1964 saw implementation of the first vestiges of the current NLOI system. The national letter of intent program did not really grow the teeth to prevent the kinds of abuses described above until 1973.

Still, in comparison to the ruckus of today, the recruiting process at the time was relatively understated.

In 1974, back when our raging football interest was still controllable, Jack Thompson paced in his home, uncertain.

It wasn't so much national signing day then. It was just the deadline to John Hancock a piece of paper. No frills. No hoopla. There was neither a television camera nor a scribbling reporter in sight.

Thompson had a decision to make — Oregon or Washington State — and he was waffling, and it was nearing time for his morning commute to Evergreen High School. He waited for his father to get off the graveyard shift. Two coaches, Ducks assistant coach Carl Blackburn and Cougars assistant Mike Price, stood at his doorstep.

Raising the stakes

Cottage industries have a way of springing up out of the blue. Before ESPN and the rise of Mel Kiper, who could have imagined that the NFL Draft could be so compelling as to paralyze the United States adult male population for a weekend every April? Tom Lemming may not have been the first person to throw his hat in the ring at independent analysis of high school football players, but he's the Johnny Appleseed who really started to get the ball rolling way back in 1978.

The transition to football recruiting guru was anything but easy. Lemming truly paid his dues, experiencing many bumps along the road to success. He had to work as a printer, then a mailman for seven years before his magazine began to turn a profit.

"It was always temporary to me," Lemming said of his outside jobs. "It was a tough thing to work two full-time jobs. I remember never going to sleep (about 50 nights per year). There were probably 100 to 150 nights a year I'd get less than four hours of sleep. The worst month is January. Lack of sleep never bothered me. I think I conditioned myself not to sleep much. Sometimes I'd wake up in the middle of the night and write notes or work on my magazine.

"I always had tunnel vision toward the magazine. I always knew I was going to make it, but was just surprised how long it took. From 1985 on it was clear sailing. What really helped was USA Today and ESPN starting, because that gave more national exposure (to him and prep football)."

Lemming became the first - and still the only - football recruiting analyst to visit players throughout the country. "That was my niche," he said proudly. His first trip was to Cincinnati Princeton and Moeller in 1978. He also went to Pittsburgh Central Catholic and then on to New Jersey. "I never passed the Rockies until the early 1980s because I'd run out of money," he noted.

As Lemming explains it, Penn State under Joe Paterno was the first school to pioneer the concept of a verbal commitment (in order to deter other schools from contacting its committed prospects) and accelerating and compressing the recruiting process.

"We have nothing near the drama we used to have 10 years ago," said Tom Lemming, the longtime national recruiting guru who works as an analyst for College Sports TV (CSTV). "There's close to a dozen big-time guys left (uncommitted) as we approach signing day when 10 years ago, there were a couple hundred left on signing day."

Lemming traces the change to 1993 when Penn State lost several top in-state players to other schools, including quarterback Ron Powlus, who was ranked as the nation's No.'1 player and went to Notre Dame.

That caused Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno to start offering scholarships before a high school player's senior season.

"Up until then, that was nearly unheard of," Lemming said. "(Other schools) started doing it slowly, then about five years ago, everybody started doing it."

Joe Paterno did not morph into the nation's favorite curmudgeon overnight. As far back as the 70s, Paterno railed against what he saw as widespread abuses in the recruiting process.

Finally, a school appears to be losing out. Accordingly, a coach whose job is on the line or who has been hired by a college president to and told to win - not teach well, but win - may do what he believes the college president, the athletic director, the alumni, and friends of the institution want him to do.

He arranges for the prospect to be offered extra money, clothes, or other illegal inducements. He isn't really concerned about getting caught because the N.C.A.A. (National Collegiate Athletic Association) has ineffective investiation and enforcement apparatus. - "OPINION: A College Coach Tells Why Recruiting Abuses Happen; Winning Above All Coaches on Spot Size of a Giant Just Can't Say No", New York Times, March 17, 1974

Paterno continues on, railing against "distorted values" and "imaginary utopias" decrying the process requiring a grown man to prostrate himself before a teenage football star and grovel. Even then, it was clear that Mr. Paterno was no fan of the recruiting process. And he had good reason not to be. As Beano Cook recalled several years ago, a young Mike Ditka reneged on a promise to attend Penn State, unable to resist the lure of Pittsburgh's dental school.

It was bound to happen eventually. Still, the fact that a traditionalist like Paterno would eventually relent and cross the junior rubicon was quite telling.

When they offered a scholarship to Joe Nastasi, a 6-foot-1, 170-pound wide receiver from Northern Bedford last spring, the Nittany Lions started what might become a revolutionary trend -- offering a scholarship to high school juniors.

"Penn State felt like they had to get involved with kids early and their approach changed," Grosz said. "They never offered a scholarship to a player until he made an official visit in December or January."

Modern comforts

The growth of the internet over the past two decades is what really amplifiedk the recruiting frenzy into overdrive in terms of fan interest and media coverage. As Bruce Feldman recounts in Meat Market (p. 8), Jim Heckman, a University of Washington booster, founded Rivals.com in 1998. It was a website that followed the business model of running a central operation to cover national recruiting news, and signing up team-specific affiliates to provide more in-depth coverage of each program. After it went bust along with the tech bubble, the remnants were picked up by one of Lemming's competitors, Bobby Burton. Heckman turned around and founded what would eventually turn into Scout.com.

One thing Rivals and Scout bring to the recruiting process is vastly increased exposure. According to incoming Syracuse HC Doug Marrone,

I have a lot of friends that are high school coaches. A good friend of mine had a tape of a kid and he was good. I called my buddy and said, ‘What do I need to do to get in with this kid?’ He said, ‘You don’t want this kid.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Doug, I could make a highlight tape and make anyone look great.’ I said, ‘Whoa.’ That’s when I took a step back and said, ‘We need to go slow and make the right decision.’

Each site shares several main features. The regular news updates and articles are accompanied by a message board, wherein, cloaked behind a shroud of relative anonymity, posters have the opportunity and leisure to indulge their fandoms in a way that is more immediate and instantly gratifying than calling into talk radio, subscribing to newsletters, attending athletic department booster clubs, or any other methods that were popular before the rise of the internet. What really sets these sites apart, however, is that they operate on a paid revenue subscription model. National analysts claim to be able to analyze players in as little as thirty seconds. The most coveted recruiting content (bits gleamed from telephone interviews with specific recruits, hearsay leaked by a friendly assistant coach) is stowed away behind a paid access firewall, with privileged information leaking out in dribs and drabs to anyone unwilling to fork over $9.95 a month for a subscription.

If Rivals and Scout lit the matches for recruit-o-mania, the arrival of multibillion-dollar conglomerates into the industry was like dousing everything in gasoline. After a News Corp bid to purchase Rivals reportedly "fell apart at the 11th hour" in 2005, they subsequently purchased Scout for $60 million and merged it into its MySpace Sports division. After a doomed romance with AOL, Yahoo snapped up Rivals in 2007 for $100 million. At the same time, sports behemoth ESPN was eying entry into the market. They soon began signing away several popular affiliates from Rivals and Scout. They followed by launching a shot across the bow toward Tom Lemming with the Under Armour All-America Game, a competitor to his U.S. Army All-American Bowl.

In spite of a crashing economy and increasing numbers of recruits choosing to commit early, these trends show no signs of abating any time soon. In fact, you can expect that Signing Day 2009 will be bigger and more overexposed than ever.

ESPNU plans on televising a record nine consecutive hours of recruiting coverage on national signing day while recruiting Internet sites expect their biggest day of the year.

With all of the hype and scrutiny, college football recruiting is changing in many ways, and not all of them for the better. Decommitments, once rare, are now relatively commonplace. That phenomenon goes hand in hand with oversigning - recruiting enough incoming freshmen to get a team well above the NCAA-mandated maximum of 85, leading to upperclassmen being nudged, gently or otherwise, into giving up their athletic scholarship. Brian Cook railed against a particular egregious case at Alabama last year; North and South Carolina are two of the bigger offenders with the class of 2009. That managed to get the Gamecocks and Steve Spurrier in a bit of hot water a few weeks ago when they unceremoniously pulled a verbal commitment's scholarship offer. And then, there's the hat drama.

 

Kevin Hart, the one who had the last laugh on us all.

 

Seeing the reactions and indignation directed towards the spectacle of eighteen year old kids having a little fun is arguably far more amusing than the selections themselves (if your favorite team isn't at the losing end of pick, at least).

Why we love teenage boys

On the surface, it's easy to understand why fans would want to follow the recruiting process. It's the equation of player X playing position Y for the Tigers in Z years, if all goes according to plan.

I would argue, however, that there's a deeper explanation for the underlying appeal of the process. It's recruiting as validation. We, as fans, consciously choose to follow a particular bowl subdivision school. Perhaps we're even alumni of that institution. We actively choose to associate with the team and school. By choosing where he wants to attend college, we interpret each player's decision personally, as a conscious decision over whether or not to associate with our chosen groups.

"Oh, you're choosing Tech because you like our engineering program? In your face State!" That choice is seen as a direct affirmation of our own past choices. If he's choosing us for the degree, then, by proxy, I as a fan made the correct decision as well. If his criteria are mainly based around the quality of the football program, even better. I made a right decision to stay in my home state, or choose to root for a school because I liked their color scheme/offense/star player/randomly turned the television on at an opportune time.

Conversely, rejection is like a dagger aimed directly toward your heart. It doesn't matter if a player had several compelling choices, and went with the best out of several good options. Only one team can win. That was the player who was going to get us over the top. Perversely, I believe that these kinds of feelings can only intensify one's fascination with the recruiting process. Here's an articulation of how that line of reasoning might proceed:

We needed him. There's absolutely no point in paying attention to the next four years on the gridiron. I might as well stop following the sport entirely. Oh wait, you tell me there's another top player looming on the horizon, only twelve months away? Hot damn.

For the true junkies out there, recruiting isn't just a side interest. It's a minotaur's labyrinth of obsession, paranoia, rush, and reward.

The party's over?

Just as college football recruiting hits its apex, could the forces of sanity be pulling the plug on the whole wretched venture? There are proposals abound for an early signing period for college football (college basketball has had one for some time).

Coaches who support the early signing period contend their staffs waste time and money playing defense with committed players getting bombarded by other schools. The coaches who oppose the plan -- and they have dwindled in the past two or three years -- believe they already have too little opportunity to build a relationship with players before offering a scholarship. An early signing period, they argue, would only further accelerate the process.

But what about the players?

But how would it help players? It might cut the number of text messages, and it could protect them in a coaching change, but mostly they're giving up some freedom in the middle of making the biggest decision of most of their lives.

Further compressing the recruiting calendar could just exacerbate existing problems. If there are any conclusions that can be drawn from the history of signing day, it's that people will always find ways to bend the rules, and it can be difficult to predict the unintended consequences of any new regulations. Joe Paterno honestly believed that shortening the recruiting season, as part of a larger package of increased transparency and rules enforcement, would do a world of good. The major effect of those changes has been to greatly increase pressure on players and coaches. With even less margin for error, the worry is that the more-unscrupulous coaches out there will just have an even greater incentive to take the gloves off. That is the pratfall that any new movement towards reform may not be able to avoid.


Thanks to everyone who assisted with putting this together. Specifically, Matt Anderson was a big help.

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