In college football, national signing day is a holiday of sorts.
It celebrates the end of a lengthy recruitment of a group of high school players, and it always falls on the first Wednesday in February. Players sign, usually within a few hours of one another during a whirlwind morning and afternoon, officially committing to attend a university and be a part of that school’s football program.
It’s a long-awaited, highly anticipated day — circled by every coach and highlighted by every prospect. It is the Christmas Day of recruiting.
But what if there were another signing day?
What if there were another Christmas Day or a second St. Patrick’s Day? Can you hold Mardi Gras twice and double your Easter Sundays?
Yes, you can. College football probably is about to get a second holiday — for better or worse.
This could be the last football recruiting class with only one signing day, so take it all in Wednesday.
The NCAA's board of directors is expected to approve in April an early signing period, along with a host of other recruiting reforms. The second signing day will fall on the third Wednesday in December, allowing high school seniors to end their recruitment about six weeks early — on the same day that junior-college players customarily sign.
The traditional signing day isn’t going anywhere. It’s still an option that many believe recruits will continue to use, especially undecided or uncommitted prospects who take their recruitment to the final possible hour.
But other players would have a way to officially end the taxing recruiting process nearly two months ahead of schedule.
“For some, it could be good. For some, not useful,” said Myles Brennan, a highly touted Mississippi quarterback committed to LSU for this year’s class. “From my standpoint, I wouldn’t have signed in December because of how my recruitment played out.”
Brennan announced Nov. 30 that he was reopening his recruitment and communicating with other schools because of LSU’s instability at offensive coordinator during a transition year in which the program fired coach Les Miles and promoted Ed Orgeron.
The early signing period for this year's class would have been Dec. 14, 2016 — the date LSU hired offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Brennan reaffirmed his pledge to the Tigers a day later, but he would not have made such a leap as to scribble his name on a binding letter of intent during that period.
He might be the exception.
“Over 70 percent of high school seniors are verbally committed by Oct. 1,” Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips, who chairs the NCAA Division I council, told USA Today. “They want to get this thing over with. So you have that group, then you have another group that may want to wait. You’ve seen it in men’s basketball, and it’s worked out well where you’ve had an early signing period.”
The addition of an early signing date is the featured item among a package of elements the Division I council proposed in October. The proposal also includes adding a 10th full-time assistant coach, effectively eliminating satellite camps and extending the period in which prospects can take official visits.
The proposal — an all-in-one deal — is expected to pass in April.
Not everybody is for all of these changes. LSU is aligned with the Southeastern Conference in that it would like to see the elements voted on independently, said Bo Bahnsen, LSU’s senior associate athletic director for compliance. Amendments to the proposal can be filed until Wednesday.
“There are parts and pieces of the proposal that we’re in favor of,” Bahnsen said.
LSU’s head coach isn’t in favor of the proposal’s primary element: the early signing day.
“I’m against it,” Orgeron said in the fall. “It’s too much manpower. Way too much manpower. You realize the manpower it takes for signing day; then you’ve got to go through two of them? It’s just, there’s a lot of stuff. It’s a war. Signing day is a war. All of the stuff that goes into signing day, and now you’re going to go through two of them? I don’t think we have enough time to do it.”
The American Football Coaches Association announced after a meeting earlier this month that it is in favor of the early signing period. Coaches were vehemently against a June early signing period, something initially proposed that the Division I council dropped during the NCAA convention earlier this month in Nashville, Tennessee.
Players are in favor of the additional signing period, according to a survey by ESPN.com. About 70 percent of high school juniors and seniors responded favorably to it when surveyed at the Under Armour All-America Game a few weeks ago.
High school coaches like it as well. Ponchatoula coach Hank Tierney believes the amount of decommitments would decrease.
“I would jump up and down and dance for joy,” he said. “Prolonging it, it just makes the kids keep changing their minds. It’s over and done before Christmas. All of the jumping back and forth, it goes out of the window. I think the early signing will make the kids get serious about it at an earlier stage in their careers.”
But maybe this is too early in their careers, suggested Barton Simmons, director of scouting for 247Sports.com. Simmons isn’t against the early signing period, but it does have at least two negative effects, he said.
It speeds up a recruiting process that college coaches already complain is too fast. If prospects can sign earlier, schools may need to begin recruiting them sooner in their careers, offering them scholarships earlier.
Also, it would de-emphasize the three-week fight to the finish that unravels each January, placing more importance on the official visits and in-home visits in late November and early December — sometimes with the college season still going.
The second “danger” is something Brennan knows all about: coaching staff instability.
“Kids are going to still sign in December and have assistant coaches and head coaches leave,” Simmons said. “That signing period takes place right before the silly season of college coaches leaving.”
That’s why Simmons believes that eventually the only players who will sign early are those enrolling in classes in January. Anyone else signing is a bonus for college assistant coaches already swamped during the high-intensity recruiting weeks of January.
It would mean fewer prospects whom assistants need to court during those three critical weeks preceding signing day.
“The kids that are not mid-term grads, you can get them signed and not have to guard them the whole month of January,” said Mike Scarborough, publisher at TigerBait.com, the Rivals.com site covering LSU. “Down the line, you see what the benefits and unintended consequences are to the additional signing day, and then you change.”
What Scarborough said he can’t understand is extending the period in which prospects can take official visits. Prospects are allowed one official (expense-free) visit to five schools. The visits cannot begin until the first day of their senior year in high school — normally August.
The new rule will allow recruits to use official visits starting April 1 of their junior year for a period ending in late June. They’ll also be allowed to take visits during the traditional times — in the fall, in the first two weeks of December and in the final 2½ weeks of January.
Those traditional times are there for a reason, Scarborough said: Coaches want prospects to visit as close to decision day as they can.
“I would think, if you’re going to sign in December, you’d want him in for a visit as close to that as possible,” he said. “I’m going to be real anxious to see what coaching staffs jump on that and see where there’s an advantage. I don’t see where that would be used widespread at all. You bring a 17-year-old to your spring game weekend, and he’s not making a decision until December or February, that spring game in April was an eternity ago for him.”
Recruits and high school coaches are in favor of the early visits. Brennan only used one of his official visits, taking a trip to LSU last weekend. He didn’t use the others, in part because they would have interrupted his record-breaking senior season.
April, May and June are some of the slowest months for high school football players. Many of them spend June traveling to college campuses. Brennan visited Cincinnati, Kentucky and Oklahoma State. He was forced to pay for all of the visits, because they were unofficial.
“I do think kids are going to take advantage of that,” Brennan said. “I only used one official. I feel like if I would have had access to those in the spring and summer, I would have used them. It’s huge. If I was a recruit, I would take full advantage of it.”
High school coaches smile at the thought of players having access to official visits during the offseason. Some coaches ban players from visiting colleges during the season anyway, and others must reschedule meetings and practices around visits.
“In spring and summer, you’re lifting weights and conditioning,” Tierney said. “We only go four days a week in the summer. Our Fridays to Sundays are free.”
One thing the early signing day will accomplish: It will reveal plenty about a verbal commitment, Scarborough said.
“If you’re an assistant and you’ve got a guy committed for a while and he doesn’t sign on the dotted line in December,” he said, “you’ve got a good idea of how shaky his commitment is.”
Change may be coming
At the behest of university presidents, the NCAA Division I council proposed recruiting reforms in October. They still need approval by two different bodies, potentially as early as this spring and/or summer. The Collegiate Commissioners Association, made up of conference commissioners, handles national letter of intent. The NCAA controls official visits and satellite camp issues.
The following are all aspects of just one proposal:
Current: Prospects can only sign national letters of intent beginning on the first Wednesday in February, known as national signing day.
Proposed: Prospects can sign during a 72-hour window starting on the third Wednesday in December, coinciding with the junior-college signing day. They can also sign on the traditional national signing day.
Official visit calendar
Current: A prospect can only make his expense-free ("official") visits to five schools after his high school classes have started, usually in August.
Proposed: Prospects will be allowed to take "official" visits starting April 1 of their junior year in high school and stretching through the first three weeks of June. They can still make "official" visits during the traditional times.
Current: Coaches can conduct 30 days of camps, including those on-campus and off-campus within their state borders. They can also partner with other colleges, junior colleges and high schools in other states to host camps. These are widely known as satellite camps.
Proposed: Coaches can conduct camps for only 10 days, and camps are only allowed on campus or practice/competition facilities (such as an off-campus stadium). Coaches cannot participate in camps at high schools or junior colleges, but they can coach at camps at other four-year universities.
Current: Schools are permitted to have nine full-time assistant coaches. These coaches can work with players on the field, recruit, etc.
Proposed: Schools will be allowed a 10th full-time assistant.
Regulating third-party employment
Current: Those close to a prospect (third parties) can be hired in a support staff role with the school that is recruiting that prospect. They can also be hired to work school-run camps.
Proposed: Third-party sources linked to recruits cannot be hired to a school’s support staff or hired to work school-run camps. Examples of this are traveling 7-on-7 coaches or other “handlers,” LSU senior associate AD Bo Bahnsen said, who “take these kids around from school to school, and you have to pay the handler” — by hiring him.