Forty years ago, college football in this part of the country had what was, in essence, an early signing period for prospects. Called the SEC Letter of Intent, the document — which prospects signed in December — was only binding among SEC member schools.
Times were different then. Very few schools were involved in national recruiting and the few that were — Notre Dame, Nebraska, USC — rarely came into the Deep South seeking players. (Remember, the SEC footprint at that time did not include the states of Texas, Arkansas, Missouri or South Carolina.) There were bitter recruiting battles, certainly, but for the most part, they were intra-conference Abel vs. Cain matchups. And, in another illustration of how things have changed, the news coverage usually consisted of a list of signees supplied by a school’s sports information office to the local newspapers, which duly ran the lists on the following day.
Times have changed, twice. A decision was made to abandon the old SEC Signing Day, in part because other leagues, ones that did not honor an SEC letter, started poaching prospects and in part because of the perception that the big names of the day — Alabama, Tennessee, LSU — had a big name-recognition advantage, especially with more scholarships available in those days. The Crimson Tide or the Vols could sign 30 or 35 players, the cream of the local crop, and a common complaint (especially when directed at Alabama coach Paul W. “Bear” Bryant) was that “Bear was signing boys just to keep them away” from some other school. (That always sounded like a good strategy to me, but I digress.)
Recruiting coverage, meanwhile, became its own industry, and National Signing Day in February became a regional, if not quite national, holiday. Now, the wheel has turned once more.
A December signing date has been approved by the NCAA and the Conference Commissioners Association, one that will supplement, not replace, the single February date. The impact may not be what it would have been 10 years ago. Today, many schools already have a de facto early signing period as top prep prospects leave their high school a semester early to enroll in college and take part in spring practice. That included five-star Alabama signees like Tua Tagovailoa (and almost all the other five-star quarterbacks nationwide), Najee Harris, Dylan Moses, Jerry Jeudy and Alex Leatherwood who were all mid-team enrollees.
There were other prospects who weren’t signed until February, of course, big names like Henry Ruggs Jr. and the kicking hope of the Alabama faithful, Joseph Bulovas. No one contends that changing the date is going to derail the recruiting efforts at Alabama or Ohio State or Clemson. The teams that recruit at that lofty level will keep right on doing so. The calendar will change, and, if football is anything like basketball, the hype around prospects who don’t sign early will be monumental, and the pressures on teams that were “outrecruited” in December will be significant.
Another concern is what happens when a prospect signs with School A, which then goes out, stinks up a bowl game and fires its head coach. There is no automatic provision for release and even if some schools magnanimously decide to release such signees anyway, they certainly aren’t going to do so before February.
Nick Saban, the Alabama head coach, was vehement in opposition to another proposal for a June signing date. He doesn’t seem thrilled with the December date either, but seems willing to live with it. That’s probably the best approach — go with the new flow, and wait to see what the unintended consequences will be.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.