Signing Day: Good, bad and ugly

Signing Day: Good, bad and ugly
February 4, 2013, 7:45 pm
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Wednesday is national signing day, college football's Holy Grail, and recruiting analyst Tom Lemming of CBS Sports Network predicts the most discussed topic of the dawn-to-dusk marathon will be decommitments -- athletes who once pledged to one school but decided to sign with another.

As one blue chipper said: "I'm committed to Florida State but my number one and two schools are Tennessee and Georgia."

Many seniors make commitments, then immediately announce their travel schedules to visit other schools.

"If they still are making visits or looking at other schools, they aren't committed," Lemming said.

Lemming has been following the recruiting trail and observing national signing day for more than 30 years. It has become one of the most celebrated and hyped dates on the calendar, like the Fourth of July or Inauguration Day or New Year's Eve or the Heisman Trophy presentation or the March Madness pairings announcement.

ESPN and the CBS Sports Network devote hours, from dawn to dusk, to covering every bit of the action...from the first signing to the last, to the drama of the uncommitted blue chippers who wait until the last minute to make the most important decision of their lives up to this point to which schools signed the best recruiting classes.

In 1981, the NCAA rule to abolish early signing days that some conferences, including the SEC and ACC, had implemented in prior years. Instead, a national signing day was established. It typically is conducted on the first Wednesday in February.

The event still is out of control. Terrelle Pryor, the nation's top player in 2008, invited the media to attend his announcement at his high school, then declared he wouldn't make a commitment at that time.

In 1979, on the morning of signing day, Illinois coach Mike White and several other coaches were waiting outside the house of West Aurora star Alvin Ross. At the stroke of 8, Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer walked out of the house with Ross' signature on a letter-of-intent.

In the era when a prospect could sign multiple letters-of-intent, a player from Atlanta said he would attend Georgia Tech or Louisville. The two coaches went to his home but his mother said he had gone to school. Each armed with the mother's signature, they tried to find the youngster. The

Georgia Tech coach found him sleeping in the weight room and persuaded him to sign before the Louisville coach arrived.

Wisconsin was placed on probation by the NCAA after it was revealed that Badger alumni had hidden a recruit on a houseboat until after the signing period.

How about this story? In 2006, offensive lineman Antonio Logan-El committed to Maryland. On signing day, he held a nationally televised press conference at ESPN Zone in Baltimore. Among the attendees was the wife of Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen. Logan-El took out a picture of himself with Penn State coach Joe Paterno and announced his decision to sign with Penn State.

But signing day used to be an even much bigger and more bizarre event in the 1970s, Lemming said, bigger because in those days everybody announced on signing day. Today, nearly 99 percent of the nation's top prospects commit before signing day, sometimes months before the date.

"At that time, the recruiting season wasn't so long. Now it goes year-round," Lemming said. "There was no Internet, no ESPN, no cell phones, no fax machines. You had to go to sign a kid. The frenzy among fans and alumni was more intense then. It was an entire class coming in at once. Now several schools have completed their recruiting and others are waiting for only one or two players.

"And there was so much in-fighting among coaches because they had to go to the homes of the athletes. In those days, Notre Dame and UCLA were the only true national recruiters. Most schools recruited locally. Woody Hayes would personally cover five or six towns in Ohio in one day to get all the players he wanted."

What is the biggest story of the 2013 recruiting season?

"Decommitments," Lemming said. "A lot of guys will sign with schools that you didn't think they would."

Lemming said it has to do with immaturity, insecurity, pressure, ego and a lot of outside influences. Some players commit to a school, then discover the school is recruiting other players at the same position. Some players commit to a coach rather than a school, then choose to go elsewhere when the coach is fired or leaves for another job.

Simeon linebacker Reggie Spearman, perhaps the leading prospect in the Chicago Public League, committed to Indiana and Illinois, then visited Syracuse last weekend after receiving an offer only two weeks ago. But it is speculated that he will sign with Iowa. Stay tuned.

"The way this recruitment has gone, I wouldn't be surprised by anything that happens," said recruiting analyst Josh Helmboldt of Rivals.

What is the answer? Lemming argues that an early signing period, perhaps Sept. 1, would eliminate a lot of in-fighting, bad-mouthing and angst among coaches. If a head coach leaves for any reason, players who are committed to his school should be permitted to return to the open market.

"But it won't happen in our lifetime," Lemming said. "They have been talking about an early signing period for 20 years. Why hasn't it been adopted? Maybe it makes too much sense."

So Wednesday is national signing day, when Ohio State and Alabama and Michigan and LSU and USC and Florida get richer and Illinois and Northwestern and Purdue and Indiana and Iowa try to get respectable.

"It is a chance to get your brand out there," Lemming said. "No one has a bad year. Everybody brags about their recruiting classes. It is the only time of the year that you can brag about your class. There are no losers. It is a chance to sell tickets. Teams that are winning get richer. And teams that aren't winning talk about a bright future. It's a win-win situation for one and all."

Going into national signing day, Alabama, Notre Dame, Florida, Ohio State, Michigan, USC and LSU had accumulated the best recruiting classes. In the Big 10, everybody was chasing Ohio State and Michigan.

So what else is new?