Eliminate Signing Day entirely
SEC presidents and athletic directors wisely nixed their football coaches' idea of an early signing period during their meeting last week in Destin, Fla. Give the administrators another year or two, though, and they'll make the same mistake as the coaches.
In only a year, SEC coaches went from voting 9-3 in opposition to an early signing period to voting 9-3 in favor of a late-November period during which football players, like their spring-semester-sport counterparts, can sign a national Letter of Intent. Coaches in other conferences have experienced similar epiphanies.
What the coaches -- and the administrators who eventually will approve such a plan -- don't understand is that an earlier signing period won't solve the problems inherent in the system of non-binding commitments (from schools and from prospects) that rules until the first Wednesday in February every year.
So before the coaches waste their dwindling vacation time devising a scheme that will result in an early signing period for the class of 2010, consider this alternative proposal.
Forget the current system. Blow it up.
Eliminate Signing Day entirely. Let coaches sign players whenever they want. The idea may sound irresponsible, but in practice, it would force coaches to exercise more caution lest they gamble away an entire recruiting class. They would have to consider all the ramifications before making an offer. A coach can sign a 300-pound offensive tackle after the prospect's junior season, but if one of those all-you-can-eat buffets with the oh-so-delicious yeast rolls opens next to his school and Tiny balloons to 600 pounds in the ensuing 16 months, that coach had better order an XXXXXXL practice jersey, because he's stuck with the butterball.
Coaches in every sport complain now because NCAA rules limiting contact don't allow them to get to know prospects or their families before they extend a scholarship offer. Yet despite those complaints, they offer those precious scholarships earlier every year. They argue that they lose a competitive advantage if they don't offer first. Kentucky basketball coach Billy Gillispie accepted commitments last month from an eighth-grader and a ninth-grader. Is it too far-fetched to believe that football coaches won't start accepting commitments from 10th graders on a regular basis?
The only way for the NCAA to combat this practice is to embrace it. Want to offer a high-school freshman? Go ahead. But you can't send him some empty promise. You have to send him a national Letter of Intent. If he signs, you promise one of your 85 scholarships to him for at least a year, and he promises to attend your school for at least a year, whether you're there or not. Coaches wouldn't have to baby-sit committed players as rivals swarmed, and players wouldn't have to worry about a coach giving away the scholarship he already promised to them.
Put this plan into action, and the number of early offers would plummet. Think about it. College coaches are like the lotharios who say "I love you" -- even if they only kind of mean it -- to court a woman. Would those guys toss out that phrase so carelessly if the law required them to follow that declaration immediately with the offer of a diamond solitaire and a proposal of marriage? No. And if college football coaches knew the acceptance of their offer would immediately cost them one scholarship, they wouldn't hand out 200 offers for a 25-man class.
Of course, this system would need some rules. Keep the current contact limitations in place, with a few exceptions. Allow prospects to use their five official visits whenever they choose instead of only during their senior year, and don't just allow but require that schools pay for one parent or guardian to visit with the prospect. Also, prospects would be required to take an official visit to their chosen school before signing a Letter of Intent. During that visit, the school's compliance office would be required to spend at least two hours explaining the Letter of Intent. That way, they prospect can't plead ignorance if he changes his mind.