In 2017, the NCAA approved a December signing period for college football recruits with the best of intentions. Though some coaches preferred the traditional February signing day, the idea made sense in general: allow high school prospects who were tired of the recruiting process to get it over with, while giving coaches more assurance that players who had been committed for months would not back out at the last minute.
It depends on your point of view whether the change has been positive or negative. Some people in college football enjoy it, while others do not. But one thing has become clear over the last few years: most recruiting has shifted to a December window beginning Wednesday, with programmes and prospects picking up the slack in February.
And it’s no longer functional. It’s time to try something new. It’s time to do away with signing day entirely.
Though it may appear radical, the concept of eliminating a set recruiting window and allowing players to sign their National Letters of Intent whenever they are ready has been discussed for some time. Former Nebraska coach Bo Pelini argued for it as early as 2014, claiming that it would reduce the number of games played by both schools and prospects during the recruiting process.
“Make (an offer) meaningful,” Pelini said. “People will say, ‘Whoa, I have to take this kid now.'” It will slow down things for the children and the institutions. There will be fewer errors.”
Pelini’s plan never materialised. However, given the current climate in college football, it’s worth a second look because the current calendar doesn’t appear to be sustainable for anyone — coaches, prospects, or the growing number of transfers who are using December to find new homes.
One unintended consequence of the December signing period had already manifested itself in the coaching carousel in recent years, as schools felt compelled to fire coaches earlier and make new hires sooner.
However, with the NCAA liberalising transfer rules in 2020 and essentially making player movement a free for all, building a roster is no longer solely based on high school prospects. In fact, for programmes that aren’t bringing in four- and five-star recruits — which is to say, the vast majority of them — decisions are now heavily influenced by who’s in the transfer portal, where coaches often feel safer filling a need with someone they’ve seen on film in college football games rather than a high schooler who may or may not pan out.
That’s perfectly acceptable, and in some ways beneficial to the sport. It has allowed more programmes to rebuild, reenergize their fan bases, and emerge as College Football Playoff contenders without having to suffer through years of heartbreak.
But, with the transfer window opening on Dec. 5 and more than 1,000 players registering, coaches now have to figure out who’s leaving, who they want to bring in as a transfer, and which high school players they want to sign all within a couple weeks.
To put it another way, complete chaos.
Consider a world in which an NBA or NFL team had to undergo coaching changes, free agency, and the draught all in the same month — while, by the way, many schools’ seasons are still in progress. Though you shouldn’t feel too bad for the head coaches given their salaries, it doesn’t always result in the best decision-making processes.
And it certainly has the potential to disadvantage borderline high school prospects. Prior to the early signing period and transfer freedom, high school players who weren’t sure where they wanted to go or were looking for a better offer could wait until the day before signing day to see if a spot opened up somewhere. They are now competing for scholarships not only with other high school players, but also with current college players. There’s little doubt that after Wednesday, hundreds of recruits who wanted to be done with their recruitments will have to wait several months as the transfer portal settles and coaches see how many slots they have left.
And because many of those decisions will be made based on expediency rather than thoroughness, both schools and recruits will inevitably make more mistakes. So we’ll be back here next year with over a thousand kids attempting to transfer.
At this point, there is widespread agreement in college sports that the current calendar does not function as well as it should. However, there is little agreement on how to fix it. Do you abandon early signing and return to February? Do you make early signing even earlier — say, in September — and allow the first wave of prospects to secure scholarships before the start of their high school seasons? Opinions are widely divergent.
Pelini, on the other hand, may have been onto something nearly a decade ago. Why is there a time when high school recruits must officially lock in their scholarships?
Allow a school to make it official and binding on a player whenever both parties are ready to take that step. Conversely, if either side believes they will have better options in the future, they will both know where they stand.
Is it flawless? No, but at this point, nothing is. There would inevitably be issues, such as what happens to signed players if the coach is fired, where some common sense rules would need to be applied.
Despite the fact that there will be plenty of pomp and circumstance The prevalence of transfers has made roster-building a year-round activity, with Georgia, Alabama, Texas, and Notre Dame inking their blue chip classes on Wednesday. There’s no point in limiting recruiting to specific weeks on the calendar any longer.
Given the extreme time constraints that coaches face in December, it may relieve some of the pressure on everyone.