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Helmholdt: Early signing period must go

Brand new things are shiny and fun, but after some time they can become tarnished. That time has come for the December Signing Period.

Now three years into the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision having two signing periods, there remains little redeeming value in an Early Signing Period starting the third Wednesday of December.

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PROBLEMS EXCEED PAYOFF

The issues caused by the Early Signing Period are numerous, but No. 1 is that it occurs when the coaching carousel is still spinning. Six FBS programs went through head coaching changes after the Early Signing Period for the 2020 class had closed, most notably Mark Dantonio at Michigan State, who stepped down Tuesday. That resulted in 90 prospects locked into binding letters of intent to programs who are led by different individuals than those who were in charge at the time of the December signing period.

These are only the impacts felt by head coaching changes. Many more position coaches and coordinators have been shuffled at FBS schools since the Early Signing Period, leaving recently-signed players facing the prospect of playing for a coach or in a system they had not previously evaluated.

“Choose a school, not a coach,” is a catchy phrase spewed by those trying to sound sophisticated, but it lacks practical application. Would you take a job without considering that company’s management team? Especially if it was those specific managers that had been courting you to that job for months, even years, and with whom you had developed a relationship? Can you justify excluding that aspect of a company completely when choosing a job? Then why would you expect college football recruits to do so?

Coaches change, but who recruits a prospect and who will be coaching that young man will always be a consideration in college football recruiting. That fact needs to be accepted, not dismissed as a fallacy of inexperienced youth. The “don’t commit to a coach,” mindset also needs to stop being used to excuse away the biggest issue presented by a December Signing Period.

The Early Signing Period has created other problems, of course. Approximately 85% of all those who sign with Power Five schools do so in the Early Signing Period. New head coaches – even those hired before the December Period – have to cobble together classes when the vast majority of FBS-caliber prospects untouchable.

Willie Taggart
Willie Taggart (Melina Myers/Special to Warchant.com)

Consider that both Chad Morris (Arkansas) and Willie Taggart (Florida State) were hired two weeks prior to that first Early Signing Period in 2017. The first signing class with a new program is your best opportunity to address the roster holes that occur during all coaching transitions. Schemes are different, requiring different players with different skill sets, and transfers spike in spring after a coaching change. Neither Morris nor Taggart was able to turn their programs around fast enough, and they were fired less than two years into their tenures.

The burden on coaches does not end there. They still have to hit the recruiting trail in January, but now the intensity has picked up in April, May and June due to the early official visit period. An early signing period has to be coupled with an early official visit period, otherwise prospective student-athletes would have just over three months at the beginning of their senior years to take official visits. Three months that also include their senior football seasons. Cramming five official visits into that time frame along with academic and social obligations is too great a burden on prospective student-athletes.

SOLD UNDER FALSE PRETENSES

When the NCAA first announced it would be instituting two signing periods, it acknowledged the idea did not have universal support. In order to push it through, the governing council packaged it with other broadly-supported initiatives, like a 10th assistant coach.

The initial push for an early signing period was in response to the acceleration of the recruiting process. Scholarship offers were being made to younger and younger prospects, and in turn those prospects were making their college commitments earlier and earlier. Giving prospects an option to sign in December would allegedly alleviate this burden of being recruited after a prospect had made his decision.

The first problem with this assertion is, there are only eight weeks between the early and late signing periods. If prospects are still receiving persistent calls from other schools after they announce a commitment, it is because they still want to be recruited. And the requests for interviews from reporters such as myself goes down dramatically once a player makes his commitment to a school. Getting rid of those eight weeks is a negligible benefit, even for those prospects who have been committed since their junior year, or earlier.

The second problem is that supporters of an early signing period pitched it as an option, but not a requirement, for those who still wanted to wait until February to sign. That notion flew out the window in Year 1. On that first December Signing Day in 2017 Dantonio notably declared, “If they don’t sign today, they are not committed.” That sentiment was echoed by coaches across college football. Dantonio’s offensive coordinator, Dave Warner, agreed with his boss and added, “there’s no reason for them not to sign.”

In reality, there are plenty of reasons not to sign in the December Period, with the potential for immediate coaching changes No. 1. Other reasons include the desire to announce your decision at a winter all-star game, or take part in your high school’s all-sports signing ceremony in February. These are popular reasons, and many football prospects have asked schools to keep their signing a secret (which sometime works, and sometimes doesn’t) so they could still partake.

WHAT IS THE ANSWER?

The best solution to this Early Signing Period issue is to return to a single signing period that begins on the first Wednesday in February.

Some have proposed moving the Early Signing Period to the summer before a prospective student-athlete’s senior year, but the same problems would still exist. College coaches will still strong-arm their committed prospects into signing early, while that school could change its coaching staff between when binding letters of intent are signed and when athletes arrives on campus. Giving waivers to prospects who sign with schools that subsequently change head coaches presents its own set of problems, and does not address the root issues.

The Early Signing Period has few merits and many faults. It is time the NCAA eliminates it.