It’s the first day of National Signing Day for college football. It’s concurrently the culmination of years of hard work by collegiate coaches and the realization of dreams for the kids they’ve pursued.
And frankly, it’s also the end of a long, exhausting process that the common fan can only begin to understand by reading snippets of message board gossip, repetitive interviews given to story-thirsty news media members and the occasional update by a knowledgeable hobbyist.
Recruiting is, or at least has become, in reality a circus. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Sometimes the 26-mile jaunt ends abruptly after 10 miles because the runner simply lacks the conditioning to withstand phone calls, emails, questions and visits.
In the fans’ ideal worlds, it’s a fantasy. It’s a future star putting on a hat and pledging their blood, sweat and tears to the beloved university. But behind the scenes, it’s hundreds of teenagers having to see their personal lives played out on websites and blogs, while stomaching harassing phone calls, bitter sales pitches and adults pleading like children.
That’s the part that goes largely unnoticed.
The common fan sees the final results. But rarely do the commoners deduce the type of abuse and suffering experienced in widespread fashion by these young studs on the gridiron and the hardwood. The ones that get out early – the majority that couldn’t finish the race, they are the proud. They’re the ones that are role models – true to their schools.
But to the select few that can withstand the long journey and make it to the finish, they’re painted as drama queens. The ones that outlast the constant ringing and borderline spam in the e-mail inbox, they’re attention whores; opportunists seen as preying on the inquiring minds of newspapers, fan sites and collegiate coaches.
Like anything in life the truth lies somewhere in between these two extremes. While some kids certainly toy with carefully selected words when giving interviews, the unspoken majority only wish to make the best decisions for them and their families.
What about the man behind the curtain? What can be so ugly, so hideous hiding back there that scares these kids to death?
Coaches didn’t become so adept at sales that kids are suddenly falling hook, line and sinker to make commitments 12, 18 and sometimes 24 months sooner. Colleges didn’t start forcing these kids to drink euphoric water so they’ll fall head-over-heels in love with the coaches, campus and program.
In other words, the only difference between now and 10 years ago is that the process and the incessant hounding it has become. It’s become a high-stakes game.
And that’s where the story begins – where the game also begins. It’s the inside story, the behind-the-scenes to recruiting major collegiate football and basketball players.
EARLY BIRD CATCHES THE WORM
Michael Brewster was certainly not some skinny freshman who’s body didn’t project well at the next level. The young offensive lineman from Orlando, Fla. was yet to fill out, but already received verbal scholarship offers from Miami, Ohio State and Tennessee.
In a recruiting process that’s been rapidly expediting annually, being the first school to offer a prospect has increased in priority. It’s a challenge to not just coaches at collegiate institutions to initiate the relationship, but also high school coaches to evaluate and pinpoint talent worthy of being recruited.
Tom Stacy, head coach of perennial football powerhouse Massillon High School and a former Division I assistant coach at the University of Akron can already sense the pressure to identity and churn out prospects earlier and earlier.
“It’s making our jobs tougher and we have to deal with it earlier in their high school career,” Stacy explained. “I think it’s very difficult for a high school coach to project somebody as a Division I football player when they’re a freshman or sophomore. I think that’s very hard and that’s it’s requiring us to do.”
Football has been following the lead of basketball in respect to early commitments. Over the past five years, it’s grown to the point where over 75 percent of most top-rated high school basketball prospects are committed before their first day of class as a senior.
In fact, both Ohio State and North Carolina have four verbal commitments for basketball in the 2010 recruiting class – current sophomores in high school.
It seems football is slowly inching that direction.
A study of the class of 2009 for four and five-star prospects rated by Scout.com shows that already, 15 prospects of 96 ranked have committed as juniors before the senior class above them have hit signing day. Traditionally, most early junior commitments hold off until after February, if they’re even holding offers that early.
As a result of the increased pressure and media exposure, a law of unintended consequences has been created with kids making earlier commitments. Coaches, trying to keep up, have begun looking further down the road which adds to earlier offers and accordingly, quicker triggers.
Which begs the question, will football follow suit with an early National Signing Day?
“I’d be shocked if we go another year or two without one,” said Reno Ferri, the recruiting coordinator for the University of Akron and former Youngstown Mooney standout. “I don’t know when it will be. I don’t know if it will be September 1, or the dead period right before the holidays, but it’s probably on its way.”
In basketball, an even earlier signing period may not be good enough. Of 110 prospects given three, four or five stars in the sophomore class (2010) according to ScoutHoops.com, 20 have already given a verbal commitment to attend a college institution. That’s 18 percent (and counting) committed before completion of their sophomore years in high school.
Scout Hoops analyst Evan Daniels, who has followed recruiting closely the last few years bouncing around from AAU tournament to AAU tournament thinks it’s a train going full-speed down the tracks.
“I’m not sure there’s a way that it can really be policed, so it doesn’t look like it will stop anytime soon or even at all,” he said.
But Daniels has ideas of his own, regardless of the likelihood of ever being implemented.
“I think that kids should be able to sign their Letter of Intent when they verbally commit,” he added. “I think this would put an end to the new trend of de-commitments and I think prospects would think more about their initial decision, knowing that they can’t change their mind.”
An earlier signing period for Brewster wouldn’t have made much of a difference the past six months, as he’s maintained a firm commitment to Ohio State for football. However, it was the process that snapped off his decision so quickly.
Just this past spring, Brewster planned on taking all five official visits allowed by rule. By August, he was committed to Jim Tressel’s Buckeyes.
“I just knew where I wanted to go and I was tired of all the calls,” Brewster said.
It was what happened between this past fall and late in Brewster’s freshman season, when he first picked up those offers that tells the story.
Coaches in football and basketball, at an early point in kids’ high school careers, must learn about, evaluate, get to know and offer the prospect in hopes of landing their athletic talents one, two and sometimes three years down the road. How does that work?
Find out in part two of “The Recruiting Game.”