The Signing Day Circus

Wednesday was “National Signing Day” in college football, the day when hundreds of high school recruits make their choice of colleges official by signing binding letters of intent.

And it’s become a huge production.

To record this momentous occasion, athletic departments churn out reams of press releases and tweets hyping the size, speed, ratings and statistics of their top recruits. ESPN presents marathon coverage, similar to the NFL Draft. Elite players don the hats of their chosen schools before TV cameras, teammates and proud parents. Coaches wax on about the impact these new commits will have on their programs. And recruiting services anoint the colleges that make the biggest hauls.

This year we even had a corporate sponsor, as in “National Signing Day Presented by Nissan.” Seriously.

Almost all Power Five Conference schools now invest in well-choreographed Signing Day events—featuring video clips of each signee accompanied by pulsating sound tracks—for the media, donors, select fans and local alums.

These events can get pretty elaborate. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh invites high-profile ex-players to attend a “Signing of the Stars” extravaganza. This year the Wolverines even designed their own “NSD 2018” (National Signing Day 2018) logo.

What's the purpose of all this hoo-hah? It's twofold: 1) to excite alums and motivate fans to buy tickets, and 2) to impress future recruits and their families.

The problem with all this, of course, is that it’s just speculation. Many “can’t miss” five-star prospects do, in fact, miss. And many unheralded prospects and walk-ons achieve greatness, not just in college, but in the pros. In recent years, UCLA consistently recruited the No. 1 class in the Pac-12, yet never won a conference title.

So the proof will be in the pudding, as they say, a few years down the road.

2018 Rankings: All the experts agreed that Georgia signed the best recruiting class in the nation this year, perhaps the best in the last decade. The Bulldogs pulled in an unprecedented seven five-star and 15 four-star recruits. In the Pac-12, USC was the consensus top pick, followed by Washington, Oregon and UCLA, all of whom ranked in the top 20 nationally. (The Trojans’ success may reinforce their recent decision to extend coach Clay Helton’s contract to 2023).

Bay Area Schools: Locally, Stanford and Cal were in the middle of the pack and the Pac-12. Stanford, coming off one of its best recruiting years ever in 2017, was ranked No. 39 overall by 247 sports, No. 38 by ESPN and No. 62 by Rivals.com. In the Pac-12, the Cardinal was rated anywhere from fifth to eleventh.

Stanford’s class was low in numbers (14) but high in quality. The Cardinal managed to lure two top players from Alabama (defensive end Andres Fox from Mobile and quarterback Jack West from Saraland) and three from Georgia…all five pulled right out from under the noses of the two schools that played in the national championship game a few weeks ago. Stanford signed another four-star QB, Tanner McKee from Corona. Since McKee will be going on a Mormon mission for two years, the position is in excellent shape with current starter KJ Costello, last year’s star recruit Davis Mills, West and McKee all lined up.

Cal’s ranking was a little more consistent—No. 43 on both 247 and Rivals, No. 50 on ESPN, and from seventh to tenth in the conference. Head coach Justin Wilcox was rightfully pleased with a class headed by five of the top 100 offensive line prospects in the country, two top-tier running backs—Johnny Adams from Indianapolis and Christopher Brown, Jr. from Oceanside—and wide receiver Nikko Remigio from state champion Mater Dei/Orange County.

Early signing: A recent change in the recruiting timeline complicated things further for Stanford, which already had the toughest admissions requirements in the country. Less than 5% of Stanford applicants are now admitted to the university, and recruited athletes must fill out the same application and meet the same academic standards as other students. In major college football, that’s true only at Stanford and the three service academies.

Last April, the NCAA approved an early signing period that allowed high school recruits to make their commitments to colleges during a three-day window in late December. Fully three-quarters of the top football recruits in the country jumped at this opportunity, saving themselves another six weeks of non-stop pressure.

For Stanford, the early signing date puts the onus on both the football staff and the recruits themselves to accelerate the process. The staff has to identify admittable prospects earlier, and the recruits have to make sure the necessary coursework, testing, and paperwork are completed on time. To date, all parties are getting it done.

Ups, downs and casino chips: A few schools, particularly dominant programs with “flexible” or non-existent admissions requirements, seem to be in the top ten every year—Alabama, USC, Ohio State, Oklahoma.

Most others fluctuate up and down. Why does that happen? Sometimes it's just coincidence—one year a bunch of kids say "yes," the next they say "no." Often it can be a relationship with a coach, competition at a specific position, anxiety about moving far from home, or pressure from a parent or “adviser.”

But these decisions can also be made for less noble reasons. A number of universities and their well-heeled boosters, particularly in the south, funnel payments to recruits and their parents to influence players to sign with their schools.

Over the years, these inducements have come in the form of suitcases full of cash, credit cards, and payments to—and through—churches. The newest tactic, believe it or not, is to use casino chips that can be redeemed for cash.

These arrangements can lead to some awkward moments when parents and recruits may not be on the same page. One such incident may have occurred on Wednesday when, during ESPN’s live coverage, a top recruit announced he was going to Florida and put on a Gators’ hat.

His mom, sitting next to him and decked out in Tennessee and Alabama gear, got up and stormed out of the gym.

Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//gacavalli49@gmail.com

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