- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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College coaches and administrators have debated for years the merits of introducing an early signing period for football. Basketball has long used a system that allows recruits to sign their national letters of intent in the fall and spring, easing the pressure on prospects who wish to end the recruiting process early in their senior years of high school.
Momentum for widespread legislative overhaul -- recruiting rules included -- has again opened serious discussion about an early signing period. In step with the NCAA, the Conference Commissioners Association will consider options for an early date when they meet on June 16.
Many questions remain about how it might work. Here are some of the most frequently asked:
What would an early signing period allow?
Simply, it would provide an option for recruits to sign binding agreements months or weeks in advance of the traditional signing period, which opens on the first Wednesday in February. Prospects who sign early would be subject to the same rules as their peers who sign in February.
When would an early signing period occur?
Proposals have suggested dates from late spring (at the end of prospects’ junior years) to mid-December (at the outset of the current dead period as bowl season opens). Recently, the Atlantic Coast Conference announced that its schools support an Aug. 1 date. The Southeastern Conference offered a recommendation for the Monday after Thanksgiving. Big Ten schools would likely align more closely with the ACC. If an early signing period passes, the most significant legislative hurdle likely involves its placement on the calendar.
Who can make it happen?
The 32-member panel of Division I conference commissioners. The group, which meets annually in June to discuss various topics, operates the letter-of-intent program. According to Susan Peal, NCAA associate director of operations who serves as liaison between the collegiate governing body and the commissioners, an early signing period was added this spring to the commissioners’ agenda after it had not been discussed in such a forum for several years.
Because the recruiting process is not slowing down. Just the opposite, in fact. Many prospects make nonbinding pledges to college programs months, even years, in advance of the February signing period. Schools, in turn, continue to exhaust expenses to recruit on these committed prospects. Decommitments have grown into an epidemic that negatively impact college programs and prospects. Additionally, the NCAA clarified legislation last year that allows early enrolling seniors to sign scholarship papers -- different from a letter of intent in that it obligates the school but not the prospect -- on or after Aug. 1. It is commonly believed that an early signing period could alleviate many of the problems associated with each of these issues and the continued acceleration of recruiting.
What year would it go into effect?
This is open for discussion between the NCAA and the conference commissioners. From a logistical standpoint, though, it’s unlikely to affect the Class of 2015. If the conference commissioners reach a decision on change this summer, it’s reasonable to expect it could go into effect next year for the 2016 class.
How would it impact the timing of official visits and other aspects of the recruiting calendar?
Expect significant changes. If the commissioners institute an early signing period, the NCAA-organized recruiting calendar would adjust accordingly. Most importantly, official visits (paid by college programs) would begin earlier -- a development, alone, that would serve as a source of celebration on many campuses. Current rules allow prospects to take official visits no earlier than the start of their senior years of high school. Depending on the date of an early signing period, it’s expected that the NCAA would allow official visits in the previous spring or summer. In turn, the spring evaluation period, which runs April 15 to May 31 of a prospect’s junior year, may also require an adjustment.
What happens at schools that endure postseason coaching changes?
Likely, nothing. A great strength of the letter of intent is its binding power. Though an appeal process exists to nullify the document, such waivers are rarely granted based on a coaching change. Of course, coaching changes would come into play much more often for early signees. Regardless, recruits, as usual, would be advised to pick a college program for reasons other than its coaches. And despite the convenience of signing early, the long list of coaching moves in December and January might serve as a reminder for prospects of the benefit to bypass the early period.
Why do some programs oppose an early signing period?
For a variety of reasons. At Stanford, where coach David Shaw is an outspoken opponent, stringent entrance requirements limit the school’s ability to identify academic-worthy prospects until much later than many of its recruiting rivals. Many schools, primarily in the SEC, have feasted under the current recruiting structure; no need to change it, they figure. Despite the resistance, a majority of college programs favor a refined system. That’s the easy part. We'll soon learn if they can agree on how and when to implement change.