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Will college football's signing day ever be the same?

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

The NCAA’s first-ever college football early signing period begins Wednesday and I, for one, am nervous.

Not for the players who will sign binding (and legally lopsided) letters of intent to colleges in December, some seven weeks before the traditional February National Signing Day. There are plusses and minuses for both players and programs in the early period. That isn’t my concern here.

This is selfish, but what happens to a unique event that millions of us loved, sometimes proudly, sometimes sheepishly, sometimes secretly? What happens to those of us who saw the first Wednesday in February not as some forgettable winter morning, but a de facto national holiday?

No one knows how having two national signing days will change things.

Will we get twice the fun? Or none of it. Will it all be anticlimactic? Will we lose this compact window of engrossing, off-season nonsense?

I loved college football’s National Signing Day. Loved it all.

People with better taste, more refinement and higher intelligence could lecture how it represented the downfall of sport and society. I just enjoyed the mostly harmless entertainment such as when all the Stanford recruits began revealing their choice by donning dark-rimmed nerd glasses.

I loved the announcement featuring a table full of logo’d hats, knowing an equal number of millionaire coaches were watching, hanging on every reach and pull of a teenager who might not even pan out.

I loved the T-shirt fake outs, the unzipping of a jacket to reveal one school’s gear, only to stand up, peel that one off, and show another. Sometimes you could see it coming, “Wait, I know he’s wearing Texas burnt orange, but is that Oklahoma maroon under there?”

The ol’ switcheroo has been one reason why National Signing Day is so damn much fun. (GIF by Yahoo Sports)

I even loved that tons of under-recruited players looked on from the shadows growing more motivated by each look-at-me event. “If I had a press conference on signing day, there would have only been one hat … Kent State,” said defensive end James Harrison, who after starring for the Flashes went on to win two Super Bowls and played in five Pro Bowls over 14 NFL seasons, mostly with the Pittsburgh Steelers. “Signing day doesn’t matter.”

Of course, it doesn’t matter. That was what made it matter.

I loved the humble high school gym becoming a national television studio. Bad lighting. Paint-chipped walls with random memorabilia on it. (“Wait, did I just see a 1983 Class AAA girls track banner in the background on ESPN?”) There is always a card table that looks like it’s about to fall over due to the 73 family and friends crowded behind it. Everybody wants some NSD face time. That’s true of even famous football fathers. Snoop Dogg crashed his son Cordell Broadus’ announcement to UCLA, forcing Snoop, a long-time USC fan, to feign excitement. (At least, as hip-hop star Bruin dads go, he didn’t get arrested for fighting the strength coach, the way Sean “Diddy” Combs did when his son Justin was on the team. Regrettably, we were cheated out of some extra LaVar Ball because his sons played basketball.)

It’s all good. What’s better than ESPN dispatching a crew all the way to some little town in middle of nowhere South Georgia for breathless live reports all day? By lunch you actually cared where this interior lineman whose name you’d forget 10 minutes later went.

The ceremony microphones only worked half the time and even then, the commitment, either due to nerves or ignorance, would occasionally get comically botched … “I am committing to the University of LSU College in Baton Rouge.”

Or when the press conferences would drone on because the recruit would start rattling off thank yous, as ESPN producers grew frantic. “Look, kid, we’re sure your youth minister is a great guy but just pick a damn hat.” Or they’d get delayed or canceled altogether because someone’s mom wouldn’t sign the letter of intent, or mom would sign one and dad would sign another. (In 2011, Floyd Raven’s mother so wanted him to go to Ole Miss that she allegedly forged his signature. The real Floyd signed with Texas A&M).

Any press conference delay would cause message boards and social media to meltdown with speculation of a final bidding war … “my cousin said he saw a trucker wearing a [insert rival school] hat on pulling a new mobile home into [insert recruit’s] neighborhood.” None of this is new. Back in the day, when Eric Dickerson started driving a new Trans Am sports car that rival coaches believed was bought for him by a certain school in College Station, Texas, they dubbed it the “Trans A&M.”

For fans, every lost recruit was because of cheating, of course. When their school landed an unlikely talent from out of state though it was because campus is so pretty in the fall. (Recruits apparently love foliage. Or the new computer lab. Or the new waterfall in the weight room.)

Suspicions occasionally proved true of course, like in 2013 when Ole Miss was mysteriously swimming in top 10 recruits. LeBron James, watching on television like all the rest of us good people, decided to predict the future via tweet, “Ole Miss ain’t messing around today! … SEC is crazy.”

The Rebels are now on probation through 2020.

There was the time Reuben Foster got an Auburn tattoo to commemorate his verbal commitment to the Tigers, only to flip and sign with arch-rival Alabama. The switch was so funny that years later no less than President Obama mentioned it with a laugh. (Foster won a national title and the Butkus Award in Tuscaloosa, so it worked out for him in the end.)

Then there was the legendary Willie Williams, a full-of-life South Florida recruit who chose Miami at a signing day press conference but only after becoming a celebrity by penning a recruiting diary for the Miami Herald. In it, he detailed his various official visits – mostly the girls he met and the food he ate. It quickly became the most trafficked column on the Herald’s website.

For example, at Florida State, Ann Bowden, wife of Bobby, made a particularly memorable batch of banana pudding. “I swear, she must be related to Betty Crocker or something,” Williams wrote. His Auburn visit wasn’t as successful. At dinner, there was a two-hour wait for the food to arrive. Williams was offered some spinach dip to tide him over, to which he wrote, “I ain’t going to eat no plant” before declaring that such food was for “farm people.” Auburn eventually got the carnivore some “baby-back ribs, Buffalo wings and shrimp,” but he still signed with the U. (He never panned out and is now incarcerated in Kentucky on a burglary conviction.)

Yes, the commitments got increasingly over the top, especially with arrival of high-quality videos. Last year, Chaz Ah You placed four hats in the cockpit of a helicopter. His choice was revealed when the chopper touched down in the middle of BYU’s LaVell Edwards Stadium. (When the snow-covered Wasatch Range appeared, Stanford and UCLA probably didn’t like its chances.) Kicker Quinn Nordin also used an airplane to announce a commitment to Penn State, but he later switched after Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh slept over at Nordin’s house.

Often signing day delivered truly last-second decisions. Both Ka’Lial Glaud and Chris Warren flipped coins. Tails sent Glaud to Rutgers rather than West Virginia. Heads delivered Warren to Texas instead of Washington. As money in recruiting goes, a quarter isn’t much.

The entire commitment ceremony reached peak absurdity in 2008, when a kid in Nevada held one to announce he chose Cal over Oregon, even though neither school had offered him a scholarship.

Don’t blame it all on the players. The coaches played their part in the circus. They all spoke like they just signed the Packers. Don’t worry about those two-star recruits, they were just overlooked. You can’t measure character or heart. Who pays attention to the recruiting gurus anyway? Unless they named one of your guys a five-star, of course, then they were on the money.

Coaches were always building culture, a family atmosphere and a roster filled with good kids brought up by great mamas who played for tremendous high school coaches. No one ever came out and noted their state got raided, they blew it with the QBs they wanted and they had to reach and pluck some at-risk kids that may not even be any good.

National Signing Day is a day for hope.

“Special day for our program.” – Rutgers coach Chris Ash, 2017.

“We’re very excited.” – Rutgers coach Chris Ash, 2016.

“This is always an exciting day.” – Rutgers coach Kyle Flood, 2015.

“Always one of the most exciting days of the year.” – Rutgers coach Kyle Flood, 2014

“Today is an exciting day for us.” – Rutgers coach Kyle Flood, 2013

“We are ecstatic. We really are ecstatic.” – Rutgers coach Kyle Flood, 2012.

“Really excited about this class.” – Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, 2011.

Fall Saturdays in Piscataway have proved less ecstatic, exciting and special. At least thus far … there’s always next year … because the guys are working hard in the weight room.

Then there is Michigan, which under Jim Harbaugh has embraced the carnival by staging the annual “Signing of the Stars” event – featuring appearances by Tom Brady, James Earl Jones, Derek Jeter, Michael Phelps and Ric Flair, among others. It was some good hoopla. Of course, up the road at Michigan State, Mark Dantonio usually just rolled his eyes, pointed to the scoreboard and mumbled something like, “Where’s the threat?” or “Pride comes before the fall.”

Let’s take a moment for the fax machine. This idea once seemed cutting edge. This letter of intent is too important to entrust with a stamp. That was like 1991. By now, everyone has to pull the old thing out and see if it still works. Can’t we just Snapchat it?

The fax has been integral to signing day. In 1996, Durell Price, a top recruit from Los Angeles, went to a local drug store to fax his letter of intent to Ohio State. He left with buyer’s remorse and a fear of pending homesickness though. When the Buckeyes called him to say the drug store worker screwed up and faxed the wrong, blank side of the paper Price took it as an “omen.” Rather than resending to Ohio State, he instead signed with UCLA.

Early this decade Alabama set up a webcam on its fax machine. It drew an audience because a young lady wearing a mini skirt (usually houndstooth print) occasionally appeared to retrieve faxes. “Alabama Fax Girl” proved so popular other schools soon followed, but Nick Saban is always an original. (In these more enlightened days, the trend seems to be over.)

Then there was the time Lane Kiffin, coaching Tennessee, bragged that he got top recruit Nu’Keese Richardson to use the fax machine at Pahokee (Fla.) Junior High because he believed officials at Pahokee High School would claim the fax machine was broken to prevent Richardson from sending in for the Vols. Pahokee High promptly banned Kiffin from campus until he apologized. Kiffin did. (Richardson, for his part, was booted out of UT as a freshman after he was arrested for knocking off a Knoxville convenience store.)

That wasn’t good. It wasn’t as bad as the time a Michigan State recruit mysteriously didn’t send his letter of intent in because he was in jail after being arrested for larceny on the eve of signing day. He apparently chose not to use his one phone call on the fax.

That was National Signing Day, though. You just never knew what was going to happen.

Now there are two of them, and while some of the above mayhem will continue, maybe it doesn’t quite arrive in the same digestible day of content. Maybe it’s watered down and drawn out. Maybe it’s just not as much fun. Maybe there is no need to call in sick and watch.

No one knows if this will be a good idea. Sort of like choosing your college via a coin flip.

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