The road to National Signing Day as we know it goes back to the beginnings of college football.
It’s hard to find a structured way the players were selected for the sport’s first game, though.
To be fair, there were barely rules to the sport in 1869, and most accounts say the first football game looked more like a cross between a soccer game and rugby scrum. Basically, Princeton and Rutgers just picked a bunch of able-bodied students from all walks of life, 25 a side.
Among the 50 men assembled on the field were future clergymen, a state senator, a future chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, several veterans of the Civil War — both Confederate and Union soldiers — and a finalist in the first U.S. Open tennis tournament. Most were said to have been excellent athletes. The Princeton team members were larger; the Rutgers team members more agile.
Things continued in pretty much the same way for decades.
As we got into the early 1900s and the NCAA’s formation, the organization had a mandate.
It was born out of President Theodore Roosevelt’s directive to make the game safer, but it did set guidelines on athletic scholarships. Recruiting wasn’t really allowed by the rules, but it happened anyway. Hell, athletic scholarships weren’t even allowed.
The original NCAA embraced the amateur ideal, mandating that schools draw athletes from the general student body. Athletic scholarships didn’t exist at most schools. Leaders considered the act of giving a student financial aid on the basis of athletic ability to be as unethical as paying him a salary.
Players have always gotten a little bit of money on the side — this is college football after all.
In the 1930s during the height of the Great Depression, players who didn’t have the cash took jobs outside of school to support themselves.
The fact that players were getting taken care of under the table pushed the SEC to get together and agree to offer grant-in-aid scholarships for athletics in 1935.
But that was still not the ironclad document we know today.
The National Letter of Intent came around in 1964, when the former president of Texas Tech, Dr. J. William Davis, created the NLI through the Collegiate Commissioners Association. It was an agreement between player and school that other schools had to honor and stop their pursuit of the athlete.
The need for an NLI at that point came from stories of teams stealing players enrolled at other schools. After small schools opposed the first version in 1962, a version passed in 1964.
The NLI includes the top two levels of college sports, but Division III does not offer athletic scholarships.
The NLI’s come a long way since its humble beginnings.
The NCAA manages the daily operations of the NLI program while the Collegiate Commissioners Association (CCA) provides governance oversight of the program. Started in 1964 with seven conferences and eight independent institutions, the program now includes 650 Division I and Division II participating institutions.
Since its inception, some of the more finicky rules surrounding it have come around. Players can’t send one until 7 a.m. local time, it must be faxed, and coaches can’t talk about a player in public until it’s been received. NLIs also used to be just for football, but other sports now have their own signing periods and tailored NLIs.
Football’s Early Signing Period, which we had for the first time this past December, opens up a three-day stretch before Christmas when players who know what they want to do can lock things up shortly after their senior seasons. Football was the last to come around to the early period, meaning the sport that was the main reason for the NLI became the last to adopt its most recent evolution.
Fun fact: the sport’s best recruits don’t really have a need to sign NLIs.
The most important thing to note about an NLI is it is not by itself an athletic scholarship, and it certainly doesn’t guarantee a scholarship will be honored for any amount of time.
If you’re the No. 1 recruit in the country, a school will keep a scholarship spot open for you whether you sign the NLI or not, because you possess the leverage of irreplaceable skill. But since the vast majority of recruits don’t have that, the NLI structure will continue.
Youngstown State coach Bo Pelini has suggested abolishing Signing Day altogether to let NLIs get signed at any point, but that likely won’t happen. The most probable immediate change in the NLI process will probably come in continuing to relax how players can get released from their signatures.