I would really like to explain recruiting season to you. This explanation requires a few anecdotes.
1. January to February 2006. A high school football player in Florida spends 14 hours the day before signing day with Alabama football coach Mike Shula. During this ordeal, Shula begs him to leave the state with him, live in close contact with him for four years, and then tells him he loves him. After 14 hours at the house, he is asked to leave.
This player is Tim Tebow, and he goes on to win two national championships at Florida. Mike Shula would be fired a year later, and now works as a sommelier at a Perkins in Mobile, Alabama. Message: Recruiting is important.
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2. Perhaps you watch Intervention. There is a point in every episode that takes the show from morbidly fascinating to eyeball-gouging realism so bad you have to laugh to stifle sympathetic tears. The moment where you watch someone crawl beneath an air-conditioner to huff freon straight from the pipe. The instant an alcoholic eyes the rubbing alcohol in the cabinet. The moment someone shoots up in the jugular on camera. College football fandom has this moment, too.
Recruiting season's last month is that moment. Message: recruiting is weird, and often sort of creepy.
Until February 1st, college football morphs into a multi-level marketing scheme's acquisition phase. Closers are brought in, text messages destroy phone bills, and any and every possible recruiting angle--up to the line of what is permitted and much that isn't--is taken. Experts whose actual jobs and identities surface to describe the blow-by-blow thought processes of 18-year-olds who cannot drink, and who may not know they are legally permitted to vote in elections. Hats are arranged in rows to be chosen. Tom Luginbill is pulled from his job managing a Bristol-area Staples, and is placed in front of a camera.
The dirty secret behind signing day and the attendant hysteria is that it is manufactured content, for the most part, a byproduct of a few clever guys who founded Rivals and Scout turning their long email chains and homemade newsletters into a million dollar business. Very little happens, and very much is written and said about it.
The appeal comes not just in the prospects for a better future for your particular team. No, the fantasy football element of recruiting cannot be ignored here. A player brought out of high school is, for seven months at least, perfect in his blankness. He has never lost a game. He has never fumbled away a conference title, nor showed up gimpy and hobbled to a rivalry game. His grades are perfect, and he has never been pulled over by police glassy-eyed on a scooter. He is all shining potential, the first date, the perfection of uncut cake in the bakery case.
Combine that with the prospecting element of recruiting, and we are now talking about something more than simple puzzle-building. Now you're tapping into a basic human pleasure circuit: betting, and the crucial dopamine rush accompanying it. We would love to see an overlap of recruiting types with compulsive gamblers and day traders. (It would probably look like like three circles stacked neatly on top of each other with no margin showing.)
If you are going to live with the rest of us during recruiting season, you should know a few things in order to pretend like you have done this before.
1. EVERYONE'S CHEATING. Just assume this, and you will be able to eliminate half of the smokescreen surrounding recruiting. The NCAA's rules regarding recruiting are a marvel of obfuscatory but intrusive genius. Like badly designed tollways, the recruiting process turns every recruit the wrong way by design. Along the way they and their attendant suitors have likely blown through a rule inadvertently, and perhaps several intentionally. Mark Richt self-reported a violation last year when he accidentally butt-dialed a recruit. Meanwhile, Cecil Newton openly solicited Mississippi State for $180,000 for the rights to his son's services, and after much head-scratching and furor it was determined that there was no such rule against this happening in the NCAA's codes.
Given this wide gulf between reality and regulation, take any accusation of wrongdoing with deep skepticism because in one way or another, everyone is in some degree cheating. The NCAA is making this up as they go, and the schools are behaving like most people do in a black market: illegally, and with gusto in their illegality. Cars, jobs for relatives, having pastors disperse large contributions to the church made by coaches back to players, buddy passes on airlines for cheap travel, free food, complimentary drinks, women, loose cash, luxury hotel rooms reserved for players and their families, free entry into clubs...almost all of it is banned, and all are being used right now to work student-athletes into a signed and binding National Letter of Intent.
2. CHEATING MUST BE PROGRESSIVE. You want to see a team that is both dumb and very good at recruiting? Watch for the team that leaps from a mediocre army of two-stars playing for a three-win team one year to five-star juggernaut overnight, and you will find a school with a very charming and very stupid assistant pushing the envelope of what's considered permissible.
3. DON'T TALK/LISTEN TO UNCLES. For some reason, national signing day is every sketchy uncle's Randy Quaid-In-Independence-Day moment. Oh, they may only get one moment, but this day of all days is it, since for one reason or another he has the ear of a very talented recruit, and will place himself between your lips and said ear until you give him what he wants. I have no idea how this happens. Sketchy uncles acquire a power unparalleled on signing day, suddenly growing to three times their size and becoming unofficial agents for athletes who are likely smarter than the Sketchy Uncle himself. After signing day they explode and disappear forever, perhaps reappearing only for the free booze and food at the NFL Draft party for the recruit four years later.
4. EVERY RECRUIT IS OVERRATED. This cannot be overstated. The stars system is arbitrary, and assigned by people who have very few empirical measures for how these rankings are determined. The finish to recruiting season will often be summarized in a kind of top 25, often with recruiting services declaring someone "won" signing day. This victory is entirely on paper, and slightly less valid on the page than a fantasy football championship. (I don't mean to denigrate your championship. You worked very hard on that.)
5. STARS MATTER. As amateur and subjective as they are, recruiting rankings do correlate tightly with future on-field success. Ignore them at your own risk, because there is a real reason to follow recruiting in college football: these are the building blocks of a program, and their quality determines the structural integrity of your team.
6. NOTHING IS OFF THE TABLE. While coaches can't pay players under the current rules, what they can do is make the most outlandish rhetorical arguments for why they should come to their school. God, as it turns out, has definite and specific opinions on where you should go to school. Shockingly, they often align tightly with the coach's own interests, or with a pastor's, or mother's, or whomever is talking to the recruit and suggesting that not going to a school would be against the wishes of the Almighty themselves.
Outright lying is on the table, too. Many recruits told they could play quarterback have showed up to camp and found themselves working defensive back drills "just to get you in football shape." Many a quarterback has been told there is no other quarterback on the two-deep only to find the school courting another signal-caller simultaneously.
Finally, anything and everything that can be said about opposing schools will be said. That other school is recruiting seven other people at your position, or their coach is seconds from accepting the Miami Dolphins job, or they have no church on campus and in fact worship a distant cousin of the devil who is, like, WAY worse than the actual devil. They will switch to the wishbone without telling you, and are in fact sizing you up for a spot on the tennis team.
No skullduggery is left behind, and should not be because the doctrine of negative campaigning applies here. You don't want to go negative first, but once they do, you should leave no prisoners and burn the other team to the foundations.
7. ANNOUNCEMENTS REGARDING A PLAYER SWITCHING A BUDDY TO A TEAM FROM ANOTHER ARE COMPLETELY BASELESS. They are dramatic and add sexy intrigue, but storylines about players luring a former teammate already committed to another team are almost always baseless. Save yourself some sanity and ignore them at all costs.
8. THE MARSHALL RULE. If you see a player commit to a smaller conferences school after listing "Ohio State, Miami, and Florida" on their interested schools, it is most likely because they could not get the SAT score necessary to clear their admission to said schools. Smaller schools do have two advantages in recruiting: instant playing time at most positions, and the mixed blessing of slightly lower admissions standards.
9. THIS IS ABOUT ASSISTANTS. Head coaches do close the deal in some cases, but for the most part assistants are doing the leg work of signing day, traveling, calling, visiting, and completing the final panicked texts to recruits before waiting by the fax machine and hoping for no surprises. Do you have a coach on your team who is charismatic, back-slapping, and you suspect knows very little about coaching football, and yet pulls down a huge paycheck? This person is your recruiting coordinator, and he is worth every dollar thanks to mysterious power he has over high-schoolers who can run a 4.4 and squat 500 pounds.
10. SIGNING DAY IS NOT THE END OF THINGS. February 1st is national signing day, but recruits are in fact under no obligation to sign their National Letters of Intent on that day. The vogue in recent years for top recruits has been to delay signing, and with good reason. Once recruits have signed, their power in the school/player relationship essentially drops to zero: they are the school's, and often control where they can go if they decide a stay at that school is not working out for them. The longer they hold out, the more they can extract in promises from the school. This only works if you're talented, so to you, the two-star kicker reading this? Don't even think about trying to do this.*
*Possible exception: a kicker attempting to get a scholarship from Alabama. They might be pretty keen on you this year.
11. DECOMMITS HAPPEN. Until signing day, all commitments are merely verbal agreements. Recruitniks like to divvy these into "hard" verbals and "soft" verbals, but they are all merely verbal, and not binding in the least. Decommits will do exactly what that name implies: decommit, and then open the recruiting process back up to elicit better offers from schools. Most schools tolerate this, but don't even try that with Paul Johnson of Georgia Tech, son. He'll drop you like dead weight from a plummeting cargo plane and not even think twice about all that noise you make on the way down.
Those rules covered, we can now get to the good part: announcements.
THREE BASIC NAMES ONE NEEDS TO KNOW IN ORDER TO PARTICIPATE SOMEWHAT IN THE DRAMA.
1. Dorial Green-Beckham. Wide receiver out of Missouri who has upped the drama of quite literally every school in the country recruiting him by saying absolutely nothing about his potential destination. When he announces, the surprise will be everyone's but his.
2. Eddie Goldman. A 6'4", 300-pound defensive tackle out of D.C. wanted by everyone and anyone. There are 300-pound defensive tackles in high school now. You probably don't ever want to let your children play football.
3. Stefon Diggs. DC wideout who will likely make his decision after Signing Day. Funny story! I saw Trooper Taylor on an airport shuttle in D.C. It turns out he was recruiting Diggs, something I surmised from the awesome phone conversation they had. The conversation, in full:
"Yeah. All right? Wow. Uh-huh. No problem. Fuh REAAAAL. Well, Coach Chizik and I will DEFINITELY holler at you tonight. Later."
It's these kind of amazing conversations that form the bond between recruit and coach.
AND A BRIEF SUGGESTION ON HOW TO IMPROVE RECRUITING ANNOUNCEMENTS
The announcement is the one element of public theater in recruiting season. The announcement began as a simple press conference, and then started involving a selection of one hat from a group, and then elaborate unveiling of hats, and pretty soon we have Isaiah Crowell pulling out a live bulldog puppy to tell the world he was heading to UGA.
This will no doubt escalate with the increasing exposure provided for signing day and its attendant press conferences. So instead of bemoaning the increased attention we give to high school athletes who have not played a down yet, and sports are just out of control, and what has this country come to it hasn't been the same since they cancelled Nash Bridges blah blah blah, let me recommend a few new strategies for recruits in order to make signing day even more memorable for the casual viewer.
(All illustrations courtesy of Run Home Jack.)
1. The Stuntman
2. THREE TATTOO MONTE. One tattoo is real, but two of them are fake, and all we have to do is just take a little bit of rubbing alcohol...
...damn these things are stubborn, and hold on guys I promise this is gonna be good...
...no wait, don't look, I mean, you still can't really tell, and....
...oh, man, this just took way too long, didn't it?
3. THE GLADIATOR. If deciding between two rival schools, announce your intentions by assaulting the rival's mascot at your press conference.
"Iowa State, SON!