The first Letters of Intent will roll off fax machines nationwide in a few short hours, and the ensuing debates that circulate every February will grow more voluminous. Analysts will declare their National Signing Day winners and losers on scoreboards of pure speculation. Opponents will counter that recruiting classes cannot be judged for years.
Both sides are right.
The public face of recruiting has become more visible with each passing year, courtesy of the internet and television outlets that have exploded in their dedication to the process over the last decade. However, the debates that go back and forth about college football recruiting go back much further than the last 10 years.
“No coach can commit professional suicide by ignoring recruiting. The necessity of winning is the key to the whole problem. The desire to win is a very good thing, but when it becomes a necessity we face a critical problem. Today every coach and every school with that philosophy always is trying to gain a half-step on his opponents. Recruiting has become a matter of self-preservation for a football coach.”
The above quote could easily pertain to 2012, but these were the words of former Cal head coach Pappy Waldorf in January 1956.
The legendary coaches of college football history carved their names into the annals with wins and championships. Xs and Os are vital, but so are the players who can translate a gameplan from the green of the chalkboard to the green of turf. Without Joe Montanas, there are no Dan Devines; no Bobby Bowdens with no Charlie Wards; no Nick Sabans without Trent Richardsons. And that begins on the recruiting trail.
But recruiting remains the ultimate crap shoot of coaching. Ingredients are taken from all corners of the supermarket, thrown into the same pot, and what comes out has to be a palatable stew. There are no guarantees that the combinations will complement one another.
Recruiting is indeed a process of guesswork, though there are those prep players whose talent is can’t-miss. Last year’s No. 1 recruit, Jadeveon Clowney, proved to be as advertised. The true leg up in recruiting is gaining the inside track on those rare gems, which presents the kind of problems Waldorf alluded to, yet couldn’t have dreamed of nearly 60 years ago.
The negatives of recruiting take center stage on National Signing Day, and detractors will be sure to point them out. A seamier underbelly of college football is heavily vested in the process: boosters offering improper benefits, shady recruiting services, oversigning. There is also a small yet boisterous sect of fans that have formed a sub-culture, obsessing over the decisions of high school students and taking to the internet to chastise them.
The positives outweigh the negatives, though. National Signing Day is the first stage on which the tremendous athlete we root on every Saturday get to shine. For them, it’s an opportunity to bask in the glow of the dedication they’ve shown in the weight room and on the football field.
Beyond that though, NSD is a reminder of how far the game’s come. In the era Waldorf coached, America was still a racially segregated nation. In the tumultuous post-World War II era, sports helped erase color lines. Fielding winning athletic teams allowed (or forced, depending on the circumstances) to break down these walls, thus setting a precedent that society could follow.
A half-century after the first integrated teams took to football fields in the American South, these same regions will see athletes celebrated as equals regardless of their ethnicity.
NSD is also the first step toward college. Jayson Swain put it best on Twitter.