Thursday, February 2, 2012

National Signing Day Illustrates the Dirty Business that is College Football

Recruiting is a dirty business, but also necessary to the success of any program. To win in college football, you need to have the best players. Forgetting for a moment the Boise States of the world, the teams that have the best players usually win the most. If you look at the most recent champions, especially Alabama, they typically bring in top 5 recruiting classes every year. As a result, the struggle to recruit and sign kids has turned dirtier each year, as coaches with multimillion dollar contracts try to get to bowl games and championships that in turn make their respective schools and conferences millions of dollars. All of this while these kids are showcased on television as the result of multibillion dollar television contracts. At the end of the day, gone is any notion of amateur athletics, and we forget that the pressures these kids face from these recruiters is unlike that of any other 17 or 18 year old kid graduating from high school and choosing a college.

One of the "best" recruiters in the country
Lost in the shuffle of this modern era of college football is Notre Dame, a football program I probably follow even more than Illinois, my alma mater. Notre Dame is a difficult school to get into. They have a storied college football history. But in recent decades, the historic success that has defined Notre Dame football has fallen by the wayside, due in no small part to the rapidly changing recruiting aspect of college football. Sure, Notre Dame brings in good classes every year. But there's still that missing ingredient of athlete that never chooses Notre Dame. And why should they? Schools like Alabama, Florida, and Florida State offer the things that kids really care about: good looking girls who worship football players, school administrations that relax academics (and relax is an understatement) so football players can be eligible, and coaches who have taken advantage of all of these things to not only win, but establish a pipeline of previous players to the NFL who are just like those that are being recruited now. These coaches promise the world to these recruits, including the warm weather and all the things I listed above, just to get a signature on National Signing Day.

For a school like Notre Dame, however, they can't offer many of these things because they choose not to. When they recruit a kid, they first need to ensure he can qualify academically. That usually works out, because there are a lot more smart elite athletes with good grades than we give credit for. They then preach the value of getting a degree from Notre Dame, talking about how choosing Notre Dame is a 40 year decision, not a 4 year decision. Look at the numbers. And they're right. I mean, what are the chances first that a random recruit even makes it to the NFL, and even then, what do they do for the decades after they retire, if they're lucky to have a long career anyways? Most parents love the pitch, and Notre Dame gets their fair share of elite recruits because of it. But at the same time, those extra key athletes, the ones that win national championships and BCS games, turn them down.

I'm sure he left out how he got these recruits to sign
I mean, what would you do? If you had Nick Saban knocking on your door, telling you that you're going to go to the NFL, other players on Alabama telling you that classes are easy, you'll play in warm weather, and all the college girls will worship you, what would you decide? Who at 17-18 years old makes the right choice? The "future" to teenagers is the next weekend, not the rest of their life. And besides, they all think they're going to make it to the NFL anyways. The fact is, most of these kids aren't equipped to make the decision on their own, but are constantly told by important coaches that they're looking out for their interests, and that they're the greatest thing since sliced bread. Of course they're going to think that they can make the right decision, or even better, trust the person telling them that. So when Urban Meyer shows up at a recruits house, tells him that he flew all the way across the country to see him, then later tells him he doesn't have a scholarship for him (Davonte Neal), you kind of understand the nature of the business. Many coaches don't truly care about these players; they're tools to further their own egos, financial success, and the schools position in the college football landscape.

Recruits like Darby buy into all the nonsense
Take Ronald Darby for example. He's a smart kid and elite athlete from Maryland. A track star, he runs a legit 4.3 forty yard dash and committed to Notre Dame early in the spring of 2011. Darby and his whole family wholeheartedly agreed that college is more than just partying, girls, and easy classes (there are girls at every college and you can party almost ANYWHERE, especially if you're a football player). College exists to get an education and set yourself up for the rest of your life. Based upon that, and his love for all that Notre Dame offers, he committed and fully expected to sign with Notre Dame. That is, until about a month ago, when he decommitted out of nowhere and subsequently signed yesterday with Florida State. His reason? He felt that Florida State could make him better as a person, and he felt that he wasn't a priority to Notre Dame. This is absolutely and unbelievably ridiculous. The reason he chose FSU is because his buddies felt that ND was lame, the players convinced him he wouldn't have to do any work at FSU, and Coach Jimbo Fisher promised him the world. And Notre Dame not making him a priority? Coach Brian Kelly had a personal jet on standby at the South Bend airport to fly to Darby's home for a visit, only Darby wouldn't answer his phone calls. All that effort, all that time, all that money spent by the ND staff wasted, because a kid was promised the world by a coach who the odds say can't deliver. Aside from my own bitterness, it's a perfect example of everything that is wrong with college football.

But what can be done about it? The NCAA won't change a thing because the sport is as popular as it's ever been. They won't look at the fact that the reason the SEC has won so many championships in a row is because they cheat to get where they're at. They recruit so many players and oversign their classes, leaving them over the scholarship limit. All they do then is just cut players from the team or simply not renew their scholarships, which are based off one year. The Big Ten, which has standards, recently had many of their schools agree to provide recruits 4 year scholarships just for that reason, something that will never happen in the SEC. The SEC also medically waives kids, meaning that if you get seriously injured, you're not going to be given any loyalty by the coach who worshipped you during the recruiting process - he's simply going to cut you from the team. Nick Saban is just one coach who uses that tool to ridiculous levels. Urban Meyer is yet another. The class he signed at OSU yesterday leaves them over the scholarship limit. Thus, it'll be interesting to see how many kids "fail out of school," "violate team rules," or "transfer for personal reasons" in the next couple months. Don't believe any of that for a second.

Would an early signing period help recruits like Greenberry?
One idea is to implement an early signing period, much like college basketball has. Allow recruits a time period earlier in the year to sign letters of intent. The idea is that it will cut out so much of the dirtiness of recruiting, especially the poaching of other teams' committed players. If many kids sign, that means that there will be less under the table activity and negative recruiting going on because they're simply less recruits. A good example of how this would benefit schools is again with Notre Dame. Until yesterday, ND had an elite, 5 star receiver named Deontay Greenberry committed. All signs pointed to him signing his letter of intent for ND, especially considering his cousin, Tee Shepard, had already enrolled at school in January. Yet, this past weekend he visited Houston out of nowhere, mostly due to the fact that their receiver coach knows Greenberry well. As a result, he signed yesterday with Houston in a complete shock. He even told the ND coaches the night before Signing Day that he was signing with Notre Dame. Thus, one has to wonder if he'll look back on this decision and wonder if he made the right choice, or if he went with the flame of the moment. An early signing period would have allowed Greenberry to sign with ND earlier this year and not be swayed by momentary emotion that overrides all of the logic and reasons he had been committed to ND for in the first place.

But really, would this idea even work? Those remaining recruits would lead to a field day by other coaches merely because there would be less of them. That could lead to even dirtier tactics being used. I don't think anything is going to work. The kids that used to choose schools like Notre Dame and Michigan simply don't do so as much anymore. Those schools, which have standards and offer real value, can't keep up with the Sabans, Fishers, Chiziks, and Meyers of the world. And really, it's sad. It may be wishful thinking or some lost notion of nostalgia, but college football should still have some kind of relationship to COLLEGE. Alabama shouldn't be able to sign 30 kids, then cut those kids later and screw them out of such a great opportunity. The NCAA should actually look into the way that these kids get recruited, and punish some schools accordingly.

Look, I know how it looks that one of my favorite programs, Notre Dame, is the one getting screwed here, and I'm just complaining about it. But that's not the case. We all lose. College football fans sick of seeing SEC teams cheat their way to championships lose. The majority of the kids ultimately lose. And for institutions like ND, Michigan, Stanford, Wisconsin, etc., the schools lose. None of those colleges will win a national championship in today's college football climate. It simply will not happen. Sure, Michigan, Stanford, and Notre Dame all pulled in great classes yesterday full of talented players that will win games for each respective school. But in no way shape or form will these schools win national championships in the near future. Fans of those schools have to resign themselves to BCS games at best.

And really, why shouldn't I or other fans be upset? That's bullshit. Is this the message we try to send nowadays? Are ESPN and the NCAA going to keep glorifying the "student-athletes" that win championships for Alabama, Auburn, Florida, and LSU? It's not fair to the kids who try to do things the right way. Before recruiting became such a big business, schools like ND and Michigan stood out because they did things the right way. Kids appreciated going to a school that not only offered them great opportunities with football, but gave them a world class education and set themselves up for the rest of their lives. Today, however, dirty college football coaches just make it too easy for talented recruits to be the latest pawn in the grand money-making scheme that is NCAA football. And until something changes, we better get used to kids being swayed by empty promises, our own favorite schools being punished for doing things the right way, and suffer through watching the SEC keep winning those national championships.