DETROIT — When Western Michigan football coach P.J. Fleck receives a verbal pledge from a high school prospect, he does not merely continue recruiting the player.
“I turn it up,” he said. “It’s almost double once you’re committed.”
That’s because he knows the poachers are lurking — and why he is among a growing roster of coaches nationally in favor of a binding early signing period that would radically shift the recruiting calendar.
Nowhere is the debate hotter than in the Mid-American Conference, where each year dozens of football recruits commit to league schools, only to change their mind once a higher-profile suitor comes along.
The University of Toledo alone lost or severed ties with 10 one-time commits in their 2014 class, including Michigan quarterback Travis Smith, who bolted weeks before signing day for Wake Forest. A year earlier, the Rockets lost another projected quarterback of the future, Huber Heights’ Javon Harrison, to Cincinnati. Fleck said two recent commits flatly told him the Broncos were a fallback plan and left when schools in a bigger conference offered a scholarship.
Now, a movement is gaining momentum to ratchet down the suspense. The Collegiate Commissioners Association last month formed a committee chaired by MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher to explore allowing recruits to officially commit to a school months before the traditional signing day.
Proponents of the landscape-rocking change contend an early signing period before a prospect’s senior year would lend needed clarity to the recruiting picture — both for schools and the player. MAC coaches said they preferred the signing period begin in July or August, which aligns with many in the Big Ten and the Atlantic Coast Conference’s public vote of support for an Aug. 1 date. The Southeastern Conference countered with a recommendation for the Monday after Thanksgiving.
“There are some kids that just know that they want to go to Ohio State, know they want to go to Texas, know they want to go to Bowling Green,” new Bowling Green State University coach Dino Babers said at MAC media day at Ford Field last week. “Just let them sign a paper and go. Let’s stop wasting money recruiting guys that already know where they want to go to school.”
As long as a recruit could wriggle free of a commitment if the head coach leaves after the season, Toledo’s Matt Campbell called the early signing period a “no-brainer.”
As it stands, football endures as the only major college sport without such a signing period. While college basketball prospects, for instance, can sign in the fall or spring — allowing recruits to end the relentless courtship before their senior season — football players can only sign in February.
A change would fundamentally change the final months of the recruiting season, a free-for-all stretch where a player’s pledge to one school is seen as a challenge to another. When Urban Meyer was hired at Ohio State in November, 2011, he flipped seven commits from their original school in the two months before signing day — including offensive tackles Taylor Decker and Kyle Dodson from Notre Dame and Wisconsin, respectively, and three players from Penn State.
As Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey said, “When you get a commit, then the work really starts.”
New Miami coach Chuck Martin recently had that reality reinforced when he dialed back the courtship of a coveted prospect who had committed to the RedHawks. Suddenly, for the recruit, the turf began to seem greener elsewhere.
“I told him, ‘The sad thing is, when everybody was recruiting you, we were way ahead,’” Martin said. “So we said, why don't we just open it back up and start recruiting again. We beat the [other schools] already once, and we'll beat them again. But we stopped recruiting [the player] and they kept going, and now you're hearing only one side. [The other school] is trying to sell you a car, I'm trying to sell you a car, but if I don’t call you and he calls you every day, at some point his car is going to sound better. No doubt you've got to keep rolling.“
MAC schools spend tens of thousands of dollars recruiting players who have already committed. At Western Michigan, for example, Fleck said his staff regularly visits pledges, writes and calls them weekly, and encourages their family to tour campus as often as possible. He learns the name of a recruit’s pets and has nine business cards, never giving a player the same one twice. His idea is to build such deep roots that even once the bigger fish offers one of his committed prospects, “it’s hard for them to tell you no.”
Fleck rationalizes that the recruits who de-commit were players he didn’t want anyway. The two players who told him they would leave for BCS schools? “When things go bad, you already get an insight of what they're going to do,” he said. “They're going to quit. They're going to look for a way out.”
Other coaches are not quite as unsparing, but would appreciate knowing which recruits are in — even if an early signing period may delay their decisions.
Steinbrecher said many questions remain before his committee makes a recommendation to the NCAA, likely in the spring. The entire recruiting calendar would have to be pushed up — recruits are currently allotted five official visits during their senior year — while, like Campbell, most coaches believe a commitment should be contingent on the staff remaining intact.
Critics also question how the early signing period benefits players, some of whom could see their college opportunities expand with a breakout senior season. (“Yeah, but signing early would be the kid’s choice,” countered Massachusetts coach Mark Whipple. “Nobody's putting his thumb on the screws. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”)
“On top of that — and I'll be honest here, which is rare for a football coach in a setting like this — but we have a lot of kids that don't know if they're going to get into school until after that early signing day," Stanford coach David Shaw told ESPN. "So we're going to punish the academic schools just because coaches don't want a kid to switch their commitment? People can make whatever argument they want, it boils down to ... coaches don't want to keep recruiting an entire class all year."
Still, ready or not, change appears on the way.
“Recruiting is sped up so much, and it's so much faster than it used to be,” Fleck said. “The kids have caught up, too. A lot of these kids are maxed out their junior year playing and they don't need that senior year anymore. ... I’d like to see the [early period]. I like to see things change. I like to see things stirred up.”