Early signing period debated for football

Imagine Greg McElroy quarterbacking the Texas Tech Red Raiders to a No. 3 national ranking.

Or Blaine Gabbert leading a ranked Nebraska team past Virginia Tech and into the national spotlight.

How about Ryan Perrilloux starting for the Texas Longhorns?

Kinda strange, right?

Well, those scenarios could have been possible had there been an early signing day in place when those players committed to their original schools. McElroy changed his commitment to Alabama and Gabbert to Missouri, which has worked out well for both programs. Perrilloux made a late switch to LSU and is now at Jacksonville State in Alabama.

Football coaches around the country have been talking about implementing an early signing period, similar to basketball's, for several years. It wasn't until last year, however, that the American Football Coaches Association drafted a proposal for a mid-December early signing period for Division I and II, which the Collegiate Commissioners Association reviewed in January.

Although different conferences had different takes on the matter, the majority of the CCA denied the proposal, including the Southeastern Conference.

"With the basketball signing period or other sports, there is a five-month window between the November signing and the mid-April signing, so there's a long period of time where someone can get the decision made in basketball before the start of their senior season and they avoid some of the recruiting pressure that plays out during that last season," SEC associate commissioner Greg Sankey said. "The timing of the football proposal would have shifted those recruiting pressures and expectations and decision-making throughout that senior season. And in addition, you really weren't changing the timing of the signing by more than about five or six weeks."

Coaches maintain that allowing a player to sign early might help alleviate negative recruiting, pressure from other courting institutions and flip-flopping. But figuring out when the early signing date should occur has been the biggest point of contention.

Some coaches want an early signing day in June or July so that it won't be a burden on both recruits and colleges during the season. Other coaches want an early signing period in either November or December. Both dates would change the recruiting calendar to allow the evaluation and contact periods to be in succession.

According to the NCAA's recruiting calendar for 2009-10, a recruiter can perform in-home visits from only Nov. 29, 2009, through Jan. 30, 2010. Prospective colleges can visit a player's school to evaluate a player athletically and academically Aug. 1 through Nov. 28, 2009 and April 15 through May 31, 2010. All other parts of the calendar are considered either a dead period, when only the student-athlete is allowed to initiate contact with a recruiter, or a quiet period, when recruits are allowed to visit college campuses.

The week of signing day, starting the first Wednesday in February, is a dead period.

By moving the signing date into December, the two-week contact period would occur during the championship week for several conferences, putting teams in the conference championship at a disadvantage.

Also, official recruiting visits would occur during finals on most college campuses, burdening some current players who serve as hosts. There's also the matter of what would happen to recruits who sign with a program that undergoes a coaching change in December or January.

Penn State coach Joe Paterno said a December signing period would put pressure on coaches to devote resources to off-campus recruiting during the season rather than their current teams.

"We talked [our current players] into coming here, and we have an obligation to help them be as good as they can be and not take time running all over the place trying to recruit other kids," Paterno said. "So that's kind of been in my craw for all these years. I would not want to get to where the first priority of a staff be to make sure we don't lose a kid because signing day's early and as a result, maybe neglect doing something that may be beneficial to the kids we have."

A December signing period also might distract players from their senior seasons as coaches pester them to switch their commitments.

"It just puts those kids in such a bad position when coaches keep hanging on them when they're committed," Boise State coach Chris Petersen said. "Everyone's got their stories right down to the last minute, someone changes their mind, and that's just really frustrating I think for everybody involved."

But Sankey said the problems wouldn't be much different if the early signing period were moved to the summer. In fact, it might be more difficult to sign a player because he has only three years of academic work and might not have taken his college entrance exams yet. Not to mention that the recruiting calendar would have to be moved up a year to allow high school juniors to make official visits, which is currently not permissible.

But there's still clamoring from many coaches, from large and small schools, that an early signing period would be beneficial for both the institutions and the prospective student-athletes.

There's no doubt recruiting has changed dramatically during this decade. Coaches can get film of prospects on computers or cell phones almost instantaneously instead of waiting weeks for it to arrive via snail mail.

With so much information available, finding that hidden gem and keeping him hidden is becoming more difficult, especially for smaller programs always looking for a recruiting coup.

"There's nobody that's hidden," said Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, who stepped away from the game for three seasons after the 2005 campaign and came back to a different recruiting world. "There are really no secrets in regards to who's a viable, recruitable young individual. … On this BlackBerry, I get about 300 [recruiting prospects] a day. It identifies on a rotating basis virtually any high school youngster or anyone from the age of 7 up that has got a chance. So you know basically who's out there and who potentially is someone you might be interested in."

Because of the advanced accessibility to recruiting footage, offers are going out earlier, and some recruits are committing during their junior seasons or in the summer before their senior year.

"We have a number of guys who are already committed," LSU coach Les Miles said. "We're committed to them, they're committed to us and they ought to have the opportunity to solidify that commitment early in December or in late November. Not around official visits and not around home visits for that matter. Just, if the decision is already made, why extend the decision signing day to February? Why not allow them an early date?"

Sankey said the prospect of an early signing day is not off the table, and if the AFCA and CCA can agree on a feasible date, it might come to pass. Regardless of the timing, most coaches and some commissioners would agree that an early signing period provides an opportunity for the NCAA's rules to catch up with the ever-changing recruiting landscape. An early signing period wouldn't force recruits to sign their name on the dotted line before they're ready, but it would allow them the opportunity to do so.

"I think it's very much needed and would be a healthy thing for all of us," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "No one's going to make them sign. But they have an option to sign, and I think the key word there is 'option.' I think options are good for people."

Graham Watson covers college football for ESPN.com.