Monday, January 19, 2015

recruiting reform

Basketball is settling into a calm-before-the-storm stretch of the season, with four of the ACC's worst teams on the slate before a three-game Season-Defining Stretch that's looking more like a tough four-game run when you tack on a trip to Raleigh to the end of it.  Efficiently grinding a couple bad teams into the floor is fun in its own not-stressful way, but it makes for a minimum of writeable moments.  Instead, I think I'll react to some of the news trickling out of the NCAA's decision-making echelons.

Specifically, the fact that a football early signing period appears to be all but done at this point.  This "formally recommended" thing is a formality; the discussions have all taken place by now and they're almost dead certain to do it.  Stupid.  This is happening for two reasons: one, the NCAA has the creativity of earthworms and thinks it has only one tool in the box.  And two, coaches are eager to do anything they can to exert more control over the process, which is another way of saying take some control out of the hands of the recruits.

Early signing periods - championed by some because they would supposedly let recruits stop being bombarded with mail and social media messages - do a great job of taking control out of their hands instead.  A recruit would no longer be able to:

-- Switch schools because the head coach got fired
-- Switch schools because he doesn't like the new head coach
-- Switch schools because a favorite assistant landed a promotion elsewhere (Chris Beatty being the perfect example here)
-- Switch schools because a school he wanted an offer from, hired a new head coach willing to give him one
-- Switch schools because he blew up his senior year

The one saving grace is the December 16 date.  The ACC wanted August 1, which was beyond stupid.  The SEC wanted the Monday after Thanksgiving, which still doesn't help.  Most coaches who'll be fired, are fired before December 16, so at least that part of carousel season won't affect recruits.  I always go back to the story of Roy Roundtree, though.  Roundtree spent a year openly pining for an offer from Michigan and not getting one.  He committed to Purdue when it looked like he'd never get the Michigan offer.  When Lloyd Carr retired and Rich Rodriguez was hired, Rodriguez decided that Roundtree was a terrific fit in his offense and flipped Roundtree in February.  Roundtree would never have gotten his dream-school offer if an early signing period had existed.

Oh, I suppose you could say that Roundtree shouldn't sign early, then.  Human beings at that age have brain chemistry that prevents them foreseeing that driving 110 miles an hour is going to end with their car wrapped around a tree, but they should foresee that a coach will retire and the new one will give them an offer.  Right.  Here is the conversation that every football coach will have with all their committed players: "Sign early or you're not committed and we'll recruit around you."  It's that control thing.  No recruit is going to risk their spot in the class by not signing early - and thus, as in basketball, the "early signing period" will become "the signing period."  How much football recruiting goes on between December and February?  Tons.  How much basketball recruiting goes on between the early period and the regular period?  Zip.

Let's say you need to mount a picture to your wall with a couple screws.  That represents the problem of recruiting reform.  The NCAA has decided to use a baseball bat to pound the screws in.  Good choice of tool.  Maybe the picture can cover up the huge new holes in the drywall.  I have some better ideas.  All of them should be implemented yesterday.

Letters of intent

Ah, the LOI.  Occasionally maligned, and not without reason: the LOI binds the player to the school, but is much less binding on the school itself.  As Les Miles has proven, you can sign an LOI and still show up on campus in the fall and be told you're not on the team right now because oops we oversigned.  (Asshole.)  You'll need to move out of that dorm room.  See you in January.

There need to be some fixes to this thing, first and foremost.  It's a contract, basically, and it doesn't always work.

-- Fortunately, the Power 5 conferences have just passed mandatory four-year scholarships.  Signing the LOI in February should also require that those scholarships begin in the school's next academic semester.

-- And since we're going to be stuck with this early signing period, there should also be some changes to the early-signed LOIs: specifically, the recruit should get to specify an assistant coach, who, along with the head coach, is required to still be employed by the school on the regular NLOI day.  If either leave or are fired, the LOI is dissolved and the player has the option to look around.  He can, of course, stick with it and sign the regular LOI in February.

I'd offer some fixes that help the schools, too, but they're not necessary - the LOI is so airtight and binding on the player that there's a real good reason the coaches are drooling at the idea of getting their recruits tied up with them as early as possible.

Centralize the process

One supposed advantage of an early signing period is it would save recruits the hassle of dealing with a flood of communication when they're already committed.  Well, for a month and a half, I guess, with this solution.  But this is exactly what I mean by using a baseball bat to pound a nail.  Sure, if a recruit knows where he's going in June and doesn't want to deal with the process after that, it makes sense for him to be able to shut it down entirely.

So set up an NCAA clearinghouse to keep track of all these verbal commitments.  Allow a recruit, starting the day the signing period ends during his junior year, to register a verbal commitment with the clearinghouse.  Doing so then means the school he's committed to can have unlimited contact with him, and other schools none at all.  No letters, no emails, no Facebook or Twitter shout-outs, nothing, unless they can show it was initiated by the recruit (which he'd be allowed to do.)  They can visit on the high school campus, and that'd be the extent of what they can do (it'd be hard to prevent contact at the high school, because there's no reason coaches shouldn't be able to recruit other players on the team.)

Illegal contact would be a secondary violation; repeated contact a major one.  The NCAA would have to rely on the player to report it, but that's fine; the idea is to prevent the player from being harassed, and if he doesn't really mind, what can you really do?  You'd have to think coaches would really like this too.  They'd have theoretical peace of mind, knowing that there isn't some annoying slimy weasel trying to get in the good graces of their recruits.

And of course, registering a verbal commitment would be totally rescindable.  By the player.  Not the school.

Written offers

The NCAA forbids written offers until after September 1 of the player's senior year.  This had the commendable goal of trying to stem the tide of earlier and earlier recruiting, but predictably was a huge failure.  The old date was August 1 of junior year.  Somewhere in the middle would be best - like, the same date mentioned above for registering a commitment.  I'm all about trying to keep recruiting out of middle school, but it's probably best not to have players not truly knowing where they stand.  Sometimes an offer isn't really an offer.

Better would be for offers to be able to be sent out February of junior year, and requiring the school to make good on them once sent.  Formalize the language so that it's the same for every school, or rather, write a special legalistic paragraph that must be included.  That paragraph would say something to the effect of this is a formal NCAA-approved offer of grant-in-aid for the period 2015 to 2019 to play football at University of Whatever contingent on you being academically eligible and not being a shithead and getting arrested bla bla bla and would mark the letter as official and binding on the school, if the player accepts.  The recruit wouldn't be allowed to formalize a commitment with the clearinghouse without this letter in hand, but schools wouldn't be able to say "well we're offering you but we want to see you at camp or we want to see how this other guy shakes out first" or whatever.

And of course, once sent, a written offer wouldn't be rescindable unless a guy got arrested or something.

Official visits

This is another thing that's passed the NCAA by while they whistle in the dark.  These can't be taken until senior year begins; ostensibly, that's again to keep recruiting from starting too soon, but the reality of the thing is that the further south a school is, the more likely they are to fight to keep the status quo.  Southern schools, SEC ones in particular, want these visits to happen while it's cold and nasty up north and nice and pleasant down south.  Should they happen while it's nice and pleasant up north and disgustingly hot and humid down south, it might be slightly detrimental to SEC hegemony.

But it makes no damn sense to force a recruit to spend all his own money during the peak recruiting season.  Official visits are generally impractical in the fall because the recruits are busy playing football on the weekends.  Duh.  So they can't happen in the summer, don't happen in the fall, and as a result many recruits never even take one.  Extremely rare is the recruit that takes his limit of five.  Small wonder Mike London likes to line everyone up in January for one big official visit extravaganza.  Besides the fact that it does wonders for convincing a few remaining uncommitted recruits, it's just plain practical - and damn near required.

Let's face it: there's no reason not to have them in the summer.  And the limits need to be changed.  Instead of limiting the recruit, limit the schools.  Let the recruit take as many as he's offered.  I'm not real worried about abuse of that system; rare would be the player who just spends every weekend all summer on official visits.  Give the schools an allotment of, oh, say, 80 or 100 to hand out, and let them spend them as they please, as long as the recruit has finished the equivalent of five semesters of high school and, again, it's after the previous signing period is over.  Let them pay for kids to come to camp weekend if they choose.  And for players who've registered their verbal commitment, one free official that doesn't count against the school's limits.


I don't think this quite addresses everything, because recruiting is still a little rough around the edges when it comes to trying to deal with academically iffy students, and I don't have any good ideas about that.  Obviously there's also the issue of bagmen to deal with, but I think a future post may have some things to work on that.  And the one really big question is: how to keep recruiting from working its way into freshman year?  Football is a bit self-limiting there, because most coaches are pretty versed in the ways of physical development of high schoolers, and there aren't a whole lot of them that look ready to go at age 15.  But still, if there are any measures that would actually work, I'd be all about them - it's just that everything the NCAA has tried has failed and I don't have any better suggestions except to say that formalizing the process into a clear and obvious one-year cycle might help.

I do think that an early signing period will accelerate the forward-creep quite a bit.  Coaches do a lot of their head-start work in December and January when they're not coaching a team and most of their class is sewn up.  They're dealing with not just juniors, but sophomores and even the occasional freshman.  But they can't zero in on the younger kids while the seniors are still technically not locked down yet and there's still work to do on that class.  Take away all that work they have to do on the senior class and they get a lot of time freed up for future classes.  So the NCAA is really not helping itself here.

But hopefully, this is something like 90% comprehensive here.  We've imposed some order on a chaotic process - sure to be appreciated by the coaches, even if most of what we've done here is to make the process more recruit-friendly.


This doesn't take into account anything that's happened Monday or Tuesday, because that's for next week.  But here's the latest iteration of the ACC season sims:

At this juncture, KenPom is essentially guaranteeing a #1 seed.  And leaping into the driver's seat for 2nd place: UNC, which is rounding into form somewhat at the exact same time Duke took a couple helpful losses.  Personally I'm holding off on getting too excited until after the four-game stretch of doom, and if we come out of that in good shape, then......

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