Why expedited coaching carousel, stacked transfer portal could lead to end of early signing period

This week is Greg Sankey’s chance to boast, “I told you so.” The SEC commissioner was among those who spoke the loudest against the introduction of an early signing period.

It would impact the sanctity of high school state playoffs, he said. It would eliminate climate-friendly January campus visits at warm-weather SEC campuses, he said. It would impact bowl preparations, he said. It would distract schools in the middle of December coaching searches, he said.

Whoa … on that last note. The early signing period — the 72-hour window beginning Wednesday — has become a mushroom cloud rising up from the offseason horizon five years into its existence. What no one planned on are its massive unintended changes to the entire football calendar.

Increasingly, if you wait too long before the early signing date to make a coaching, roster or program move, you’re way too late.

Almost half of the 28 coaching changes in 2021 came during the season (13), a large portion of which were at least a tacit reaction to the early signing period. Athletic directors wanting to get a head start on recruiting and bound by that artificial mid-December deadline thought nothing of canning coaches in the middle of the season.

“It is what it is,” Sankey said last week at the Learfield Intercollegiate Athletics Forum in Las Vegas.

The powerful administrator seemed resigned to the current fates. In one way or another, all of his initial concerns — when the early signing day was instituted in 2017 — have been realized.

“We were clear, and it’s foreseeable,” Sankey said. “It was a concern of ours a decade ago. It was a concern of ours five years ago. It’s a concern today, but we have to deal with reality. Do others see what has happened as problematic? They have to see for themselves.”

That includes the knee-jerk reaction in an entire hiring cycle. If it wasn’t USC firing Clay Helton after two games, it was Texas Tech showing Matt Wells the door after eight games despite having a winning record at the time and being one game away from bowl eligibility for the first time since 2017.

LSU made a change with Ed Orgeron after seven games. Orgeron agreed to stay through the season while AD Scott Woodward offered record amounts of compensation before seemingly settling on third-choice, Brian Kelly, who left Notre Dame while it still had national title hopes one week before the College Football Playoff announcement. Other coaches who paved paths for their way out of town: Dan Mullen (Florida), Nick Rolovich (Washington State), Jimmy Lake (Washington).

College football in general lost some of its purity, maybe even some of its appeal. A new season has been added to the calendar, sort of a shadow season without beginning or end dates. No wonder record contracts have emerged. Coaches have never been less secure and under more scrutiny.

That’s not to say you should feel sorry for them, but you should feel something because the underpinnings of the game are changing before our eyes.

TCU coach Gary Patterson — a future hall of famer with a statue on campus — was run out eight games into his 21st season. While the departure was labeled a mutual agreement, it quickly became clear TCU wanted access to the coaching market as soon as possible.

“The Dec. 15 date changes everything,” TCU AD Jeremiah Donati said in November. “[With] the old signing day, it was different. You could get through bowl season and kind of let this play out a little bit, but now the Dec. 15 deadline accelerates the process. We would like to have someone in place so we can accelerate those conversations.”

Less than a month passed between Patterson’s departure and the hiring of SMU‘s Sonny Dykes. It was no secret Dykes was interested to the point that TCU may have pulled the trigger to get in line ahead of Texas Tech for his services. Across town, Dykes’ Mustangs were 7-1 when Patterson was fired. With rumors swirling around their coach’s future, SMU went on to lose four of its last five games.

The second Dykes’ staff flipped to TCU, he brought several of SMU’s top recruits with him.

Texas Tech eventually hired Baylor outside linebackers coach Joey McGuire, who has no previous head coaching experience. In a virtually unprecedented move, McGuire left Baylor with a month remaining in the season to — you guessed it — recruit. The Bears ultimately won four straight games, including over McGuire’s Red Raiders, to take the Big 12 despite not having a full-time 10th position coach.

A second school fired and hired a coach within the season. Two months passed between Georgia Southern disposing of Chad Lunsford and hiring Helton.

Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning is staying through the College Football Playoff after earning the Oregon job, but the Ducks opted to announce it so he would have time to get some recruiting in before Wednesday. Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart maneuvered around the possible distraction by elevating assistants Glenn Schumann and Will Muschamp to co-defensive coordinators. But the question remains: How will a play caller with a foot out the door impact Georgia’s title bid?

“I think there has been plenty of criticism identified,” Sankey said of the early signing period. “Coaches departing midseason. Coaches changing teams because of the hiring cycle is not the most healthy approach.”

The early signing period was created to address one complication — pressure on recruits — but it has created several more existential ones. While early commitments are likelier to sign and programs pulling offers has become less common, it has laid bare that programs are willing to sacrifice the product on the field to sell hope for the future.

By firing Helton after Week 2, USC essentially punted on the entire 2021 season in search of the next big thing. Players with remaining eligibility never get that time back. Kelly was willing to leave a top-five team with national title hopes because the money said he had to recruit in Louisiana instead.

Seeing the national championship — seemingly the one sacred thing left in college football — take a back seat to recruiting is a troubling trend for the sport. The question remains: Was Kelly’s action a one-off, a trend or another one of those unintended consequences?

“There’s more talk than I’ve heard in recent years about getting rid of it altogether or perhaps moving it past the first of the year,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said of the early signing period. “I’ve heard people talk about moving it to February and having another one later. I’ve heard people talk about doing it right after the national championship game.

“Clearly, things have changed since the early signing period. The transfer portal didn’t exist at the time [it began]. In the end, we’re going to have to go back to the reason we put it in place and ask if that’s a valid reason.”

Because of those whirlwind coaching changes, Oklahoma hall of fame coach Bob Stoops is among those in support of moving that early signing date to later in the offseason.

“I thought it was great, but because of [the coaching carousel], it isn’t,” he said. “I’d have to spend my whole January seeing players who had been committed for a year, two years. When, if they had signed [early], I don’t have to travel and have time away from my current players.

“But it creates another domino effect that coaching changes have to happen faster.”

The American Football Coaches Association will vote at next month’s national convention whether to change “the whole recruiting calendar”, according to executive director Todd Berry. The current early signing day combined with the transfer portal has forced coaches to remake their rosters in a short period of time, he said.

Right now, the plan is to recommend pushing the mid-December signing date to early January. Berry contends that would add breadth to the two-week period after the regular season to little more than player wrangling: recruiting combined with managing transfer portal departures.

Berry fielded a call last week from an FBS coach who had to cancel two home visits with prospective recruits in order to talk a rostered player headed for the portal off the ledge.

“It’s not the early signing date. It’s the portal that basically makes ADs think they’ve got to [make coaching changes so early],” Berry said. “They want to be able to tell their current team who their position coach is before the Christmas holidays. You’re seeing these really, really fast hires for assistant coaches even. They’re trying to put everything in front of their current team so they don’t lose kids to the portal.

“This was all expected. This is stuff we knew was going to happen.”

While changing the recruiting calendar sounds radical, it happened five years ago when the early signing period was instituted. Still, there is a process. Any recommendation of formal NCAA legislation would come from the NCAA Football Oversight Committee. Berry is a non-voting member of that body. Any vote taken by AFCA coaches would only be a recommendation to the NCAA.

Bowlsby was chair of the oversight committee when it instituted the early signing period.

“We did it not to accommodate coaches; we did it to accommodate students and their families,” he said. “That’s going to be another process [the committee is] going to have to go through. … Talk to the kids and families to see if they want it to stay.”

The early period may not have played out exactly as many foresaw. Those unintended consequences have multiplied. It’s now worth keeping a scorecard to rank the top quarterbacks in the transfer portal. More than 1,000 FBS players have entered the portal as of Monday night. More will come. As a group, they will be significant influencers on coaches deciding which high-school prospects to sign.

“We’ve got to do something,” Berry said. “Currently, there’s not a lot of motivation for anybody to recruit high school players. That’s sad. … We’ve basically turned an amateur situation into a professional situation. With the transfer portal, everything is skewed now. It was built on a high school model, but it’s not high school recruiting anymore.”

If the early signing period had existed in 2014, five schools would have been in the middle of a coaching search late into December. This year, Temple is the only opening left. ADs have adjusted.

“There is something sensible about February,” Sankey said. “Very rarely do you have any coaching changes after signing day. … There was relevance to that.

“What was wrong with the first Wednesday in February? You had flipping. You had decommitments. I have news for you. I don’t know if you’ve been watching Twitter in the last 48 hours. We have decommitments now. What did we resolve with the early signing period?”

The early period was supposed to relieve the pressure on recruits. Not surprisingly, the recruiting industry pivoted when the early period began in 2015. The top prospects were encouraged to sign early, and for the most part, they complied. The traditional signing date in early February has largely become a back-fill period for stragglers.

Add in the transfer portal, and high school recruiting itself has been diminished. Recruiting has become the draft. The transfer portal is free agency, and increasingly, coaches are leaning on transfer “veterans” to stock rosters.

Stoops arrived at Oklahoma in 1999. The Sooners were coming off five straight seasons of .500 or worse performances. Two years after he arrived, Oklahoma won a national championship. In fact, from 1999 to 2009, OU, Florida, Ohio State and Alabama all won national titles within three seasons of new coaches arriving.

“There was no transfer portal back then,” Stoops said. “Depending how you work your guys, you can get there with it or without it.”

Everything seems to be on the table for change, even veteran coach Bo Pelini’s old contention that prospects ought to be able to sign the moment they make up their mind. That might dispose of the recruiting glossary that has spawned terms such as “solid verbal” and “heavy lean”.

Why even delay the first phone call to a prospect until April 15 of their junior year?

“We send coaches who are representatives of the university to the high schools and say, ‘You can only talk to seniors,'” Sankey said. “We’re trying to encourage people to go to college. Why wouldn’t we let them have conversations?”

Sankey calls some of this “healthier outcomes”. That might be a sneak peek into the commissioner’s growing influence. He is also co-chair of the NCAA transformation committee regarding the new constitution. With divisions now able to adopt their own rules, there’s a general feeling that there’s going to be a liberalization of some of arcane NCAA standards.

“One of the expectations of the transformation [committee] is the regulatory model,” Sankey said. “What is it we need to be regulating?”

Many believe think a lot can be done, but there’s been few specifics and no timeline for it to happen. New Miami coach Mario Cristobal was asked by ESPN if there was a way to put a start date on the coaching carousel. In other words, waiting until the regular season concluded to begin hiring coaches.

“It would be helpful,” Cristobal said, “because right now there isn’t a good time. It comes at you in different ways at different times. It doesn’t make it comfortable for anybody.”

Recruiting is the lifeblood of college football, and major programs are unwilling to surrender a class for the sake of smooth transition. But nearly 15 years after Nick Saban was hired to coach Alabama at the conclusion of the NFL season in January 2007, the early signing period has taken the coaching carousel hostage — starting as early as Week 2 at USC.

Maybe the monster 10-year contracts that have become the new standard among blue bloods can insulate the sport from coaching changes. Maybe the allure of the portal will wear off when programs like Alabama and Clemson dominate the rankings. Maybe the original February signing day was enough.

To protect the integrity of the product on the field — including the ultimate prize of a national championship — the sport needs to wrangle the calendar back.

https://www.cbssports.com/college-football/news/why-expedited-coaching-carousel-stacked-transfer-portal-could-lead-to-end-of-early-signing-period/ Why expedited coaching carousel, stacked transfer portal could lead to end of early signing period

Dustin Huang

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