The world of college football recruiting has long been a miserable situation for most teams in the Big Ten. Unless your name has Ohio State or Michigan next to it, recruiting nationally is very difficult. However, given the population shifts and SEC domination on the field recruiting has gotten even more difficult.
Problems like where people live won’t be fixed and college football coaches, athletic department staffs and conference commissioners can’t do anything to change that. However, in an ever-changing world those groups can do something to level the playing field and react to the changing world around them.
Another big problem is the emergence of 7-on-7 football down south and out West, where players have an opportunity to showcase the raw skills in front of coaches, scouts, etc. throughout the late spring and early summer.
Getting potential recruits at one event can be a massive advantage for those coaches out there scouting.
So, how can college football even the playing field and how can the Big Ten push changes that will help them to even a clearly uneven playing field?
Let’s take a look at five things that the conference should be pushing for going forward.
1. Early Signing Period
For 75 percent of those who get to play FBS football, their minds are made up long, long before national signing day and simply put, there’s no point in dragging out the process any longer than the kid wants it to. A good starting point appears to be on the horizon in the form of some sort of two-day early signing period in December.
Allowing players to get the process over sooner than later is not a bad thing, especially for the Big Ten. Many Midwest players and “under the radar” players in the Southeast are subject to crazy recruiting pushes in the final month of the process, and in many cases the late offers from SEC schools are there just because they couldn’t hit on the 10 players in front of them on the recruiting trail and have numbers to fill.
Big Ten teams have seen that scenario play out time and again in the last five or six years and allowing players to sign that national letter of intent would not only help the player, it would make the true recruiting process happen more out in the open.
Instead of having the “stealing” process play out late in the process you put it out there during the season and make schools get real offers out. It at least levels the playing field and makes programs more honest brokers in the recruiting process.
However, for all the things I disagreed with former Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini about, the one idea I did like was being able to offer a scholarship with the ability for the kid to sign the national letter of intent that moment. It’s where I would eventually like to see this process go.
It would prevent the crazy amount of “offers” that schools put out there, only to pull away from the table when someone better comes along.
That part of recruiting is dirty, nasty and hurts everyone involved. It would also help to slow down the process a bit because schools wouldn’t be putting out literally hundreds of offers for a class that would be 25-30 players at most. It would also reward those schools who have to do their homework over those who just rely on recruiting rankings (believe me there are schools who literally do that).
Offering a scholarship will actually mean something if there is a real chance a player could ask to sign on the dotted line at that moment. Being in Big Ten country that means a better chance at getting some of these late-rising names earlier in the process and flipping the recruiting game on its head.
2. Earlier Official Visits
Winter in the Midwest and on the East Coast sucks, we all know that. It’s also a major disadvantage when players aren’t allowed to see what spring, summer and early fall is like in places like Madison, Iowa City and College Park.
Those places literally sell themselves in the warmer months and it’s why getting kids on campus in the summer is seen as key to landing bigger-named recruits. However, considering how difficult it is to get players from Florida, California or Texas to unofficially visit places like Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska or Piscataway, NJ it would behoove the Big Ten to push for an early official visit period.
It would widen the recruiting pot for teams, especially in the Big Ten West division. No longer will kids from the deep south or West Coast have to find a way to foot the bill to try to get to those more remote places.
Not only would this be a help to teams in the Big Ten West, schools like Iowa State and many of the northern ACC schools would see a massive benefit from this earlier process happening. Couple that with an early signing period and suddenly the built-in advantage the SEC and most of the ACC has isn’t as big anymore.
Points No. 1 and No. 2 only work if they both happen though, so that is why they are our first two points in fixing what happens in college football recruiting.
3. Spring Football in Midwest
No, we aren’t talking about college spring football here folks. But think of one of the biggest advantages high school players in other parts of the country have…more games and more instruction time throughout the year.
When you’re not in the Southeast, Texas or California you’re at a disadvantage because these areas all have organized spring football activities and other ways of practicing the game in an organized way (which we’ll get to in a bit). The simple solution to the population disadvantage is to find a way to have better prepared student-athletes coming out of the high schools in the Midwest.
One of the biggest things schools in the Midwest could get is for the high school game to find a small period for spring football to happen. Sure there are other sports athletes are playing, but for the biggest recruits out there, having football at least for a few weeks in the spring would be a big boost to the growth of players in the Big Ten footprint.
I’m not alone in this thought, as OSU head coach Urban Meyer floated that notion last spring, saying he’d like to see more time for instruction at the high school level. Summer camps are fine, but not every team can afford to attend and not every player is going on to the next level.
“Spring football is vitally important. Our two busiest months here are January and May — it’s nuts,” Meyer said, via Cleveland.com. “Those three weeks there, it’s like a bowl week. You can plug guys in, you can find out who can do what, so when you get to summer you know what you’re doing. We know what we can do. It’s pretty huge.”
What’s wrong with a 2-3 week instructional period in the spring? Sure, weather plays an issue, but why not make it in May when the weather is much more likely to be good. It would also be an advantage to Big Ten coaches, who can get out in the footprint and evaluate talent in actual pads and playing the game in front of them.
If it’s good enough for Urban Meyer, why isn’t the rest of the Midwest listening?
4. 7-on-7 Football in Midwest
This is one of the more controversial aspects of the amateur high school game, but it’s also something that is beginning to be on the rise across the Big Ten footprint. Of course, there is always the risk of shady crap happening and “handlers” getting involved a la the AAU game in college basketball, but 7-on-7 football is never going to replace or be as important as the games taking place for real in the fall across high school’s in the United States and Canada.
That said, 7-on-7 football is a great way to showcase individual talent at the skill positions and for players to receive top-notch instruction and competition against other top-level players from across the state and the nation.
If the Midwest isn’t going to allow spring football on a major scale the states need to start embracing 7-on-7 football in a major way. The only one’s losing out are the players and schools at the next level.
Some states like Michigan and Illinois have begun to really embrace the game as a way to keep playing the game and sharpening the skill set of football-first players. However, it would be wise for this game to become even more popular across the whole of the Big Ten footprint.
It can be played indoors during bad weather months and shifted outdoors when better weather exists. If the Big Ten wants to play big boy football on the recruiting trail it needs to work in conjunction with the schools and organizations to help out the sport be the best it can be.
Adding spring ball and 7-on-7 football on a wider scale would be massive steps in the right direction.
5. Stop making National Letter of Intent a One-Way Contract
One of the biggest issues facing college football today is the insane practice of coaches sticking it out through national signing day and bolting in the days and weeks after. It leaves players who committed to coaches and coaching staffs in a position of being stuck (unless a school grants a release of its choosing) at a school that may no longer fit them, while the coach did what he needed to do for himself and moves on like nothing ever happened or mattered.
I’m all about free market capitalism, but it only works when both sides have all the information and can make an informed decision as to what kind of contract they are entering in to. That isn’t happening right now, as players are increasingly told whatever is needed to get them to sign a binding national letter of intent.
There is zero accountability for coaches on the other end of the deal though. Coaches can (and do) say whatever will get a kid to sign those NLI’s and bolt without facing any issues. Now, it’s one thing if the coach is bolting for a job at the NFL level, as there is nothing the college game can do about it.
Still, college football can band together to fix this major issue. It not only affects recruiting for players just making decisions on the final national signing day, but also throughout recruiting processes.
A simple solution to this problem is to make an out clause for players when their position coach, coordinator or head coach leave between the time they sign a national letter of intent and when fall camp starts. After that, the player has no excuse to not know the deal they are getting and should be subject to the rules in place.
Perhaps a more radical solution may be to look at a time frame where coaching changes can and can’t happen at the college level. One idea would be to allow freedom for coaching movement between the beginning of fall camp and the end of January. At least it would limit the possibility of a coach moving after players have signed binding agreements.
This gets a bit more tricky because a number of variables exist, including getting a job in the NFL, contract term violations, NCAA violations and other scenarios that may lead to resignation or firing. An easy way around that is allowing the school to make a hire in only those extreme circumstances after whatever set date is out there.
Of the two, the one that would be best for all parties it the conference commissioners, who are in charge of the national letter of intent, to get together and modify that thing. Until this is fixed, here’s a small piece of advice for those kids thinking of signing a NLI — don’t sign it. A grant-in-aid agreement is good enough and avoids being stuck in this untenable situation.